When Back to School is Difficult

Spiritual Reflections

There’s enough twaddle, half-heartedness and inaccuracy in today’s climate of hate and exclusiveness. Our young people are needing us to step up and be present in their lives. Young people who identify as LGBTQ need us. Children of LGBTQ families need us. And, with the beginning of a new school year, these young people need each of us.

A mother described the night before her 14-year-old daughter’s first day of a new school year. As they sat in the floor by the girl’s bed, the mother cradled her daughter who described her fears and last year’s experiences of being bullied. They discussed each episode again and tried to process each emotion even as they also remembered how they had worked all summer to develop some skills for her to use when bullies approached her. They had now informed the school counselors, principals, teachers and the office staff. Each school employee, and even some leaders of the Parent Teacher Organization had been extremely sensitive and caring. So, the hope was that this year would offer better moments. Yet, through moist eyes, on the night before a new school year began, the honest 14-year-old still said, “But, I’m so weird; sometimes I just cry, and I don’t know why.”

The beginning of a new school year brings all kinds of opportunities. Yet, some of these opportunities are loaded with joy or dread, disappointment or triumph, excitement or angst, distress or delight. Of course, readers are aware of the challenges which can accompany “coming out” to relatives or friends. This heaviness happens each and every year in almost every school across the country. Yet, many other challenges are similar in the degree of stress which can emerge and be present in the lives of children and adolescents.

What can you do to be helpful to children, adolescents, parents, teachers, administrators and others who find the return to school to be difficult? Here are a few options. Hopefully, they will stir additional initiatives within you.

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First, open yourself to learn about compassion. It is worth noting that the ancient Hebrew word for “compassion” or “mercy” (rachamim) derives from the word “womb” (rechem). To be compassionate is to make space in our lives to be intimately connected with another person so new life can begin. As you open yourself to learn about compassion and seek to be compassionate, you become a life-giver in a world waffling between brutality and banality.

Second, let them know you care. Tell them you are thinking about them. If you are a praying person, let them know you are praying for them — and then — actually pray for them. Send emails or hand-written notes during the first few weeks of school to assure them that you care about them. Every small act of care-fullness has more than a small impact and sends ripples of care into the world.

Third, listen for angst in the children and adolescents in your life. Young people are like adults; they voice their needs in human languages which can be puzzling. They can become extremely critical of everyone and everything around them. They can plunge into extra activities to refuse dealing with difficult challenges. They can turn their backs on friends and family. They can insulate or isolate themselves behind headphones or with digital devices or screens. They can surround themselves with odd emotional outbursts of laughter or anger. Often, adolescents communicate in indirect ways. Yet, these changes in personal expressions should not be merely accepted as natural. Listen for angst which is often communicated through disguised or distorted behavioral languages. When you become aware of distress, consider that the child or adolescent is actually wanting help, direction and understanding but doesn’t know how to ask directly.

Fourth, advocate on behalf of those who are bullied. And, teach those children and youth in your sphere of influence why bullying is victimization and evil. Every person — young or not young — is unique. Each person has needs, interests and potentialities which are unmatched in anyone else. Although you may know several individuals who are afraid or gregarious or obsessive or have trouble setting boundaries or are dishonest, each person is unique in the ways they process and express their individuation. Each of these individuals need you to step up and be their advocate. Every child and adolescent needs you to help them in their context of understanding. Acceptance is crucial. If you have ever been afraid, bullied, pushed outside a group, isolated by friends or strangers, you know the pain which can cut deep and leave scars. And, each context needs you to be an advocate for improved inclusiveness, acceptance and understanding.

A good friend of mine, James Kevin Gray, has composed a song entitled, “Safe Place,” which is being picked up by soloists and choirs across the country. I offer the words to you here. It was written for a young friend of ours who experienced bullying during his middle school and high school years. My hope is these words help you develop a framework of meaning as you serve as a compassionate presence in this new school year.

When I was a child, my mom would hold me close,
She whispered to me that I’m what she loved most.
But waves came crashing in the year I turned thirteen,
The world I loved so much became a place of suffering.

And I want to run from here. I want to run. I want to run.
But I don’t know which way to turn; I don’t know how.
If I could spread my wings and fly from here — take to the sky;
Won’t you help me, if you can, find a safe place to be myself?

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Day after day, as soon as the bell would ring — scared — and all alone
The hallways screamed my name
I wish I had a friend that understood my pain.
I wish that they could see the hurt that haunts my brain.

And I want to run from here. And I want to run from here, but
I don’t know which way to turn; I don’t know how.
If I could spread my wings and fly from here — take to the sky;
Won’t you help me, if you can, find a safe place to be myself?

I AM WITH YOU. You are not alone.
I AM WITH YOU. You are not alone.
I AM WITH YOU. You are not alone.
And I will run to you because you gave me my wings to fly.
You took me from a world of all alone.
You helped me find a space, a safe place to be myself.

There’s enough twaddle, half-heartedness and inaccuracy in today’s climate of hate and exclusiveness. Our young people are needing us to step up and be present in their lives. Young people who identify as LGBTQ need us. Children of LGBTQ families need us. And, with the beginning of a new school year, these young people need each of us. Hillel the Elder’s maxim is always true:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?”

Rev. Dennis W. Foust, Ph.D. is senior minister at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.

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