Sticky. Hot. Tired. Hungry. These are a few words to describe how we felt that July in New Orleans. The youth group was there on a mission trip. It was a wonderful group of young people and a wonderful experience, but fatigue had finally set in late in the week and I could sense it in everyone's disposition. I suspect my charm was wearing thin on them, too. Some of the young people complained about our project assignments. The youth didn't connect with the speaker we heard that evening. Some of the group wanted to go out dancing while others wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep. Finally, the meltdown began. Over pizza, of all things. Specifically, over whether we were going to eat in at a local restaurant or order delivery from a chain.
Words were said, nostrils were flared, glances were shot, and characters were assassinated. I'd like to go on record here and say that, as a professional, I am above such behavior-but I'd be lying! This was bigger than the Civil War or the Cold War. You were either a Papa John's person or a Pi person and we were willing to let the streets of New Orleans run red with tomato sauce to prove it.
When we regained our composure and cooled down we talked about it. I recalled an experience from earlier in the week and asked the youth: "What kind of pizza would a family living in a FEMA trailer fight over?" It put things into perspective real quick. We talked about the devastation we had witnessed and the desperate straits people were in during this reconstruction period. Yet it was so easy to slip back into our comfortable lifestyle and consumer mindset. In a lot of ways, this late-night impromptu rap session was more substantive than a lot of our "official" learning sessions that week.
Experiences like these have helped me make a big shift over the years in how I work with youth. When I was younger I used to compartmentalize the time I spent with youth according to my priorities. Things like pickups and drop-offs, snacks, and recreation time were to be endured on the way to real important stuff, like me sharing my accumulated wisdom and teaching.
Well, I still think teaching is important. I just don't confine it to one particular part of my program anymore. Young people are learning all the time, from the moment they walk in the front door. They learn about good relationships when nice volunteers greet them and inquire about their well-being. They learn about themselves when they receive a specific complement when they're volunteering. They learn during spontaneous conversations that arise during snacks or making a craft. Sometimes the best learning experiences come about because something went wrong (ala New Orleans) and we talk about it.
There are many good books with object lessons, but I think there are many potential object lessons in our everyday lives if we take the time to look.
Ian Eastman, M.A., is a community educator with Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups.