While in Arkansas two weeks ago for a summer mission trip, I met a 13 year old boy named Richie, someone the local principal had deemed “white trash”. In addition to knowing the label he’d been given, before ever meeting Richie, I was also warned that he had been problematic throughout the summer, often striking out against people at the Sportscamp we were helping to facilitate and seldom engaging in the given activity, instead choosing to distract people and cause trouble.
Richie showed up to our first day of Sportscamp late. He immediately grabbed another kid, Joshua, and a bunch of equipment and started running around with it, swinging at people with the hockey stick and just generally wreaking havoc. Yet, that day, while on a water break, Richie connected with one of my high school seniors. Richie sat with her for 45 minutes discussing cars, something this poor girl knew nothing about.
Tuesday, Richie strolled in, late again. This time, his sidekick, Joshua, was absent so he grabbed a replacement sidekick and together, they ran screaming into the hallway. After several of my students tried valiantly to get them to join us for a rousing game of street hockey, I followed the horrific sounds coming from the hallway piano and discovered both kids banging its keys with all their might.
Choosing to see this as an interest in music, I asked if they wanted to learn a song. Much to my surprise, both agreed and so I spent the next half hour teaching them the duet, “Heart and Soul”. When Richie successfully played his part of the song to me, I praised him and was utterly amazed at the look of pride that flashed across his face.
As we continued to play the piano, I asked Richie where Joshua was. He responded, “At basketball practice.”
Sensing there was more to this story, I asked Richie why he also wasn’t at basketball practice. He replied, “I love basketball more than any other sport. But I’m the bad kid and they won’t let me in no more.”
With that, my heart broke.
Later, Richie and I built some warships out of Legos and as we did, I asked him about his family. I learned he lived with his dad, who seldom payed attention to him and his sister, who was about to move into her own apartment. When I asked where his mom was, he said, “I don’t know. She just took off one day. We’ve never seen her since.”
With that, what was left of my heart broke.
And suddenly, Richie’s behavior began to make sense to me.
Left without a mama, Richie had been repeatedly labeled “white trash” and the “bad kid”. With no one to contradict this negative labeling, Richie chose instead to believe those labels, which began to define him. My guess is that slowly but surely, he altered his behavior until it matched that of a “bad kid”. Richie became the person the adults in his life told him he was.
Unfortunately, such is the case with today’s youth: They become who we say they are. That’s why it’s so important for youth to have adults walk alongside them, encouraging, affirming, and positively labeling them, just as Christ did with his apostles.
Peter’s the apostle that I’d argue was perhaps the biggest dimwit of them all. He was arrogant, pushy, stubborn, and way too talkative. Long before he did anything to deserve recognition or fame, Jesus positively labeled Peter the “rock,” saying that it would be on this rock that he’d build his church (Matthew 16:18). At the time he said this, Jesus had seen little evidence to support calling Peter the rock. Yet, Jesus saw his potential and spoke that into him until Peter finally believed it, truly becoming the rock of the early church.
Just as Jesus did with Peter, as a youth worker, one of my primary functions is to speak potential into the lives of my kids; To label all kids positively, in a way that focuses on their potential rather than simply on their past behavior.
After all, if youth become who we say they are, then I want to make sure that I’m telling them they are someone created in God’s image and LOVED by God.
I only wish someone would have told Richie that. How different his life might be if that were the case.