I thought it'd be a little different by now.
I have wiped the blood from cuts and rubbed ointment across rashes, filled garbage buckets with soaking diapers, held hands in the back of an ambulance. I've stayed up late to talk about boys and to rub backs as someone pukes. I have spent hours rewatching the High School Musicals.
I have a hundred children, and none of them are mine.
When I moved back to North Dakota, my initiation into
youth-group-leaderhood was a ski trip to Canada. A skip trip for me is
just as nice as a field trip to a manure processing plant. Death by T-bar. I spent the
whole trip thinking about the things I'd write into my will if I had
The silver lining during those two days of
horror was the time with three high school girls, 10th graders. The four
of us shared two beds in a room with mismatched curtains, without heat.
We sat on the edge of the tub, soaking our complaining feet in hot
water and hand soap from the dispenser attached to the shower wall.
And I was done for.
My heart was already crammed full of camp kids and CYIA kids and
babysittee kids, and they graciously scooted over to make new room for these youth
group kids. Funny thing, a heart: it never runs out of space. You fill
it and fill it; as long as there's something to fill it with, there's
I'm not certain what it is about teenagers that captivates me: the mingling of weirdness and vulnerability, the humor, the awkwardness I can still identify with. When I was packing up all my worldly possessions last year, I realized that my movie collection tends toward Disney animated features and Pixar films. The DVDs of a 12-year-old girl. So maybe my love for teens ultimately stems from the fact that I've never completely stopped being one.
Needless to say, teenagers are my favorite. I can't think of anything better than working with them. And sometimes, I can't think of anything worse. Because teenagers, they grow up and change, and you change, and you wonder if you could've done more for them. You hope they remember you, even though you sometimes forget them because there are always other kids growing up around you. Your campers become counselors; your babies have babies; the girls you scooped up in hugs return your hugs in the receiving line at their weddings.
It's been hard this year to fall in love with a new group of kids when my kids back home are getting ready to graduate. Correction: it isn't the loving that's hard; it's figuring out how love is supposed to look from a thousand miles away, to make it seem like something other than I moved overseas because missionary kids are more important. It smacked me hard across the face the other night as I grazed facebook, saw all the open houses I can't attend, realized that in a year, I'll be going home while my students here will keep growing up. Leaving my heart behind, again, just as it gets rooted.
Once, in a long-ago time called college, I thought it'd be a little different by now. At 27, surely I would have my own babies. I'd adopt, foster parent, watch my solitary life writhe together with others until we became family. My house would be overflowing with the holding-on and the letting-go and the growing-up, library in the basement full of neighbor kids and bikes scattered over the lawn, grilled cheese sandwiches and countering I hate yous with Well, I love you anyway.
But I'm in Spain instead, borrowing other peoples' babies.
Last Friday night, the middle-schoolers had a campout behind the school in on-again-off-again rain showers, and as we sat around a damp campfire, one of the girls rested her head on my shoulder. A few minutes later, I could feel the silent shudder of tears. I whispered, "Are you okay?"
She whispered back, "I'm crying because I don't want to go back to the States." The inevitable packing-up-and-goodbying of a six-month home assignment. I let her cry.
This Friday, the one that was yesterday, a different girl came into class looking tired and red. I asked if she was okay, thinking that she was upset about the previous day's cheating lecture. "Can I talk to you after school?"
"Sure," I said, mentally steeling myself.
But she didn't want to talk about cheating. She wanted to talk about drama in the middle school, and about feeling left out, and about fighting with her friends, and she sat there nearing tears, shaking almost imperceptibly. Then she said, "You are...not like a normal teacher. You...see things. I don't know how to explain it. At my old school, a teacher never would have asked if I was upset. You're just...you are different than most teachers." And then I had to fight tears for a minute myself.
I don't know if I'll ever have children of my own, and I wrestle with that possibility daily: the freedom from diaper bags and parent-teacher conferences, balanced with the fear that all those tall genes, all this quirk won't be passed on to plague the next generation. Still, I always end up surrounded by kids, and I get to love them and cry with them and then send them home to their parents. It's wonderful and difficult, maybe easier than having kids of your own, maybe worse. You worry just as much; they still make you proud; they still break your heart.
And I don't know what life will look like five years from now, ten, if my life is still going to be this constant rotation of other peoples' children shuffling in, shuffling out. All I know is that, really, nobody gets to keep anyone forever. So we wipe the blood and rub the backs and have the talks, and we love as much as we can, and it all matters. I pray to be content to watch the changes, to hold on and let go in the right places, to feel the breaking of new growth. Like a tree holding still while a thousand hummingbirds brush past, holding out empty branches just in case they return, looking for a place to land.