Kermit T. Frog famously sings that it ain’t easy bein’ green.
It ain’t easy bein’ a teen, either.
When I entered seventh grade, not only did I enter junior high but I left behind all the friends I’d made over six years. While the bulk of them moved up the rung of the public system, my parents decided to put me into a private school. Over the course of four years or so, the population in our town had exploded, but the schools hadn’t kept up. The one small junior high was forced to have double shifts that year, and my parents didn’t want me to have to deal with that.
The night before I entered the academy, I was a nervous wreck. Would anyone like me? Was the outfit I had picked out good enough? What about my crooked teeth; would people make fun of me? Would I make any friends? Would I be able to find my locker and work the combination? Would I get hungry before lunch?
I lay in my bed, tears pooling on the pillow. Entering this new school was going to take an act of supreme bravery. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to do it.
At what point the worries turned into a prayer, I don’t know. This was the first moment in which I can recall reaching out to God with any kind of intense longing. I’m certain that my prayer didn’t make any sense. I probably asked Him to make sure I didn’t have any zits the next morning. (What girl wouldn’t?)
To my astonishment, He spoke to me. I didn’t hear an audible voice. I didn’t see a burning bush. There was no angel bearing a scroll of instruction. My mind simply rang with His precious whispers of assurance. My heart swelled with His love. I was comforted. I knew He was with me and that, somehow, He would provide me with the courage I needed to begin the awkward transition from child to adult. I slept peacefully that night, clutching the two stuffed dogs I’d had since babyhood. It would be all right.
And, it was, in many ways.
I did make friends, but, of course, those relationships were not without the attendant drama of the teen years. Braces were eventually slapped on my teeth. I played basketball and wrote outlandish stories. Slowly (very, very slowly) I developed a sense of style – if flannel shirts and baggy jeans can be called style. This was the “grunge” period, after all. In the beginning, I had excellent teachers and good, weekly chapel services. I was being challenged to learn and loved it.
That first year at the academy, two highly significant events took place, events that continue to impact me today. First, I was not invited to a party. I was the only one in the entire grade not invited to a party. Only my locker was empty of the invitation that had been taped to all the others. The knowledge of being publicly excluded instilled a deep sense of shame. I had not had any real issues with identity until then. Why was I not good enough?
Second, I got very sick with what seemed to be a bad flu and missed a week of school. One morning I even fainted – twice. This was the start of 15 years (and counting) of brain scans, heart monitors, blood tests and countless rounds of antibiotics. If not being invited to the party didn’t confirm that I was an outcast, being the “freak” who started to feel sick all the time did.
I wanted desperately to fit in. Jesus had been my lifeline during those first difficult months of adjustment, but I began to notice that most of the kids in my class weren’t particularly interested in the things of God. I didn’t want to walk away from what I knew to be true, but I also didn’t want to walk alone. It never occurred to me at that time that I never was alone. Never underestimate the power of peers.
The other thing I began to notice was the hypocrisy of those who ran the school. During my freshman year a revival swept through the student population. This truly was a move of the Spirit, as waves of people would come forward for prayer during chapel services. Kids in my class, kids I knew had wanted nothing to do with God, felt the pull on their hearts and cried out to Him. There was no dancing in the aisles, no swinging from chandeliers. Just simple, heartfelt repentance.
Since the academy was sponsored by the church, it was natural for the weekly evening youth group meeting to explode at this time. Everyone was hungry. I was hungry. One evening the youth pastor began to lead the worship team and we ended up singing song after song for close to three hours. It was beautiful.
Then, the school crushed the movement. Teachers demanded that chapel remain within a half-hour format. Anyone who showed up late to class, even if he or she had been praying with another teacher, was punished. The youth pastor who led the chapel services was asked to do his job for free. Since he obviously couldn’t with a family to take care of, he left. The music that had drawn us to give glory to God was replaced with tunes from the kids’ chapel service. We were told not to hold hands with the opposite sex in prayer or praise.
I don’t know what their motives were. I don’t know if someone had complained. What I do know is that I and many others were crushed. Our enthusiasm seemed to be offensive to the older generation. What if God didn’t like us, either?
It was all too easy to become cynical. I watched as the academy deteriorated, one principal after another unable to provide the kind of leadership needed. I also watched as the congregation we had at last settled in as a family forced the pastor out of the pulpit. My heart grew bitter. Adults seemed so stupid. So petty.
After I turned 14 I suddenly lost all the “baby fat” of childhood. Halfway through my freshman year almost all of my clothes were too big. I got compliments. People started to tell me that I was pretty. Oh, did I want to be pretty. I wanted SO MUCH to be pretty – and to have a boyfriend. I was at the top of my class. My family, though not perfect, loved me. I had lots of friends. I knew the truth about God. I should have felt fulfilled and excited about life. Instead, I began flirting with anorexia my sophomore year.
The more weight I lost, the more compliments I got. Talking on the phone discussing who liked who became far more important than reading that Bible I had loved for so long. I didn’t want to pray because I knew that, if I did, the uncomfortable feelings of conviction that surfaced from time to time would get stronger. I saw how so many people around me twisted those beautiful words to get what the wanted. I saw how they “loved” Jesus. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
Still, I could not quite let go. On one occasion, I even wrote a letter to the principal, detailing verse by verse how a certain passage did not mean what he claimed it meant. That landed me in his office, threatened with suspension. The article I wrote for the school newspaper about how it wasn’t following Jesus’ example to expel pregnant girls but allow their boyfriends to remain landed me in his office, threatened with suspension. Senior year I engaged in a nasty tangle with a woman over the way the student council was being run – and was nearly expelled.
Injustice and manipulation were all around me. I believed in God. I rejected His people.
Aching for the love of Christ but unable to express it, I plowed headlong into the first of bad dating relationships – with a pastor’s kid. Unfortunately, he was the stereotypical pastor’s kid. I wanted “romance.” I wanted to fit in. I was naive and walked right into a pit. He wasn’t nice to me; never seemed to have a compliment. Didn’t mind telling me about the pornography he was addicted to. Flirted with other girls incessantly. Pushed me physically. But I deserved this, didn’t I?
After all, I wasn’t good enough.
For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here.