The fatherless generation embraces pain to escape the anguish of a missing father. They believe and live the lies of rejection until the lie becomes the truth. Like Legion, they isolate themselves to escape the pain through drugs or self-injury – sometimes even suicide. They have forgotten their own names and have become hell-bent on destroying themselves. And they are crying out for help.
As a teacher, I see hurting teens walk through my door daily. All of them have a story – and it takes months for them to believe I mean it when I tell them their story can change the world. Sit awhile and listen to them and you’ll find one common thread behind their tears: the ones who deal with the worst – the drugs, the cutting, the coping mechanisms built into their psyche – these are the ones without a father and they are aching to be known.
I met Emmaleona my second year of teaching. I still remember the way the felt tip marker bumped along her fresh scars as I wrote love in big bold letters across her arm so she could remember. You’re worth fighting for I said and she smiled through tears. Later, I stood before the counselor and fought my own tears when she told me to treat her with discipline, not sympathy. I felt the righteous anger rise up within me as she shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes and said, “they’re just out for attention, Elora. It’s simple. Don’t let her use the restroom. Don’t talk about the cutting. And please, don’t make her think she can find a sympathetic ear with you – it’s the last thing someone like her needs.”
I wrestled then and I wrestle now. Of course these students are looking for attention. It’s because no one else will listen. The following year, I implemented the line game with my students. The premise was simple: I ask a question and students who have done it step to the line. I start with small things – a movie release, a new album, a big event. Once they’re comfortable, I throw out bigger questions: “Step up to the line if you’ve smoked weed. Step up to the line if you’ve woken up and not remembered the night before. Step up to the line if a teacher has ever called you stupid.”
It was through this game one of my students realized she didn’t believe in herself. Crying, she looked at me with desperate eyes. “I’m sixteen, Mrs. Ramirez. How did it take this long for me to realize I don’t believe I can achieve my dreams?” Her tears left wet stains on my shirt and I didn’t even hesitate in saying, “Well, regardless of what you think, I believe in you.” She stepped away from me then and wiped her cheeks clean. Sniffing, she looked at me and tilted her head, “you know something…that’s the first time anyone has ever said that to me.”
Later that day, sitting at my desk and laughing at the discussion after a class’ shot at the line game, another student turned and looked at me. With serious eyes he asked, “do you think you could get every teacher to do this?”
“What, so you could have a free period of talking to your friends?” I joked.
He shook his head and raised an eyebrow, “Mrs. Ramirez, all we want is someone to listen. You listen. You’re the only teacher who ever does.”
I’m not sharing these vignettes because I believe I’ve found the secret ingredient pertinent to healing. There are still plenty of situations where I’m lost with the brokenness of this generation – like the student who visited me last semester and confessed his desire to commit suicide. Hyped up on drugs, lost in the gang lifestyle, he sat next to me and fought the tears. I was exhausted and wanted to run from his pain. It was too much – too raw. Just six months prior he was thriving in school – AP classes, top of his game. He received a scholarship to a local college and was anxious to get out of the house. When the tears finally began pooling in my own eyes as I begged him not to end his life, he gave me a weak smile and said, “You should sing You are my Sunshine. It always makes me happy” and then he turned around and walked away.
Daily, I’m faced with the stories of teens who fight for survival from their pain. Numb, so many of them inflict trauma just so they can feel. No one else makes them feel alive – in fact they feel rather invisible to the world – so they overdose on ecstasy or close their eyes while sleeping with the one who gives them a second glance or hide their sadness with rebellion set deep in their bones. You see the isolation in their refusal to believe the truth: their stories matter and there is Someone who loves them.
But keep listening. Keep pushing back. Keep smiling and keep looking them in the eye. One of these days they’ll break. You can’t keep listening to lies when Truth is staring you in the face.