Monday, November 17, 2008

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On Being A Teenager

When I was teaching, I often liked to read stories or tell true stories to my students. Some may have just found them entertaining for that moment; whereas; others may have stored them away somewhere to be able to draw upon their wisdom and apply to their own challenges in life. As a teenager myself, even though I led a very sheltered life, I found those years to be some of the hardest years of my life. I felt that I could relate to the constant feelings of insecurity, chaos, and tumultuous emotions that so often characterize that time of life. I would tell them how, when I was a teenager, my mama once said to me, “You had better enjoy these years, as they would be some of the best in your life.” I remember thinking, “If these are the best, I don’t much want to go on any further.” In my head, I knew that there were so many good things in my life. Yet my emotions, doubts, and fears of the uncertainty of each new day seemed overwhelming at times. The whole thing of just trying to fit in, and yet hold on to my own ideas of integrity and values, was a struggle, as each new experience would provide a challenge to my responsibility of having to choose a correct response.

When I was young, I had the support of loving parents and brothers and sisters. Now don’t get me wrong, we did not have a perfect family. I don’t believe that even exists. Our family had its own set of dysfunctional baggage that presented problems on a daily basis. Yet we were blessed with a Daddy who worked hard all of his life to be a good provider. Our Mama devoted all of her time to taking care of the house, kids, husband and all the responsibilities that go along with that role. I did have both parents, a secure home, and was not lacking in the comforts of life. Kids today are exposed to too much too soon. Through no fault of their own, their time of innocence is cut short by outside influences and temptations from the media, use of drugs, and more. It’s no longer cool to strive to be a good student or respectful to your elders. To be taught to behave like a young lady or gentleman is a thing of the past and old fashioned. The media of today seems to encourage girls to dress immodestly and boys to look sloppy and ill kept. Good manners and good grades are mocked and devalued. Both are allowed to use filthy language and none are taught to take responsibility for their own actions. Parents are taught to be so concerned about teaching their children to have good self-esteem, while often neglecting the importance of having reverence and obedience to parents, elders or God. We live in a world where good is evil and evil is good. The world is upside down. Faith in God is thought of as a crutch for the weak rather than the source of true wisdom, strength, and redemption.

Reaching out to my students through stories was my way of trying to share a different point of view for them to consider in responding to the challenges in their daily lives. All too often, a person’s first response may be to resort to either physical violence or verbal abuse. Some of my favorite stories were from my life or the lives of my children.

My son Rickie was always very good about calling us to let us know where he was or where he was going. Because he accepted that responsibility, he spared us from worry and gave himself the freedom of staying out more with his friends. It is not something that we had to nag him to do. He was putting into practice a simple way of demonstrating consideration of others and self discipline.

When Rickie was 16 years old, we offered him the choice of going out somewhere special with one of his friends, or having a party for his birthday. He chose to have a birthday party. He helped in the cleaning up and preparations for the party. Finally, when the night of the occasion was upon us, the kids seemed to just pour in. Before long, I noticed that several were leaving until there were only about a dozen left.

Also, when I went in the room to replenish the supply of snacks, I found a number of them sitting on the floor. Later, I asked Rickie the reason for both of these things. He said that several of the kids had wanted to use alcohol or drugs. When he told them no, their first reaction was to say that they would just go in and out of the house. His response was that there would not be any use of alcohol or drugs anywhere on the premises. If they could not accept that choice, they were free to leave. As to the choice of some to sit on the floor, for those who chose to smoke, he set the boundaries of sitting of the floor with an ashtray. This was to prevent any accidental cigarette burns in the furniture. We later found out that when he went to parties at the houses of others, he would first approach the host of the party to ask if alcohol or drugs were acceptable. If the answer were yes, he would politely leave. If the answer was no, he would volunteer to give the ones who indulged in those things the choice of stopping or leaving. Hopefully, as his parents, we had helped influence the establishment of these values within him. However, the application of them was in the realm of his choice. Knowing this about him, made it so much easier for us to place trust in him.

It is not always easy to know the parents or kids with whom your children will be associating. Rickie was always told that if anything negative happened, no matter what time of night, to call us and we would come pick him up. He would have reason to choose to call us for that reason upon more than one occasion. I remember one time when his Dad picked him up about two or three in the middle of the night. He had called us because the boy’s Mom was doing drugs and inviting him and her son to join her in the activity. Now I’m sure that these choices may have limited his acceptance among some of his peers who may have accepted this behavior as being “cool” or “popular.” Fair or not, we are often judged by the company we keep. His actions were a demonstration of the value of giving no appearance of evil and removing oneself from the presence of evil. How many times, we get ourselves into bad and dangerous situations simply because we do not adhere to these simple and important guidelines.

