Working with teenagers, I encounter a myriad of emotions throughout the days and weeks that I share my life with them. Exhilaration, frustration, exasperation, and the deepest level of satisfaction that I have ever felt in my life, all rolled up into a fair amount of exhaustion.
I am forever trying to manage the emotional rollercoaster of adolescent angst with the right balance of sincerity and the appropriate amount of encouragement without tipping my hat that I am completely depleted of words or wisdom that will put their restless souls at peace. Add into the mix that the young people that I work with identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and /or transgender then all of the feelings and emotions are compounded exponentially. Adolescence is tough enough but with the added anxiety of identifying within the LGBT spectrum, everything begins to rise to the boiling point – very quickly.
I try really hard to be present with the young people that I serve every day. Listening to their highs and their lows as well as helping them peel away the protective layers that serve as insulation from the negative energy that they receive from family and peers. I do what I can for them during the short amount of time that they are in my life, before they graduate from high school and begin the next chapter of their lives. Often times, I never hear from them again, but sometimes I am lucky enough to reconnect with some of them after they have moved on.
On one very special occasion, I was given the gift of seeing the harvest of seeds planted in one of my young people. I heard a voice behind me as I worked at my desk and as I swiveled around to see who was there, I was face to face with the most brilliant smile. It was LeMarcus! One of my former student leaders had stopped by Oasis Center to see me. I was delighted and surprised, because he was supposed to be attending college out of state. I asked him if everything was ok and he smiled again and said everything was wonderful. I inquired if his school was on break and he said no, school was in session. I looked questioningly at him and he said he was going to school in Nashville – fashion design school. Tears immediately filled my eyes. The emotions welled up inside me that I can only image must be the same that well up in a mother’s eyes when their child has grown up and made extraordinary strides toward creating their own path to success.
Earlier in the year, LeMarcus confided in me that he wanted to major in fashion design but that his parents really wanted him to major in psychology and one day become a psychologist. He felt a tremendous amount of pressure to please his parents because being gay had been such a huge disappointment to them. His father, especially, was having a very difficult time accepting LeMarcus and constantly pressured him to conform. LeMarcus was torn and felt like he had no other choice than to go to college and become what his parents wanted him to become. I tried to provide a silver lining by offering up the suggestion that he could minor in fashion design and then make a decision after graduation about his career. He quietly agreed, but was not completely consoled with the compromise.
When high school graduation was approaching, I found a book that highlighted the fashion industry and all of the multitude of careers within the industry and I bought it for LeMarcus. In his graduation card I encouraged him to pursue his dream and follow his heart. I wrapped the gift in a bag and handed it to him and he thanked me for the gift as he walked out the door. I did not hear from him for over four months, until he walked into my office in late September. He told me that his graduation gift and the words in his card gave him the courage to tell his parents that he wanted to major in fashion. His parents were not happy but they agreed to pay 50% of his tuition. The same agreement they had made for his other college choice.
There he stood, in my office, with a huge smile on his face and a band aid on his finger from an accident in sewing class. He was telling me how much he loved school and how much he enjoys sewing and designing patterns – the happiest I had ever seen him in the two years that I had known him – truly happy. It affirmed for me that being present and listening are incredibly powerful gifts for young people and that encouragement…encouragement can be life changing.
Pamela S. Sheffer – Program Director, Just Us @ Oasis Center