I spent last weekend with nearly 30 middle school girls. The last time I did that was when I was a middle-schooler myself, and that was more than a decade ago. I didn’t know what to expect as I lurched along the country roads on our school bus heading toward the camp except lots of giggling and little sleep. Here’s what I wasn’t anticipating: to feel like I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a mom. By the end of the fall retreat I was exhausted yet filled with joy. In my specific charge were six girls, all in the sixth grade.
Here’s what I learned:
There is so substitute for simply being present. At one point I ducked into the cabin to retrieve something. The cabin was empty. I sat on my bunk, and as I was enjoying a minute of quiet, in walked Chelsea, one of my girls. Her face was dark, turned toward the ground. A couple of seconds passed. She burst into tears. “My glasses,” she said, “they broke.” She held out her hand, where I saw the crumpled parts. “What happened?” I asked, sitting with her on her bunk as the words tumbled out between sobs. One of the girls, known to be mean, was rough-housing and fell into Chelsea, breaking her glasses. “The worst part,” she said, “was that she didn’t even care.” Her shoulders heaved. I put my arm around her and looked straight into her eyes: “What she did was wrong,” I said, “and I care.” In that moment I felt so angry, so angry that someone would hurt Chelsea, so angry that someone was mean to her. It would have been easy to spread the anger. But that’s not what she needed. She needed someone to see what happened, to acknowledge that it wasn’t right and to care. In that empty cabin that afternoon, I wasn’t sure exactly what to say or do. I was simply there.
Sometimes when no one else will go, we have to. Saturday afternoon, the girls and I waited atop a watchtower for a paintball game to start, which the girls were curious to see. The paintball game was delayed, and the girls were getting restless. One of them, a little wilder than the rest, was playing near the edge of the woods, leading to a stream and then beyond it a hill. “I’m going to climb the hill!” she shouted to us, disappearing into the thicket. I shouted for her to come back. Silence. “I’m already across the stream!” I saw the bushes rustling where she was beginning the ascent. I knew she wouldn’t come back, and if I didn’t physically go after her, she could get badly hurt climbing. Down the tower I went and into the brush. I saw her scrambling upward. Sternly, I told her to come back. She turned to look at me, looked back up the hill one last time and then turned around. She scrambled ahead of me and back toward the tower. A thorny branch tore into m y hand, and I felt heat on it. Back in the field, I could see clearly where the thorns had broken my skin. It was painful, yes, but all I could think about was how much more pain one of my girls would have been in if she fell while climbing.
For every problem, every question, the girls turned to me, whether I knew the answer or not. This was the part that made me feel like a mom. It’s 24/7. There were bloody noses. And stolen snacks. There were moments when they acted much like children, like how two of the girls always had to be by my side during meals, and would get nervous when I was out of their sight. There were, of course, funny moments. Like when we turned the lights off at night, and I heard one of them loudly whisper: “They’re adults. They fall asleep in five minutes and won’t hear anything.” Reality: I heard them for at least an hour.
One night one of the tougher girls who doesn’t talk much to me opened up. I plunked down on her bunk and asked if she would draw a flower on my hand. Earlier I saw her drawing doodles on other girls. She carefully took out her markers and created the prettiest little flower on my hand, a work of art. The rest of the weekend, she acted differently toward me. That flower gave us a way to connect.
During the more intense parts of the weekend, the girls opened up about divorce, something affecting half of my girls. My heart breaks for them. At one point, one of the girls would not stop crying. Finally the reason came out: “I feel like it’s my fault,” she said, referring to her parents divorce. I told her that was a lie, that it wasn’t true. Sadly, children so often feel this way whenever there is conflict in their homes. I wanted to shield them from the ugliness of the world and the weight of everything they were carrying, but I knew I couldn’t do that. Only Jesus can, and all I can do in my own brokenness and limitations is point them toward Him.
As the bus rumbled back toward Buffalo at the end of the weekend, I laughed and giggled along with the girls as we shared a bag of M&Ms and starbursts. (I learned pink is unequivocally the favorite starbust color of middle school girls, by the way). I learned a lot that weekend about the girls’ personalities, but even more importantly, I saw that common to them all, even the toughest ones, is a need to be acknowledged, affirmed and valued. One of the girls, the girl who broke Chelsea’s glasses, sat behind me on the bus on the way home. The group of us played a game where we finished each-other’s sentences, starting with a name. Whenever her name came up, the girls always finished the sentence by saying words like “mean” or “terrible.” I ended the sentence by saying “fantastic,” and no one else probably noticed, but I saw her face light up.
It was a small moment, but it gave me hope.