When I was your age …

Standing next to Mark Martin's car at K-Mart in 1992For my youth group’s newsletter I write a dorky column called “When I Was Your Age.” (it sure beats “The Unnamed Column”)

When I was your age I discovered the ska band Five Iron Frenzy. …

When I was your age I remember sitting in the principal’s office. …

When I was your age my first semester of high school was a long session of introverted shyness. …

When I was your age I was the hand operating Mr. Quimper, a two-person puppet and proprietor of a soda shop that sold super-duper-frosty-freezy-sarsaparilla-rainbow-sherbet phosphates.

You get the idea.

It’s a fun little column because it forces me to remember what it was like when I was in middle school and high school. Sometimes you think you remember what it was like, but you’re wrong. What I like best about the column is that the kids in youth group really don’t know me very well. When I went to Sonshine most of them saw a whole different side of me, the rocking out, yo-yo man side. The 300 words of this column give those kind of glimpses, and it makes you realize how complicated people are.

When I was your age I dated a cheerleader. I listened to Petra. I tore reverse out of my dad’s brand new truck. I slid my ’88 Mustang off the road more times than I care to remember.

When I was your age I thought people my age were old. So I understand.

When I was your age I worked in a grocery store. I was a teenage puppet master. I collected NASCAR memorabilia; one of the most exciting days was when Mark Martin’s #6 Valvoline Thunderbird made an appearance in the parking lot of the K-Mart near my house.

When I was your age I wore Christian T-shirts and discovered Christian rock. I continually recommitted myself to be fired up for God in emotional church functions. I debated with the pastor about whether or not Christian rock glorified God. I worried about my brother when he came home with a Guns ‘N Roses T-shirt, setting off a moral debate between him and my mom. I continually invited friends to church and chastised myself for not standing up for God when someone took his name in vain. Before calling a girl to ask her out I grabbed my Bible and prepared to lead her to Christ in case she wasn’t a Christian. At times I was incredibly self-conscious about my shorts being too short and my skinny, pale legs, and at other times I’d sing 1940s Camel cigarettes radio commercials and think I was the funniest person alive.

Wide-Ruled Witness
Thinking about Mr. Quimper and the puppet ministry sent me on a scavenger hunt to the basement to see if I had any photographic proof (another bonus of the “When I Was Your Age” column is running photos of myself as a teenager, which probably receives more comments than the actual column — Dwight continually reminds me what a dork I was). I couldn’t find any photographic proof of me and Mr. Quimper (which I think may be hard to come across, though I did find a copy of a puppet script I wrote utilizing the most derided puppet our church owned, making The Blue Monster the star of a recess play about accepting people who are weird [PDF]), but I did rediscover a cache of journals I kept in wide-ruled notebooks from November 1991 to April 1994. There were six journals in all.

I’ve read through half of them, diving deeply into introspective nostalgia. Last night while watching Aliens I actually came across an entry where I watched the same movie in 1992.

The journals vary drastically from the most inane comments about what racing collectibles K-Mart had in stock and who won Sunday’s race to deeply confessional admissions to my inability to stand up for God and curious reportings about my flirtations with girls. When the journals begin I’m 12 years old and in seventh grade and they continue through the spring semester of my freshman year of high school at age 14.

I often reflect on this period of my life as being the dorkiest and most awkward time ever. While I’m still a dork and awkwardness is no stranger, I’ve come to accept most of that. After my freshman year of high school I learned to deal with it. Perhaps it was merely a process of internalization and increasing shyness; I remember being more quiet and reserved in high school.

But reading these almost daily journal entries has given me a newfound understanding of the junior high mind. The wild craziness, complete disregard for sanity, and the simplistic, earnest faith I see in many of the junior highers at church is the same I see in my own journal. If not worse.

Turn or Burn
My struggle with faith is brutal and painful to read. As a 13-year-old I had little concept of grace and saw my Christian faith almost as a performance. Time and time again I talk about failing to be a “good Christian.” I put great stock in the tiniest of public proclamations, like praying in the cafeteria or telling my friends about the Christian music I got for Christmas. Yet my entire goal is to witness to my friends and bring them to Christ. There’s no middle ground. There’s no beginning of a journey. I thought it was all or nothing, right now.

