The story ends with an alpaca wool sweater, a $50 bribe and a cream pie coming toward my face.
But like stories do, this one starts at the beginning. Or maybe in the middle, during the years of exquisite angst when having the right friends means everything and having the wrong clothes means everything. The years when you’re not a kid, not an adult, and not sure of yourself.
Oh that younger version of me. I wish I could tell her everything would be ok. That sitting alone at lunch would help her see people. That beauty is an inside job. That she’d meet her Prince Charming. That not one single employer would care about the perfect GPA she was so stressed about maintaining.
That she’d have a second chance at being in with the teenage crowd.
Which brings us pretty close to the present. Every week I have a dozen pairs of eyes looking to me for help navigating life and boys and the Bible – sometimes all in the same 30 seconds. Now high school upperclassmen, the girls and I have been together since 7th grade in a weekly “d-group,” our churchy-hip term for discipleship group. They’ve grown up with me. I’ve grown up with them. They are thoughtful and hilarious and servant-hearted.
Their parents say things like, “thanks for pouring into their lives” not knowing the secret I know: It’s the girls who pour into mine.
One of the moms commented a few weeks ago that I could pull off being a discipleship leader because I was the “cool mom.” I only half-suppressed my laughter. There is no irony font big enough. The identity-cracked, uncool adolescent kid who wore last year’s clothes and bad home perms was in with the teenage crowd 30 years after she wanted to be.
After all these years – cool? If it’s true, it’s the embodiment of better late than never. But my greater hunch is that it’s just time in. It’s just showing up in their lives. It’s answering texts at 1 a.m. It’s editing papers and going to high school plays and volleyball games. It’s discipleship dressed as coffee dates. It’s having the Starbucks gift card stolen from me at the white elephant gift exchange. Every. Single. Christmas.
That kind of stuff doesn’t require cool. It just requires time.
Oh, you learn the cool language. You get woke to what’s cringey and you find out who’s fam (hint, it’s not family). Even “cool” itself sounds like a step-up plan, beginning with cool, and advancing to lit, dope, and sick.
And dating. Did you know how complicated dating has become? When I was their age, a boy just asked a girl to go with him and the hand-holding commenced under the disco ball during the free skate. Now, it starts with “we’re talking,” then you’re “a thing,” then you’re “official” and then social media cements it. But even that has a hierarchy; Snapchat first, then Instagram
But back to last weekend. Every year, our students board charter buses and climb 6,000 feet from Phoenix’s cactus-studded desert floor to the cool pines and mountain air in northern Arizona. It is literally a mountaintop experience. There’s teaching and worship and games that are messy.
That last detail is germane.
At our early-morning staff meeting on Sunday, the games coordinator asked cabin leaders to volunteer students for that evening’s games. My cabin co-leaders and I quickly conferenced and landed on Courtney Weidemann. This young lady is where poise and beauty meet grit and athleticism. She can handle herself on stage leading worship, and so I figured she’d handle herself on stage during a competitive and possibly gross game.
After a full day of worship and teaching and free time and food, the moment of truth arrives. Courtney and the others are called to the front. I hug her and tell her it will be fun.
As I’m saying sorry/not sorry for submitting her name, the games maker shows he is in the service of President Snow. “Oh, and students,” he says wryly, “Please bring your leaders to the stage with you.”
The next few minutes are pretty much a blur. The game is a mashup of musical chairs and hot potato – only the hot potato is a cream pie and when the music stops, the student holding the cream pie has to smash it into their own face or smash it into their leader’s face. I may have blurted out a $50 bribe to one of my cabin leaders. She can’t hear me because 300 high schoolers are going bananas over what they’re about to see.
I’ve known Courtney since she was 4. I’ve asked her to call me Laurie, but she can’t do it. I will always be Mrs. Davies to her. I think on her graduation day and her wedding day she will call me Mrs. Davies.
And she did not even hesitate to smash that pie into my face.
To be completely fair, I leaned down before the music began and whispered, “You know you have to pie me.” I thought it was a formality. I thought I’d be MRS. DAVIES. The music stopped, I heard my own teenage son and his friends yelling for her to smash the pie into my face. And everything went white.
I was wearing the most expensive sweater I own. It’s alpaca wool. It was a snug choice. It was a smug choice. As I ran back to my cabin to wash my hair – with a layer of whipped cream clinging to my sweater’s alpaca fibers – I mentally ran down the list of what I had learned at camp:
The very word adolescence hints at what they need from us. The word comes from the Latin adolescere, or “to grow up” and the root of that originates from alere, or “nourish.”
Cool or not cool – wool or no wool – they just need adults who will nourish them. They need adults who will be there, point them to true north, and remind them everything will be ok.
They need adults who care more about hearts pierced by Jesus than eyebrows pierced by rings.
Sunday night late in our cabin, one of the girls discussed a really vulnerable, tender burden she’d been carrying. It was a special moment to see the other girls’ responses. They physically could not get to her fast enough. One of them just started praying. No one wondered what to do. No one waited for a leader.
If the cost of entry into that sacred space is a cream pie in the face and a trip to the dry cleaner’s, then 100 times out of 100 I’ll pay it. If gaining a young person’s trust – and being a voice that helps strip away shame or insecurity – results in my ubiquitous post-camp cold, then pass the tissues, please.
Today’s young people are amazing – and they’re juggling more than my generation ever did. They have grown up in a post-9/11 world where terrorism and school shootings and sex abuse allegations challenge their hopes for safety. On a more micro level, they are maintaining schoolwork, managing social identities, playing year-round sports and navigating college scholarship pressures, all while holding down jobs and carving five minutes of social life on the weekends.
They are bold and kind and trying to make sense of a world that’s pretty confusing. They genuinely want to discover how the Bible applies to their lives.
Instead of a chorus of adults who say they stare at their phones too much, they need adults who will unpack the reasons why: Their fears that life is passing them by. Their panic that they’ll never measure up to unrealistic expectations of body image and happiness. Their dread that the mistake they made today will dog them on social media for all the tomorrows.
They need voices that say: “I am so proud of you,” and “You can hold your head high at school tomorrow,” and “You are beautiful – really, I mean it, you are beautiful – in exactly the body you’ve got.”
They need us.
Oh, and about that pie in the face thing? It was the best moment of my son’s life. In my d-group, it will be another story to add to our pile of stories. And as for my friend Courtney? Her aim is pretty sick.
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