a 12 year-old 7th grade kid and his parents sat in the office of a youth worker. the parents were agitated; the kid was in tears. he had, once again, gotten in trouble at his private school. it wasn’t for big things. he got in trouble for little things, like day-dreaming. in fact, the kid seemed to have that 12 year-old boy personality that is — to be honest — annoying, but common: distracted, not fully present. you know, the kid who hears a long list of important instructions, then simply asks, “what?”
well, he had done something a bit more serious this time. not serious by public school standards; but apparently more serious by this private school’s standards. he’d called the teacher — the one who seemed to have it in for him and was always sending him to the principal’s office — a bitch. he didn’t call her that to her face. he wrote it on a note that got intercepted. now the teacher was demanding the boy be expelled from the school.
here’s where the story gets interesting. the kid seemed to have genuine regret about what he’d done. the youth worker told me it didn’t seem like he was only sorry he got caught — he seemed to genuinely be experiencing remorse over writing that in a note in the first place. but when the teacher, student, parents and principal all met to consider whether or not he should be expelled, the teacher’s primary case was not the bitch note. her primary case, voiced through seething rage, was that “he is a loser. he always will be a loser.”
the youth worker told me this story just after she’d met with the parents and kid. and her comment really caught my attention. she said:
“there’s no such thing as a 12 year-old loser – they don’t exist.”
i’ve been ruminating on this for a few months, and i have a collection of partially formed thoughts:
1. i love, love, love the heart of a youth worker for whom that comment is her first response. really, that comment alone revealed more to me about the character of that youth worker than anything else in the few days i’ve spent consulting with her church.
2. i don’t think my heart is as pure as that youth worker. i have worked with 12 year-olds for about 30 years, and i love them. i’m called to them. i sincerely hope i’ll have some kind of regular connection with 12 year-olds 30 years from now (well, that would put me at 77, so maybe i should say 20 years from now!). but if i’m really honest, the reason her comment so caught my attention is because i’ve totally thought (this is hard to admit) that some 12 year-olds were losers. i might not have been as volatile as that teacher who clearly needs to retire; i might not have ever screamed it in the presence of a kids’ parents; but i’m quite sure i’ve thought it. so, an interesting thing happened when the youth worker made her off-handed comment to me: i felt convicted. that’s why it’s stuck with me. my own deficiency was revealed, even if only to me (and now, to you!).
3. in addition to the heart of a youth worker, and the hope of a youth worker, i like the developmental accuracy of the youth worker’s statement. i was thinking of this again last week (which is what brought me to write this post, finally), as i was writing “understanding your young teen” for parents (a book that will come out way too long from now). a 12 year-old isn’t a clean slate, to be sure. but being 12 implies, almost, a do-over. puberty, that fascinating god-designed…
…means that anything, almost, is possible. and if i’ve seen anything in 30 years of working with young teens, it surely includes the reality that a 12 year-old making “loser choices” might not, even remotely, being an adult who makes loser choices. and the most go-getter non-loser 12 year-old, might, just as easily, end up making a lifetime of self-destructive, lazy, or otherwise stupid choices.
now, the wording might be harsh, unfair, un-grace-filled, and never to be used: but by 16 or 17, it’s often more obvious what kind of choices a teenager will make for the rest of his or her life. in other words: if the youth worker had said, “there’s no such thing as a 17 year-old loser – they don’t exist”, i doubt i’d still be thinking about it. i’d merely have chalked it up to her generally sweet, rosey perspective of teenagers.
but, yeah, the 12 year-old loser — that’s a mythical creature.