24: Taught by Teens

24: Taught by Teens

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

Taught by Teens

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

~Eleanor Roosevelt

The group of teenagers led the way through the heavy iron gates onto the campus surrounded by cement walls. We were in Kingston, Jamaica, a city fraught with danger, but the teens laughed and joked, secure and unafraid. I was worried. It wasn’t the setting, however, but the new experiences I would face inside the safety of the campus walls that caused my anxiety.

As a child, I had lived in a prison of fear. Like a host of my friends, I was afraid of bugs and spiders, but I was also afraid of places too dark and too high, spaces too close, and spaces too open. Mostly, I was afraid of people. What did they think of me? Would they laugh if they knew what I thought? Would they like me?

With adulthood came maturity. I realized I was bigger than insects. I rode the fastest, highest roller coaster at Cedar Point to prove my fear of heights had vanished. Just once, mind you, but I did it. I joined Toastmasters International to conquer my fear of public speaking. Self-help books and friendly counsel helped me put aside other fears, but still, I spent too much time in hiding.

Then I volunteered to chaperone teenagers on a work team to Jamaica. For one week, we would work on this campus for deaf children. Most of the deaf students had left for summer break, but five teen boys remained.

As the gates locked behind us, the teens ran to meet the deaf students. They quickly discovered that basketball was a universal language. By evening curfew, impromptu lessons in sign language had planted the seeds of friendship. I watched the play from the safety of an open-sided, tin-roofed pavilion, wanting to join the fun, but too afraid of failure to try conversing with the deaf students — especially in front of an audience.

We spent our days painting, welding, installing a water storage unit, and pouring a cement roof. We worked hard, but our youth group wasn’t afraid to try new skills or laugh at their mistakes. Following their initiative, I took a deep breath and climbed the scaffolding to join the bucket brigade manually passing cement to pour the new roof.

Each evening, sweat ran down our dusty, paint-splotched bodies, making everybody race to the showers. Once again I retreated. The other women and girls didn’t mind the open locker room. They giggled and shared stories, but I dressed behind the shower curtain, longing for their freedom yet unwilling to be seen.

One afternoon, we visited a home for severely handicapped children. As our teens engaged wholeheartedly in this new adventure, I watched from the shadows. One of them, a macho, brawny football star, squatted in the dust and blew bubbles with a little girl, unashamed of the teardrop sliding down his face. His actions gave me courage. I cast my fears aside, picked up a crippled child, and danced a Ring Around the Rosie jig.

By week’s end, I leaned new skills, tried new foods, and learned simple phrases in sign language. I let the girls braid my hair and laughed with them at the results.

On our last evening, we gathered in the pavilion to share what the week had meant to us and the lessons we had learned. I knew my turn was coming. Rubbing my cold, clammy hands against my skirt, I thought, “Maybe if I go to the restroom and then sit with those who have already spoken, no one will notice.”

All week long, the teens showed me how to put aside my fears and live. They inspired me to laugh at mistakes and learn. I realized that if I didn’t speak they would never know how much they had taught me. The person beside me sat down. I stood up and faced the group.

“I came to chaperone you. Instead, you have taught me….”

Today, I have overcome almost all my fears and I gain more independence every year. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but I am not finished learning; there is always room for personal growth. Maybe I should chaperone another work team of teenagers.

~Rhonda K. Maller

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