I haven’t been a teenager for a few years. But for some reason I decided to volunteer with them. I’m a youth group leader at my church now. It’s a small combined junior and senior high group of about 30 kids, though I’m told the number varies a lot. The numbers are in favor of the junior highers, and of course I’m working with the senior highers. Tonight there were four senior high guys. We’re going to have to work on that.
I volunteered with the youth group out of guilt. Well not really. But I did go biking with the priest (I still don’t know what to call the head of the Episcopal church: priest, pastor, reverend – whatever.) and his wife and they ever so subtly encouraged me to get involved at church. But guilt isn’t the real reason I volunteered. The priest has three services and lots of parishioners to deal with so there wasn’t any guilt tripping to speak of. I wanted to get involved in the church. I wanted to get to know people, and that doesn’t happen when you only show up on Sunday morning.
I’m not sure why I chose the youth group. Maybe it’s because I think I can still relate to teens, since I’m only 23. But then the first night I realized that I’m 9 years older than the average youth group kid. Yikes. And maybe it’s because at my job I work on a youth web site and the two fit together pretty well. But I don’t like that reason. It makes it sound like I’m using the youth group to stay hip for my job. Which isn’t true. If that were the case I’d be surveying the kids about their favorite bands and trying to promote the web site like a bad radio personality. I haven’t mentioned the site yet.
The other issue in all of this is that I’m skipping town next summer. In July 2003 my wife and I will be moving to Charlotte, North Carolina. Which means I have about ten months with this group. Not a lot of time. I guess I’m hoping some investment is better than no investment. That’s what I tell myself anyway.
Some things about being a teenager never change. There are still the quiet kids who come because their parents make them. They don’t have a lot of friends in the group, and they remind me a lot of myself. Of course it’s hard to tell, some kids can be completely different at church and at school. Some teens have lots of friends at school and none at church, so they’re quiet and reserved. Trying to get a conversation going with some of these teens is like pulling teeth. I feel like such a dork asking about school and projects and homework and after school activities just to find out what these kids do. I keep telling myself they appreciate the attention and they’re not just looking behind me for an excuse to run away.
I’m working with teens because I remember what it was like. I know that doesn’t mean anything now, their experiences will be different than my experiences. But I remember high school being hard. I remember walking into the lunch room and seeing no one to eat with. I remember putting up with these two clods for an entire semester. I was the butt of every joke, the low man on the totem pole, and I put up with it because it was better than eating by myself. I remember walking the halls and feeling so weighed down by the pressure to make friends and be cool and do this or that. I remember sitting at my desk and wishing the bell would ring so I wouldn’t feel like such a dork for sitting there and not chatting it up about boyfriends or girlfriends or sex or football or whatever. I didn’t have the clothes, I didn’t have the looks, I didn’t have the personality, I didn’t have any of what it took to make it in high school. It wasn’t like I sought those things. I knew they wouldn’t make any difference. But I still cared about them. I was so incredibly withdrawn and self-conscious. I was one of those teens who acted one way in youth group and another way in school. I didn’t intend to, it’s just that the teens at church were friendly. The teens at school were, well, teens. High school is hard. Maybe in some small way I can make it easier.