One summer, we placed him in a school for academic help. The purpose of the school was supposed to be to meet the needs of those who had the ability to succeed, but were not doing so for some reason. It was to give him a chance to catch up so that he could be better prepared and move on to the next grade. After placing him there, we discovered that many of the students were from backgrounds where they may have been involved in the juvenile criminal system for one reason or another. When I picked him up at the end of the first day, he said, “Please don’t make me go back there. I’ll do anything, just remove me from it.” Of course, my first heart felt reaction was the desire to rescue him from, what appeared to be, a possibly dangerous situation. But I knew that we had prayed about this, and believed that if we truly wanted to help him, we must be strong and trust in the Lord to protect him. We explained to him that he was there for the purpose of having a chance to be built up academically. Also, this may give him a chance to be a light to shine in the darkness and even effect the life of someone else there. As it turned out, Rickie was the star pupil there that summer. Not only did he advance academically, but also, the teachers were so caring and supportive that they were able to build up his self-confidence. In addition, from time to time they would have group therapy discussion sessions. When other kids would say that their only choice was to do drugs or alcohol during their free time, Rickie was able to present ideas of healthier and happier activities in which to get involved. Of course, his favorite outlet for his feelings and emotions, happy or sad, was to ride his bike, practice tricks, and take part in BMX bike racing events.

Shawn often exemplified the use of humor and intellect, to respond to what could have been volatile situations. A person in anger gave the ugly middle finger sign to Shawn. Instead of responding in a like manner, he simply said, “Nice finger!” This brought a response of laughter from observers and gave Shawn an admirable way out of the situation. Another time he accidentally bumped into a girl in the hallway. He told her, “Excuse me.” She must have been carrying a chip on her shoulder about something, as she promptly slapped him hard right across the face. This created a tense moment and those around him expected him to react in like manner. He retained a cool and collected manner while calmly stating, “You’re lucky that I have been taught to treat a lady like a lady, even if she doesn’t act like one.” Thus, he diffused the moment when everyone expected a fight and gained respect of others around him.

When Rickie graduated from high school, we decided to buy an eighty-eight acre farm in Ohio. Lisa was in seventh grade then, and Shawn was in the fourth. We had not been there long when her teacher called us in for a conference. To our amazement, it was to let us know the basis of some problems that she was experiencing. Unfortunately, we had unknowingly moved into probably the worse county in Ohio for “outsiders.” We were informed that Lisa had three strikes against her in the sight of the other students:

(1) She was pretty, (2) The boys liked her, (3) They thought we were rich. While we lived there, there was a group of girls that would continually try to start fights with her. One of the high school teachers later told us that we should be glad that she was not in the upper grades for there were some girls that would have beat her up for no reason at all just because she was new there. We had always taught her not to fight. When the threats continued from one girl in particular, we told Lisa to tell her, “I’m not allowed to fight in public, but if you insist, my parents said they will bring me to your house. Then your parents and mine can be present to observe the consequences of your choice.” Well the girl must not have taken her seriously, for she continued to try to instigate violent actions. We thereafter, took her to the girl’s house. Someone was home, but would not come to the door. A few weeks later at the county fair, this same girl (who was twice Lisa’s size) started knocking Lisa around, pushing her down over and over again and would not quit. Finally, Lisa had it, and beat the tar out of the girl. She came to us to let us know what had happened. We reported the incident to the police at the fair and then went to the girl’s parents to inform them they needed to keep their daughter away from ours. The Dad was known as being a bully and bar room brawler. My husband was expecting the man to start something when he confronted the parent about the on going problem. However, the man demurely answered that he would take care of the problem and that was it. Then as Rick turned and started walking away from the man, he noticed that three big strapping farmers (friends of ours) had been standing behind him all along to back him up just incase the man started something. The Lord looks after us for sure.

