– By Walt Mueller
©2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
I experienced pains of “anticipatory agony” the night before my seventh grade gym class assembled on the cinder quarter-mile track for the annual mile run for time. I remember praying two prayers as I lay fitfully awake on that eve of aerobic despair: “God, please help me finish!” and “Please don’t let me finish last!” Both prayers were answered.
Unfortunately, I remember something else about that day. After the run, I joined my peers in that all-too-common junior high ritual that leaves many kids feeling like a heap of trash: we laughed at the overweight and out-of-breath kid who, once again, crossed the finish line last and all alone.
The early adolescent years combine fast-paced change and the confusion of wondering, “Am I normal?” Add to these insecurities the desire to fit in and a peer group that knows little or nothing about sensitivity, and you’ve got a volatile mix. Remember what it was like to walk the junior high halls and feel like every eye was focused on you and how you didn’t seem to measure up? It’s the same today. There are insecure kids who find themselves labeled as “popular,” and the remaining insecure lot who get crushed under the weight of serving as stepping stones in the struggle to build up one’s self by putting others down.
The standards of today’s acceptance game have been raised. The new emphasis on physical beauty and body shape established by media icons have left changing girls and boys wondering, “Will I ever be good enough for somebody to love?” Thin is not only in, but sexually desirable. Consequently, many kids are spending more time in front of the mirror and more time lying awake anticipating another day of nasty junior high ridicule.
Twelve-year-old Sammy Graham had one of those nights back in August of 1996. With the first day of school scheduled the next morning, this outstanding student from a solid loving family had gone to bed after praying with his father and two young brothers. The next day, before anyone else was awake, Sammy took a flashlight, rope and step stool into the backyard. Later, his father found Sammy’s dead body hanging from a tree.
Sammy was apprehensive about the teasing he’d have to endure because his 5’4″ body carried 174 pounds. The pain of death was more bearable than the pain of a ridiculed life. The pressure was just too much.
We can learn many lessons from Sammy. First, we must constantly remind our kids of their uniqueness as God’s handiwork, knitted together and formed according to His purpose and plan. No matter how much worldly standards change, their Heavenly Father sees each one as beautiful.
Of course, transferring this truth from mere words to reality requires a second step: We must point out the appearance lies of the world and emphasize the truth of their standing in God’s eyes by giving them a show-and-tell shower of time, love, acceptance and affection.
This battle with our culture’s horribly skewed standards doesn’t look to get easier any time soon. But we do know that junior high kids who are confident in themselves and sensitive to others typically have something special happening in their relationships with dad and mom.
Several times a week I run at our local school track. Recently, I have shared the track with a number of physical education students as they run the mile for time (poor kids!). During one recent jog I watched as the teacher blew his whistle signaling the start of the run. Naturally, the most athletic members of the class took off at a fast pace. The rest of the class lagged behind but kept moving ahead (I did hear a few moans and complaints as even I was able to pass them).
Then I watched in wonder as a beautiful sight unfolded. There on the track, far behind the pack and even further behind the athletes, walked two figures side by side. One was a girl, terribly overweight. For her, running a mile was probably impossible. But walking next to her, voicing words of encouragement, was a slender and athletic-looking peer who looked as if she could have run and perhaps even finished first.
Four laps together … from start to finish. One person was saved from humiliation. The other, well, her parents should be proud. I was reminded of the simple command of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you.” I’m in the midst of watching two of my own children struggle with those junior high pressures and expectations. I’m convinced that living out these words of Jesus at home is one of the best gifts we can give our young adolescents.
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