Gerecht: On life lessons, teens can be teachers too

By Carolyn Gerecht

A while back, I wrote a column enumerating some life lessons I’d learned from my campers,… A while back, I wrote a column enumerating some life lessons I’d learned from my campers, mostly 8- and 9-year-old girls who taught me how to laugh at myself, how to solve problems and how to be very, very patient.

Now, more than two years later, my days as a camp counselor have faded into the past.

I’ve moved onto a job as a youth group adviser at a local synagogue, working with teenagers who are much older but not really any wiser — most of the time.

Sometimes, though, these teenagers can be as insightful as the elementary school kids of my past. (Who would have thought it possible? I know!) Their demonstrations of compassion, drive and humor are remarkable, just like those of their younger counterparts. And they’re worth sharing.

For instance, one of the more popular youth group activities is an ongoing basketball tournament.

Each week, four teams play in two games. Eventually, their team records will be used to create a bracket and then a championship game. It isn’t religious programming, but it’s a chance to practice what are essentially, but not exclusively, religious values. And these teenagers do practice them.

When one student scored a game-winning buzzer-beater one night — as much to his surprise as to anyone else’s — no one congratulated him more thoroughly than his peers.

A week later, at their student board meeting, one of his friends interrupted the agenda to retell the story Sports Center-style — much to the joy of the tomato-red student, who listened bashfully. These teens find real happiness in each other’s successes and I admire that.

Whereas my elementry campers taught me to value silliness and never to take myself too seriously, these high school students are role models of self-confidence and drive.

They take themselves seriously enough. They want to be respected by their family and friends, and contrary to the stereotype of their age group — they want you to care.

That desire is so frank and honest that it’s endearing. I want the world to be proud of me, too. The high school students I work with teach me to admit that — and to act on it.

In a discussion group one morning, one student, inspired by a reading, shared his insights for five minutes before I interrupted and asked if anyone else wanted to speak.

My first inclination was to be annoyed. Who does this kid think he is?

But at the end of the day, he was knowledgeable and excited about something. He had the confidence to assume that his words would benefit the group. And technically, I must sigh, he was right.

These teenagers brag about their grades, test scores, relationships and yes, their overall awesomeness. But I don’t think this is an entirely bad thing. It’s a challenge to belive in yourself. I admire that they can do that.

Above all else, high school ≠students are perhaps the world’s most incredibly resilient creatures. They have to be because they’re trying to learn how to function alone in the world.

Their parents, teachers and coaches let them make their own mistakes. High school is the time to learn that you can’t hide the weed under the mattress. You can’t memorize a semester’s worth of material in an hour — it takes at least two. You can’t score the winning basket with a hangover. Teenagers fail. Constantly.

And they learn how to handle it. They bounce back. It’s a skill that’s usually forgotten by college. When I don’t do well on a paper, I panic. I become frustrated and angry.

But taking a page from the high school book is teaching me to take it easy.

When one of the teenagers missed questions on a quiz recently, she shrugged it off and told the group that she’d just have to do better next time. Maybe this is naïve, but it’s also pretty refreshing. Get knocked down. Stand back up. Repeat.

As a camp counselor and youth group adviser, you’re supposed to impart endless wisdom and years’ worth of life lessons upon your campers.

And I’d like to think that, in both environments, I did some teaching of my own. But mostly, I was the student. Years ago, I figured out how to

have fun in life. Get dirty. Laugh hard. Run fast. Now I’m grasping such secrets to success as confidence, hardiness and humility.

Maybe they can put a price on a college education, but they can’t put a price on a high school one.

E-mail Carolyn your life lessons at [email protected].