by Dr. Christi Williams, Logic School Teacher
As a new teacher at TCS this year, teaching middle schoolers for the first time, and being the perfectionist that I am, I began the school year with a plethora of worries. After all, I remember myself as a middle schooler: shy, insecure, full of brooding and questions, longings that I didn’t understand, difficulty telling the difference between what people thought of me and who I really was, incessant comparison. A lot of the time I just wanted to be left alone with my thoughts. Teachers seemed far away, in another world, almost another species altogether, and I had a suspicion that some of them hated all children everywhere.
With these memories and doubts swirling around in my head, I wondered, will my students feel like I did? Will their stomachs churn and minds go blank the moment I called on them (and then lay in bed that night, realizing all they could and should have said)? Will school be hard for them, not just intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually? And if so, is there a way for me, as one of the adults and role models in their lives, to help make these already awkward years a little bit better, a little less saturated with insecurity, a lot more focused on Christ?
One thing I realized as soon as school actually started was that TCS kids are different. It’s true. They are obedient, earnest, intellectually curious, spiritually adept, eager to be taught, and comfortable while also respectful with adults. It’s incredible. After the first day of school, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, I might have loved middle school if it was spent at a school like this.” And that opinion has not changed. It’s been almost six weeks now, and my level of astonishment and gratitude for these students, and the staff at Trinity, has only grown. Praise be to God for such beautiful hearts and minds, who have been loved and nourished to love God and neighbor. They truly make my job a delight.
Of course, as fallen human beings, my students still struggle with sin and basic human fears and anxieties. For them, as for us all, daily temptations arise toward worldly ambition, covetousness, lazyness, contention, disordered desires, pride, and attempts to please men over God. They can all say with the Apostle Paul, “For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
Even more, I’m being reminded, by observing and interacting with them, that growing up is just hard. And scary. As the poet Billy Collins says, writing from the standpoint of a nine-year-old about to turn ten:
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light—
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul. (“On Turning Ten”)
But isn’t growing up exciting and adventurous? Didn’t we always look forward to our next birthday, wishing we were just one year older? What we come to know as adults is that as one grows, matures, and becomes reflective, one encounters more and more of what makes human existence in a fallen world difficult. Life gets more complicated. As Collins goes on to say,
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. (“On Turning Ten”)
There is a sense of invincibility to childhood, especially for those with rich imaginations and keen intellects like TCS students. Indeed, I see it in my two young daughters. Claire, my seven year old, wishes she could go back to the Garden of Eden and stop Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit. She really thinks she could make sure the Fall never happened. My three-year-old, Annalise, fervently believes there’s a trap door in Otis, the elevator in our apartment building (yes, we name inanimate objects), that, if only she says the correct “secret passage word,” will open and take us directly to Narnia. She tries out a new word every day, and even though the trap door always fails to open, she continues to believe, with gargantuan levels of faith, that tomorrow may be the day it works.
Children have no lack of confidence. But, as they get older, that confidence slowly lessens. Already, in my seven-year old, I see seeds of skepticism growing, increasing suspicions and fears that hard things lay ahead. Friends at school say things that really hurt. Her mommy won’t always be there to give hugs or say a prayer when she’s afraid to try something new. She will be treated unfairly for doing the right thing, and have to endure it with grace. This is why, at the prospect of turning ten, the child of Collins’ poem laments,
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
Like this child, our kids and students will increasingly face a multitude of complex trials that come with growing up. Their hearts will get hurt. They will be tempted by sin and sometimes give in. They will have the sinking suspicion that everyone is better than them, or maybe worse, suppose they’re better than everyone else. They will “skin [their] knees” on “the sidewalks of life,” and “bleed.” And for the Christian, who believes in the Fall and knows that Jesus promises those who follow Him will suffer, this is all the more true. And the scary thing is that even if we wanted to, we can’t keep our kids from experiencing this.
But if we can’t protect them from these things, what can we do? What can we be for our children and students? How can we be a Christ-like, formative, nourishing presence amidst this whirlwind of existential cuts and bruises that lie ahead? What can I do for my middle schoolers, who are already facing such things?
Well, I have a few thoughts.
First, we can empathize with their struggles with failure, anxiety, and temptation to sin. One of the things I remember my father doing so often was just affirming the legitimacy of my struggles. He didn’t belittle them by telling me life just gets harder. He didn’t try to fix them right away. I remember coming home from school in seventh grade one day, teary and embarrassed because a boy made fun of me, wondering if I really was as ugly as this boy seemed to think. My dad listened, his demeanor all gentleness and compassion, and instead of trying to solve my problem, simply said, carrying my pain in his eyes, “Christi, my precious girl, I’m so sorry. That must have been really hard. Does it make you anxious about going back to school tomorrow?” I nodded timidly, ashamed of my fears, tears starting to flow. Then as he reached out to hug me, the tears just poured out. And even though I didn’t realize it, I was at that moment experiencing something like the incredible, unlimited compassion and healing power of our heavenly Father. What I learned from my dad was that just by letting our kids know that it’s okay to struggle, to have a hard day, or even to feel alone and far from God, and by letting their emotions that flow out of those struggles be released in an atmosphere of compassion and empathy, we will pour into their hearts a great deal of strength and peace.
Second, we can open up to our kids about our own mistakes and struggles. My daughters’ love to hear stories about when I was a little girl, and their favorites are the ones about me being bad. It still blows their minds to imagine me as a kid like them, tempted to disobey, lie, or hurt someone’s feelings. They forget how much I struggle with sin too. And as I share those stories, I try to point out some of the ridiculousness of my actions, and sometimes reflect aloud about what I wish I could go back and tell myself. By sharing our mistakes, and revealing what we’re able to see in hindsight, our kids can see that it’s okay to be open about our sins and weaknesses, that sharing such things with others can be an opportunity to testify to God’s mercy and providence, and that we are not immune from their struggles. Rather, we are fellow sinners, a little further down the road, in just as much need of God’s grace. Furthermore, they can see that there is strength in vulnerability and confession; that, as George MacDonald says, it is “better to suspect that thou art proud, than be sure that thou art great.”
Finally, we can model the habit of going to the Lord in prayer, and searching the Scriptures, as the first and primary way of responding to trials. I remember, as I was growing up, seeing my dad every morning spend at least an hour, lost in meditation on the Scriptures or deep in prayer. And I could tell that he did this, not merely because it was “the right thing to do,” but because life is hard, and he needed it desperately to get through the day, to be the husband and father he needed to be for us. Similarly, we have to live as if prayer and the Scriptures really are more vital to our lives than our daily bread.
I confess I don’t yet feel confident to be all that I want to be for my middle schoolers and daughters, and as I grow to know and love them more, the mistakes I make in fostering their growth pains me all the more. There is so much at stake. But I remember that all I do is through God’s grace, and that their heavenly Father always knows and protects and provides for them infinitely more than I ever can. What I can and must strive to do, is direct their eyes, when they look to me, to Christ, so that they set their hopes on Him.