I love YA!

My kids

It’s Valentine’s Day. Who do you love?

(Yeah, I know I’m supposed to use an objective case pronoun there, but Bo Diddley didn’t write it that way.)

It’s my policy to stay away from syrupy sweet romantic anecdotes that make readers say “yuck.” So instead, I’ll talk about another kind of love.

The other day my English students and I were reading from Luke, Chapter 15, the parable of the prodigal son . What? Reading from the Bible in a public school? Our literature book includes the parable, so we analyzed it for its layers of meaning.

I asked my students with whom they identified more. The wayward son who wanted his rewards, squandered them, and then crawled back for redemption? Or the faithful son who never physically strayed but whose heart blackened with jealousy and entitlement.

Only the father had it right—unconditional love. He loved both of his sons despite their flaws. He gave his gifts out of love, not out of obligation.

I love young adults. Whenever I go to conferences and hear speakers talk about the YA culture, I want to scream, “I get it! I live it! Every day! Don’t you understand? I can write. Publish me! Publish me!”

Stories rush through my head like an Ocoee River rapid. But I don’t want to write just any story. I want to write a story that reveals truth and love.

Teenagers don’t understand real love. Heck, a lot of adults don’t understand it.

Like it or not, we’re all selfish. Rarely do we give without expecting anything in return. Young girls, especially, fall prey to their own selfishness. They want acceptance. They want to be loved, so they do whatever it takes to get what they want in return.

I want to tell them, “You don’t need any other human to validate your worth.”

Real love isn’t selfish. Real love isn’t real love unless you give it away, no strings attached.

My students’ responses to the prodigal son question varied.

Some of them have made major mistakes in their lives. They identified with the prodigal.  Some of them have tried their best to follow every rule. They identified with the older brother.

When I asked the class how they would feel if I gave an A to a student who slacked all year while giving a B to the students who worked hard, they protested.

“So,” I said, “you think you’re entitled to an A just because you think you earned it? I’m the teacher. I make the rules. The grades are mine to give. Who are you to say who gets what? You don’t see the big picture.” Or more accurately, the other side of the picture.

I used to be just like the older brother, quick to judge, prideful. But through my bought with pride, God developed my empathy and allowed me to see with His eyes, the other side of the picture.

The students in my class room are like portraits in an art gallery. When the kids come into my room, they see the other portraits, but they don’t see what’s on the other side.

I work with a lot of good kids. I’m blessed to have them in class. But sometimes they can be really hard on the kids who aren’t as smart or well behaved as they are. But then they don’t see the other side of the portrait. The portrait may pretty or horrendous on the one side, but the other side of the picture reveals the truth behind what’s up front.

The other day I had a student come into class with a scowl. She dropped her books on her desk and gave me what I thought was a death stare. I wasn’t exactly having a good day either. My first inclination was to say, “What’s your problem?”

But I resisted the urge to make it about me. Instead I asked, “What’s wrong?” And I listened. I found out she had been in an accident that morning, and she was still scared to death. I’m so glad I wasn’t a jerk.

Good or bad, students may never know their classmate sleeps on a mattress on a concrete floor in a truck stop. They may never know their classmate’s parents were taken to jail the night before. They may never know their classmate was the academic  leader in an elementary school in another state before his parents got divorced. They may never know their classmate cuts herself because her mother tells her she’s fat.

When people hurt, they do whatever it takes to make the pain go away. Their portrait shows “the whatever it takes to survive.” But the cause of the pain is hidden on the backside of the frame.

I teach. I see more than most. The good. The bad. The ugly. I see the serious. I see the silly. Today I witnessed a wedding. One of my students performed the ceremony while the flower girl carried a can of Febreeze.

The YA crowd is an anomaly. They live in an adult world, but they still have the heart of a child—hence their moments of random goofiness.

When I write my stories, I want to make my readers laugh, to give them an escape from reality, but I also want to give them unconditional love. I want them to know no matter what there is love waiting for them.

Words are powerful. The greatest gift anyone can give me is honesty. I want to trust what people say. I think young adults want that too.

I want my readers to trust me, but I don’t want to come across as self righteous or condemning. To imply I don’t fail is a lie.

I found a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne in our literature book today. In case you don’t know, Hawthorne despised the judgmental attitudes of the Puritans, and his works reflect his disdain. Hawthorne said, “Those willing to resist society’s self-righteousness may achieve the humility necessary for genuine fellowship, but they will have trouble making themselves understood.”

I think young adults understand, more so, maybe, than jaded adults. Time hasn’t completely hardened their hearts—yet.

So I wish you a sincere Happy Valentine’s Day. Find someone who needs love and show it. We have the power—with our words—to make or break someone else’s day. May we use it wisely.