I am always looking for inspiration on how to be healthy, strategies for self-care, acceptance and love. Maybe it is an article in an academic journal, a column in a magazine, a commercial or just a simple conversation with a colleague. However, true to just about everything else in life, when you stop looking for something, it smacks you right in the face! This is exactly what happened yesterday when I hesitantly used a vacation day at work to spend an entire day with five junior high students, one being my son, on a neighborhood field study. The concept for the day was to visit all of the places they have studied over the last few weeks about one neighborhood in our beautiful city of Cincinnati. We set out with a well executed itinerary which included addresses, locations to visits, people to interview and even a local restaurant to enjoy lunch. We knew what we needed to learn for the day. I was ready! They were ready!
What I was not ready for were the spontaneous conversations and lessons learned from this diverse group of students. I started the day thinking that I would be teaching them a bit of the history that I know about our city. By the end of the day, I realized, I was not the teacher, or even the “unpaid Uber driver” as they called me. I was the student.
Lessons learned from five teenagers:
- Be yourself! I gave them the permission to be themselves at the beginning of the day. The true gift for me was that they gave me the permission to be myself as well. They never judged me when I sang bits of 90’s songs, in fact they sang along if they knew the lyrics. They did not judge my tattoos, they like the one on my arm. They did not judge my dirty, lived in and loved car, they appreciated that they were safe and allowed to eat in the car while I drove them from point A to B and many times adding C and D in there because we were laughing and talking and missed our stop.
- Talk about the difficult subjects in life. They listen! We were driving to what one student thought was a treatment facility for addiction, however what we found was a halfway house for sexual offenders. Many of them sitting on the steps of the house. One glance and we all agreed this was not a place to visit inside. So, I found a safe place to park and we listened to research one student had prepared for this stop. She struggled with a few of the words she was not familiar with, such as opioids, narcotics and naloxone. This was my chance to be the teacher, right? Being a nurse and the cousin of a heroine addict who overdosed five years ago, I felt ready to take on this subject. I gave facts. In return, I received truth. They all knew someone who used drugs. They told their stories. They told me why this was not the path they were choosing. They told me about family members with mental illnesses whom they loved, despite the issues it caused in their families. They allowed me into their world and we had an awesome discussion about the world we live in.
- Take risks! We walked into creepy buildings, talked to strangers, ate new things and made more U-turns than any one person should make in their entire life time! And, it was all good! We told personal stories and no one judged. We made fun of each other, and all laughed!
- Communicate the way they do. We created a group chat and shared pictures and thoughts. Even into the evening, after the school day was over, I was receiving little messages about the day and little diner, Pleasant Ridge Chili, where we ate lunch and how “bomb”, “dope” and “on-point” the food was! Just by meeting them in their comfort-zone, they let me in with open arms.
- Diversity is a beautiful, multi-colored, multi-gendered, socio-economic melting pot that made this day more than I had ever imagined. They each had stories about their families, their religion, how good greens and cornbread really is and how one girl has a dog that is gay! Don’t ask how she figured this out! They liked that I was a 40-year-old white woman who grew up in the 90’s because I taught them what a juke box was at the diner, how MADD (mothers against drunk driving) started and all the things you can do with a nursing degree. In return, I learned about weave, family reunions in the black culture and many other personal, private stories. Diversity is gorgeous when you have a chance to see it up close and personal.
If you ever get the privilege to spend a day away from work with an amazing group of teens, jump on the opportunity. Just be ready to be the student, not the teacher!