Lisa has always had a caring and gentle spirit when it comes to people with disabilities, mentally or physically. When she was only in the eighth grade, she was given the opportunity to help care for a child that was confined to a wheel chair. He also had a tracheotomy, which had to be kept free and clear of any debris. When others may have felt this to be repulsive, Lisa was willing to serve. She made the child feel loved and Lisa was blessed by that love being returned to her. Then too, I had occasion to be with Lisa when mentally retarded persons would approach her. She never made them feel as though they were different from any one else. I was in awe of how she treated them, even at her young age. She was kind and talked with them with the same acceptance as if they had no handicap at all.

Shawn was having problems with kids trying to put him down for having things they didn’t because he was a “rich” kid. He finally responded to them, “If want things maybe you should get a job and pay for them like I’ve done.” You see, Shawn and his Dad were in the business of raising and selling rabbits to meat markets. His Dad was on the road a lot, so Shawn had to go out to the barn, no matter how cold, early, or late, to feed and care for them. Shawn shared in the profits. He saved his money and bought things like video games, etc.

Living on our farm had its positive points. Having the land was great. Lisa had the opportunity to have her own horse. She also raised a bull one year to sell at the county fair as her FFA project. Rick, her Daddy, was going to be out of town at the time when we were going to have to transport the bull to the fair for its entrance procedures. She and I went to the place to see what was involved in the process. Our eyes popped out as we saw big strapping men trying to lead these bucking animals through the process. All we could think of was “Oh my Lord, how are the two of us going to handle this?” The day arrived and some neighbors loaded her bull, Buddy, onto their truck. We followed behind. I was watching from the sidelines as one ornery bull after another nearly threw their owners around while trying to get them through the different stalls. Now it was Lisa’s turn to lead Buddy. I wish I had had a camera. She took Buddy by his rope, and he walked behind her like an obedient little puppy dog. I guess I really should not have been surprised. She had raised him from a baby and really worked with him. Besides that, Lisa has always been blessed with a special relationship with animals. Once, she rescued a chipmunk from the mouth of one of our cats. She brought it in the house with it snuggling calmly in her hands while she petted it. It looked so tame and cute, so I asked to hold it. No sooner had she placed it in my hands, it became the wild little creature it was and bit me. She took it back, returned it to the wild, and did not receive one bite.

Too bad the location of our farm had to be in probably the worse county in all of Ohio. Shortly after we moved there, Johnny Carson, of “The Late Show” on TV, was heard to say, “If you want to have some one murdered and get away with it, just go to Morgan County, Ohio.” I’m not saying that there were not any nice people there. That would not be true. However, there were people who had lived there for over 25 years and were still considered to be “outsiders.” One person, born and raised there, told us there should be another sign placed above the entering “Morgan County” signs saying “enter at your own risk.” Finally, I could no longer take it and determined to at least get my kids out of what I perceived to be a painful and destructive atmosphere. We placed our kids in a school system only thirty minutes away, and from day one they were made to feel accepted and welcomed into the community. Lisa and Shawn wound up having the opportunity to be in the musical play, “The Sound of Music.” Lisa was given the lead role of Maria, and Shawn was one of the children of the VonTrapp family. They both had the opportunity to let their talents shine. I was so very thankful for the difference that was made in all of our lives. We eventually sold our farm and moved to that little town, where we lived for the next three years. I hoped to encourage my students to do all they can to develop and use their special talents. Some may have been “encouragers,” or “servers” and never realized that it was a special talent.

We later moved to Lakeland, FL. I taught sixth grade there from 1994-2006. I would tell these stories and many others to my students over the years. One of my favorite books to read my students was “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.” In addition, I accumulated other short stories that were given to me by students to add to my collection.

I taught Geography of Eastern Civilizations; thus, I was able to use the lives of many to help teach values. One movie that I would always try to show was Gandhi. In the dialogue of the movie, Gandhi himself introduced the teachings of Jesus. Without being out of bounds, I was able to make references to these to encourage my students to always try to do their best, never look down on others (like the Untouchables of India were treated) and never to base ones opinion of others on their social or economic standing. It is not the job that you do that is important, but that you do your job well with honesty and integrity. For instance, the school janitor who does his job meticulously and conscientiously is more admirable than the dentist who does his job in an incompetent and sloppy manner.

Whenever possible, I would use any spare moments to read to them from these life lessons. It was a wonderful way to build a closer relationship with my students each year. They would open up more to me and provided an atmosphere to learn more about their personal lives and needs. I hope this enabled me to give them more to remember than just the academics of life. I pray that somehow I was able to enhance their lives then and in their future. Those moments provided me with some of the most rewarding times of interaction with my students.

Ginger Rahn


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