Lessons Learned from Appalachian Youth

I have never been this tired in my life.

…Not after almost 24 hours of international travel…

…Not after 2 weeks of preparing for and participating in sorority recruitment…

Never.

My undoing seems to be occurring at the hands of 15-17 year old high school students who I am in charge of 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I am currently working as a camp counselor at a residential summer camp in my hometown. I am charged with serving as a mentor, teacher, and every other label imaginable to my kiddos. As an introvert, it is the ultimate struggle for me to be around people for such an extended amount of time, but I enjoy pushing myself to the limits to see what exactly I am capable of. The kids that I work with every day are from underserved, poverty ridden areas of Kentucky where opportunities are scarce and resources are limited. They are staying on a college campus for 3 weeks to explore different health careers and experience what “college life” is all about. I despised high school…I count it as one of the crappiest times of my life. While I was trapped in the halls of my small public high school, I prayed for the day that I would graduate and be able to leave it all behind. All the drama. All the unnecessary emotional outbursts. All the ambiguity surrounding friendships and “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationships. I never saw much point in all that nonsense and, compared to the 14-18 year olds surrounding me, I was definitely in the minority with these beliefs. However, I did graduate and things did get better. Way better.

As I have served as a mentor for all my campers (and especially the 5 girls in my counselee group), I have been able to look back into the craziness that is high school. I have seen the struggles, the emotions, the uncertainty, and the frustration that my kids experience and I assure them that it will all get better. They look at me incredulously, but I continue to promise them that life does not begin and end with high school drama. That college is a whole different experience. That college is a game changer. As I tell them about all the opportunities that college has to offer, I am reminded of the shy, awkward teenager that I once was. I was unsure of myself as a person, thinking that I was mediocre at best even though my accomplishments suggested otherwise. I never saw myself as a capable, intelligent human being because I graduated with individuals who (jokingly) would belittle their classmates when they gave an incorrect answer in class or was not knowledgable about some obscure topic. When I did achieve something impressive, I just considered myself lucky. This belief still exists in me deep down as I have a hard time accepting that I have worked to earn the opportunities I have been granted. Being with these students and witnessing their growth has really been beneficial to me in working toward taking ownership of my strengths and weaknesses and learning that I deserve to take credit for what I’ve done instead of giving full credit to luck or circumstances.

Another lesson these students have taught me is the importance of being in touch with your emotions, but not too much. While being able to show sympathy and experience empathy is important, it is also important to guard yourself to a point. We all remember high school and the turbulent emotions and hormones that accompanied that time in our lives. It was horrible. Girls were constantly crying because such-and-such called her a skank or because what’s-his-face decided to like her best friend instead of her. I constantly felt like I was on the set of one of those insipid MTV reality shows…and I was miserable. From that point on, I locked my emotions inside a little box inside a glass case inside a waterproof safe inside a steel cage locked with an unbreakable padlock. All of my friends know that, among my weaknesses, is my inability to process emotion and my inability to comfort those who are showing emotion. Needless to say, it didn’t take my co-counselors long to figure out this little quirk of mine either. However, as my three weeks with my girls is coming to an end, they have taught me that showing a little emotion now and then isn’t going to hurt anybody. I admire their ability to live so emotionally fearless and I miss the pure simplicity of that action. Am I going to start crying during chick flicks? I’m gonna say probably not, but I am going to start actively working on becoming less emotionally awkward and more in tune with my emotions and the emotions of those around me.

I am surrounded by students who truly live effervescently. They live first and think later. They love fast and fall hard. While I have grown out of this stage, I am envious of them still. As a 24 year old woman, I have become jaded by society and all the ridiculous demands it places on regular human beings. “Don’t be too emotional” because then people will think you’re crazy. “Don’t fall for someone too fast” because then people will think you’re reckless.”Don’t blow all of your money on frivolous purchases” because then people will think you’re irresponsible. “Don’t act without thinking” because then you’re being childish. If these are the kinds of demands we adults are being held to, then maybe living like a teenager might not be a bad idea after all.

And maybe, just maybe, the exhaustion I am experiencing is worth it in the end.

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