House in the Woods. Saturday after lunch. Sitting on the porch of the activity building, looking out at a lovely blue lake surrounded by trees not quite ready to give up their green, listening to the teens on retreat. Julia is one of those teens.
I am at the first of two retreats for the Coming of Age class that is the capstone experience of religious education at First Unitarian. Julia has gone through the RE program since she was seven, usually with an inclusion buddy to keep her in the classroom, on task and/or from disrupting the class. Last year, she attended without a buddy and at times needed extra direction and once needed to leave the class. The Coming of Age class is intense and demanding. Teens explore and experience hard issues together. They grow their own community—usually that bunch of great kids that parents want their kids to be a part of. Children become thoughtful young men and women. In the spring, the class designs a church service during which each teen delivers a “This I Believe” statement.
Even last Spring when I signed her up for it, I wondered if Julia could do it. I worried if I should I ask that she do it as a high school junior instead of a freshman, if her class would accept her, and if she had the maturity to benefit from the discussions and explorations. I knew that if the class could be successful for Julia, it would take more than kind and giving adult facilitators. It would depend on the teens to care for and guide Julia in addition to taking good care of themselves. Was that too much to expect from high school freshmen? Would including Julia diminish the experience for some or all of the other teens?
Two of the most demanding experiences are the COA retreats when the teens spend a weekend together with their facilitators at a camp. The director of RE and I decided that I would attend the retreats. I could intervene if Julia needed more than the gentle redirection by the facilitators. I could keep my eye on her if she “wandered” to far from any given exercise or discussion. We have been at the camp grounds since last night and many, if not all, of my worries are disappearing. A huge part of what is making this weekend work is the class of teens that has been together, some since they were little. These teens have, to some extend, grown up with Julia in their classes. They know her, are not afraid of her, and can communicate with her. As we adults have been figuring out ways to make the class accessible to Julia with buddies and teachers and facilitators, the kids, now teens, have been figuring out how to be in class, be in their world with Julia. Given a chance and lots of good modeling, they are doing a good job. Julia is part of their community. They are doing much of the re-direction, inclusion, gentle reprimands when she goes too far. And wants their approval, listens to their direction probably giving it much more weight than if I said the same words.
As for me. I’ve done a few very small tasks to help with the beginnings of the retreat but for the most part I have found a corner of an enclosed porch and a garden chair facing the lake. I am reading and writing. Food is not bad at all and the company—facilitators and teens—is delightfully stimulating.
Sunday update: I drove three of the boys back to Madison. Julia wanted to ride with some of the girls (how cool is that!!). I was a fly on the wall, or a driver in the front seat, as they talked about school, politics and video games. They even directed a few questions to me. It was a pleasure and a privilege getting to know some of our male teens! Bravo to wonderful parents raising these kids.