There’s a constant struggle in my journals to be that ultimate, ideal Christian. I continually reminded myself of the pain Christ endured (and I hadn’t seen a graphic rendition like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) and how I could put up with the kids at school picking on me. It’s a constant yearning, and for so long it was nothing but failure.

That faith hardly seems like the faith I believe in now, and I wonder how many of the kids in our youth group are constantly grappling with living such an extreme faith. I’ve had such a vast shift in world view since then, I wonder what it would take to convince my 13-year-old self that praying for my lunch probably won’t spark a revival; that it’s OK if I miss an opportunity; that my friends don’t have to accept Jesus on my watch, that small steps forward still matter; that rising above the teenage survival instinct of picking on those dorkier than you is a much more effective way of showing God’s love, even if I don’t mention God by name.

All I Really Want is Girls
At the beginning of my journals I’m curious about girls, curious about the flirting process and how it all works. I dutifully recount interactions with girls, wondering why they’re so crazy (yet I’m the one writing it down). At this point it’s mostly girls at church, where I felt more comfortable and confident, though there are the occasional school-girl crushes. It’s odd that flirting seems like such a ridiculous behavior in seventh grade—I had a crush on a girl as early as third grade, asked a minor crush to dance in sixth grade, and fought the urge to ask a former enemy to dance the same night.

I continually go back and forth in the journals, trying to decide who I like and who might like me, then recording every relevant interaction. I include juicy bits of dialogue, like the time a girl at church realized she hadn’t met my dad and rehearsed an introduction, “Hi, I’m your future daughter-in-law.” Yet I don’t understand my own fascination. At one point after describing yet another borderline flirting moment, I attempt to reassure myself by writing, “I’m not a loon. It’s still me.”

At one point I even went back through my journals and self-edited, scribbling out any bits that talked about girls. In several cases it was self-preservation, cutting out the embarrassing bits that talked about a neighbor kid offering to sell me his copy of Penthouse for $8. I had considered the offer.

Family Strife
Between God and girls you can see glimpses of my dysfunctional family. I have to preface everything I say here by mentioning how incredibly normal my family is. While my parents do have their differences, which resulted in a separation and eventual divorce, they did get remarried. While my brother and I were often at each other’s throats, his greatest crimes were fender benders and his “worldly” rock and roll. As far as I know his exploits never resulted in hangovers or pregnant girls. In the realm of dysfunctional families we’re the Flanders.

But that doesn’t mean everything was entirely normal. I go back and forth between hating my brother with a passion and wanting to please and impress like a good little brother (mixed with plenty of fear about his soul). During the time of my journals faith was becoming an increasingly contentious issue in my house. My Dad never went to church, but during these years there were hints and rumors of him wanting to attend a Methodist church like he attended growing up. Having just started in the youth group where I felt like I belonged, I was vehemently opposed to switching churches, even if it meant my dad would finally come.

Several times I write about my dad picking me up from Wednesday night youth group and being angry if he had to wait for me. Like a teenager I have seemingly rationale reasons for being late that he doesn’t understand. There’s also the increasing battle about whether or not my brother has to go to church and youth group, as well as the moral debates over the music he listens to. At one point my mom confronts him about his music, and later that night he challenges her about the moral quality of Roseanne, the sitcom of choice in our house. Mom agrees and shuts the TV off.

Now I understand that the differences in my parents’ beliefs made it very difficult to raise us. This small amount of strife, which warrants multiple pages and exclamation marks in my journal, is nothing compared to what so many broken families struggle through. If my minor headaches seemed like such mountains, I wonder how teens who are actually struggling manage to cope.

Are You Done Yet?
Every now and then I fall into one of these nostalgic remembrances. It’s such an odd habit, and I wonder if it’s ever interesting or worthwhile to anyone besides me. I’m always contemplating writing some sort of memoir, but I wonder if my life is interesting enough. Yet at the same time, I often prefer nonfiction because as wild as fiction can be, reality can be that much stranger.

And some days I really don’t want to relive my past. The awkward feeling I get watching Freaks and Geeks or even one of my own youth group members trying to tell a joke with no punch line is nothing compared to seeing myself at that age again.

But I also learn a lot about who I was and who I am.

When I’m 50 I’m probably going to stumble across archives of this blog and I’ll tell somebody that when I was your age I pondered what it was like to be someone else’s age.

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