Greta Lutman, LPC, LCAS
Primary Therapist (Girls Group)
Second Nature Blue Ridge
On a Saturday not long ago, I went with my husband to an old-school barbershop in a small town west of Asheville. Beside us was a young father and his four-year old son. The boy was exploring a box of toy fire trucks and wreckers and cars. Pretty soon, my husband and the boy’s dad were both called to the barber chairs and I was left in the waiting area with him. He was playing with the toys and every now and then we would talk about this truck or that, and he proudly announced that his dad was taking him fishing later that day. If I could tell by looking and by his interactions with his son, I would say the boy’s father was a traditional, small-town dad, raising his child to enjoy typical country activities like hunting, camping and fishing.
At one point, while I was working on a project on my phone, he looked up at me and smiled and said, “You worry too much.” I looked at him, curious, and said, “How do you know that?” and he said, “I can just tell.” In his world, growing up in the country, maybe looking at a smartphone means you are worrying. Or maybe he could see something in me that gave it away, and he was right. He could just tell.
When I think about that lovely, tender-hearted child in the barber shop, I find myself thinking about all of our youth, and how, more often than not, my students in the woods have this kind of innocence and purity. And while this innocence is often obscured by the speed of technology and relentless access to the darker parts of our culture, it does not take long in the wilderness for those hazy layers to fall away.
Too often I hear people talk about teenagers as entitled, lazy, superficial and materialistic. Many adults perceive that teenagers don’t care about anything important and are focused only on themselves. These are the kinds of kids you might expect to find in the wilderness. They must be really troubled, stubborn, or lacking empathy; “bad kids,” what do you expect? But this is almost never true. The kids that come to the woods tend to be the most sensitive, the most readily hurt, the most easily lost, and the most thoroughly obscured. After just a few days in the wilderness, in the simplicity of living in a small community of caring individuals, a student’s natural sense of concern and empathy arises.
My students teach me everyday what love is. They teach me about acceptance. They do not care about race, religion, looks, gender identity, sexuality, or any other personal characteristic that, in the past (and sadly, in some communities still today), might have been used to divide them. For example, I recently had a transgendered student in my group. When I slipped and used the wrong gender pronoun, the rest of the students respectfully corrected me. “Greta, he is a boy, and his name is __________.” What I find remarkable about this is that they did not say, “He is transgendered,” they said, “he is a boy.” To them, it is was not a strange phenomenon that a student would say that he was the opposite gender than the one into which he/she was born. He is a boy because he says he is, and that is enough for them. There may be therapeutic issues to look into with regards to identity, but for these young people, they barely see these differences any more. Students are much quicker to react to a peer that is acting rude or inconsiderate than to one who may simply be different.
Parents are often worried about whether their teenager knows the difference between right and wrong, whether they have empathy, and, at the extreme, if they have a conscience. As parents, this is our worst fear, isn’t it? By the time they are in the wilderness it may have been years since their last genuine display of regret for anything. It is a common concern.
But when they read impact letters to their group, students often show real emotion, vulnerability, tears, and even shame. It is so clear that they feel regret about many of the things they have done, but I often ask just to see what they say. “Do you feel remorse about these things in your past?” And they almost always admit that they do. Then, “Why didn’t you show any of that remorse to your parents?” Nearly every time, the answer is, “If I showed my parents my shame, they would know something was wrong. They would know that I was in trouble, and they would have sent me away!” Of course, sitting under a big blue tarp during a rainstorm with nine other teenagers and five staff, the irony is not lost.
Surprisingly, it is not when they read the stories of the worst things they have done that they become emotional…they have heard these stories many times before. They are not shocked. What is more likely to draw out these raw emotions is when you speak of tender memories of your teen; the time you swam with dolphins, how good your son is with younger children, how your daughter left a sweet note under your pillow that time. Just as these are bittersweet memories for you, they are painful for your son or daughter too. Despite their involvement in troubling situations, at the core, they miss their innocence too. They miss those good times. They are afraid they cannot get back to that innocence, so if they think that their peers and staff can help them restore relationships with you and with a truer part of themselves, they begin to accept help.
Your teenager is still the same interesting, brave, thoughtful, caring, giving, generous, humorous, sensitive, hilarious child he or she always was, even if it has been years since you have seen those qualities. There is work to do, there are amends to make, and there are bumps in the road ahead, for you, your family and your child. But as your teenager sits in a circle with others around a fire, trying to reconnect with the truth of who they are, maybe you can trust that some of those obscuring layers will fall into the earth, which is always ready to absorb them. Perhaps when they leave the woods, they will be able to keep alive the sense of wonder and gratitude that has awakened in their hearts, so that they can bring these gifts to others who are suffering. And maybe they will be at the forefront of their generation’s ability to see people as people, and bring kindness to a world that so clearly needs it.