I spent part of yesterday observing one of the coolest and most simple ideas in the world of peacemaking. Before I tell you about my day, think about it–who do you think benefits most from learning to communicate, to manage an unruly brain, to work with others in a skillful and respectful way, and to find the path to self-confidence and voice?
The children and youth.
It snowed yesterday, and just before lunch time I drove out to the Concordia Langauge Villages to observe a team training of new STAR students. The roads were draped with snow-covered trees and icy where the trees blocked the sun. The training was held in the Norwegian Village–beautiful nordic buildings against a perfect winter backdrop. I have been waiting to see this process at work since I first heard about it many months ago.
In this case STAR stands for Students Teaching Attitudes of Respect. A Bemidji non-profit called Peacemakers began 14 years ago to teach young people to teach other young people how to treat one another. Five teams had gathered for the two-day training from area middle schools. The day started with a conversation about how to get our needs met–and how unpleasant behaviors can arise from unmet needs. (This is the first lesson we learn in an NLP training–that behaviors always lead to an unmet need.) I liked the approach, but most of all I liked the faces of those young people sitting on the floor excited about coming together for this different kind of camp. There is something about that young energy that is just plain hopeful! Anything could happen.
After lunch a group of more established STAR students gave a media presentation to the younger group about advertising and how to keep from thinking we should be something other than we are. There was a lot of information on body image, skinny models, buff dudes, and how half of it is Photoshopped (has that really become a verb?) to make the unreal even more unreal. The students were well prepared, confident, organized, and so much fun to listen to. I loved the slight edge of a year or two that the older students had. It was clear that they loved teaching as much as they had loved learning.
Good communications and peacemaking are skills to be learned. We don’t come by them naturally–especially in a world where disrespect has become the norm on television. The idea that these young ambassadors will go back to their schools and teach other students how to mediate our differences and become effective listeners is thrilling to me. Barb gave me figures about how many people these young ones have reached–it was in the thousands.
Just being there reminded me of my own mission and purpose in life. Since my first job out of college I’ve worked as an advocated for the voice and strength of young people. Even my individual work with adults is still always about growing up the undeveloped child inside who got lost in the shuffle. I am ashamed to say that I’ve been feeling a bit like a puppet on the string of my own mind, whining about “where do I belong” when in truth I’ve always known.
But I have to step further in, get a little dirty, break my heart a few hundred more times, grow a bigger voice, knock some heads together, sit on a street corner in protest—SOMETHING. If we don’t pay attention to these young hearts–they will grow hard and bitter, an icy casing that they will spend decades trying to unthaw. I’ve met hundreds of those children, now in adult bodies, in all of my workshops.
Stars want to shine. Spirit wants to fly. Hearts want to love–and be loved. Brains want to learn. It isn’t rocket science, is it?
Compare what I have written here to the earlier post I wrote called “When Stars Can’t Shine” and you will see what I mean. For simplicity sake, I’ll just post it below. A final note–one of the STAR teams will be presenting for the educational day of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in the Twin Cities this Friday. Congratulations!
When Stars Can’t Shine
Today we had friends over for a bit of chanting and meditation. As I was sitting in that age-old posture, I kept thinking about the rest of my life. I want it to be both meaningful and free of stress. Just being. Last week I went for a drive in the Black Hills to give an hour-long presentation to a facility that “houses” young people in need. The facility is part lock-up, part treatment, and part . . . I find I can’t finish the statement.
The question I had on my drive there and back was, “What do they need–really?” When I first got there I was a little nervous as I realized that writing about adolescence–and standing and talking in front of 150 adolescents are two totally different things. I wondered if I would be in touch enough with their world to speak to them and not at them. I wondered howthey would receive what I had to say. Then, as the counselors and demi-guards brought the groups of young men and women in, I wondered what I would end up saying that would be against the basic philosophy of this boot camp atmosphere.
It didn’t take long, however, to just focus on their young faces and talk as straight as I could to them. I talked about ancient rites of passage ceremonies designed to help young people reach a productive adult life. I talked about how our modern culture now leaves this up to the kids themselves, and how they are sometimes forced to “gang up” and initiate themselves. I talked about challenges and tests and what happens when we gain the strength to go through them. I asked them what they needed in order to be able to face those tests and challenges. It was a powerful thing for me. They gave me words backed up by need—we need money, jobs, knowledge, support, love, time, understanding, discipline, choices.
My question. Are we creating a world where these kids in need can fill in those blanks?
During the last fifteen minutes, I invited questions. Most of the questions that came my way were about being a writer. What motivated me, what discouraged me, how did I get interested in writing, how many books have I written . . . Finally one young man asked me what made me want to come and speak to a group like theirs.
That question touched me. I thought a moment and said, “I like young people. I like your energy. I like your questions. I like your spirits. I like you—and I want to see you bloom.” when we were done I invited the young people to write to me and tell me why they are there and what they want. I told them I had this idea to do a kind of “teen monologue”, kind of like The Vagina Monologues but with a very young voice.
Friday, I got 20 letters in my mailbox. Milt and I sat and read every one. Even though I realized that the letters had probably been “commanded” by the teacher or counselor, I was moved by their stories. Since giving that talk my energy has been cycling around those young people. I realized that my entire adult life has been focused around education, developing humans, adolescence, and what we can do to help them become strong, resilient adults. My first job was in the “trouble” room at a middle school. My second job was in an adolescent care center. Both ended when I could see that the systems that employed me were not at all tuned into the young. It hurt me to even be there—and it wasn’t great for the young people either.
I don’t think I am too much of an idealist to think that we could take a new approach with American youth. I don’t think it would hurt us to see them and work with them AS THEY ARE instead of criminalizing or diagnosing or sentencing them. Damn, it frustrates me.
So, I think over the next however many days or weeks, I will post one of those letters (or portions of them) in my blog so you can hear from them, too. And I plan to answer every letter that comes! The beginnings of my “Teen Monologues.”
Here is one of the letters from a young man named Colin. It made me cry for him.
Dear Ms. Lee,
This could be for your “teen monologue”. In November, 2006, my 35 year old father died of malignant melanoma. It crushed my family. I didn’t know what to do. I still feel like it happened yesterday. I tried to find God to help me but I did not put much effort into it. This is when I started drinking and smoking pot. It felt like I was not worth it anymore. I was put on probation and I have a few probation violations. That is how I got here.
Now that I think about it, my dad would not want me to be here, but I think he knows that it is necessary. I should be supporting my sisters and brothers—not getting locked up. I miss my family dearly, but I should not be feeling sorry for myself. I should feel sorry for my family. I want to thank you for coming again. I hope that maybe someday we could meet and we could talk 1 on 1. Thank you.