By: Zac Cannon
Someone pithier than me came up with the phrase, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Well, standing with my arm holding open the door at Which WichSunday night, the cringy expressions stamped on faces of the sandwich shop’s employees told me that their souls were withering. Memories of my own experiences working in the food service industry in my late teens came flooding back. I tried to smile and shrug reassuringly as a dozen hungry junior high and high school students spilled past me into the quiet, empty eatery. As methodical as we could be, we wrote orders on paper bags with red sharpies and handed them to the young man behind the register. I went last – as all good servants are supposed to – and the young man handed me back my bag.
“I am sorry, but we’re out of avocado.”
Phooey. I opted for the peanut butter and jelly kid’s meal instead.
After passing back my credit card, he handed me an adult sized cup.
“The least I can do.”
Some of my most favorite times spent with teens happened around a shared table. Stuffing our faces with goodies, stories tend to spill like crumbs from mouths that have forgotten they’re supposed to talk after swallowing their food. Sunday night, these students had help put on a fantastic event. Less than a half an hour earlier, they were back in time; dressed as astrologers, shepherds, soldiers, and beggars, welcoming families to Bethlehem. Now, they were all firmly situated back in the reality of school drama and adolescent relationships.
There is perhaps no time in human life in which one can switch gears quite like a teenager. From centurion to sophomore. Swift and lithe, quick on their feet and with their words, they can nimbly hop from action to action, thought to thought, idea to idea. You’ve got to keep up. Sitting around the table at Which WichSunday night was no different. The conversations pivoted from what was on everyone’s sandwich to what was everyone’s favorite animal to who was dating who in school to why relationships in high school just don’t seem to have the staying power primetime television sells us…in just a matter of moments. Adults have spent years building up a respectable callous of small talk to avoid any real depth, but these students burned through the chaff of chit chat quicker than a teenager can eat half a turkey wrap. (Was that, like, three different metaphors?)
Meaning making is a big deal. Answers and questions. Being ravenous and hungry for reasons behind the reasons behind things. This is why I love working with students this age. They are skeptical and curious and cynical and naive. They want to get to the bottom of things so fast that sometimes they forget just how deep the waters of their inquisitiveness are, yet they plunge in anyway without any kind of life support save for sometimes holding their noses.
I was just expecting to eat a kid’s meal and share whatever little things were going on in the upcoming week, yet I found myself dipping carrots in ranch dressing while explaining the importance of long-term, committed relationships.
And then we went for dessert.
A repeat of our previous entry, a troop of somehow still hungry teens, the lone adult staring empathetically to another young man behind another counter. This time it was frozen yogurt the gang was in search of. This time it was quantum physics that became the topic of discussion. The nature of reality. The nearly 99.9& nothingnessthat makes up all the somethingness. The location of the soul. The nature of God. An explanation of the Trinity.
All while slurping up half-melted treats.
Anyone who knows anything about teenagers will tell you they can eat. They run hot and burn calories with a metabolism that makes any middle-aged person jealous. The amount of food they can put away is something to be envied. Sandwiches and frozen yogurts and late-night snacks are not all that these young people are hungry for though. Their spirits have come alive with a spark of eternal curiosity. Their minds are overclocked and searching for answers to thousands of questions, from what to wear to school tomorrow because this person will be in that class…to what on earth am I doing here, anyway?
Meaning making is a big deal. We have all known teenagers who can eat us out of house and home. Parents and caregivers may complain about the cost, but most are diligent to keep the shelves and refrigerator stocked. What about their other hunger though? How diligent are we at presenting a smorgasbord of ideas and experiences for our young people to gorge on? To taste and see? To determine what it is they like and don’t like? Or to discover new things they have never had before?
Are they stuck with kid’s meals or are we introducing them to fine dining?
And are we prepared to explore the unknown alongside them? To venture into mystery? To perhaps bump up against our own questions? To be sent home wondering, “How can I better explain this concept to them?” Or, perhaps, “How can I better understand this myself?”
How can we stand, holding the door open, so that a gang of hungry kids can come wreck the place, devour everything in sight, but leave full and with a little more understanding of what it means to make it through this thing called life with a little more grace and contentment?