Eight years ago, I was in Denver working with some student organizations when I started to hear of this new school coming to town called Valor Christian High School. It was originally a place where students who were attending a small private Christian school would funnel from Middle School to High School to continue their education in a private system.
Yesterday, I went back for the sixth time since, and OH MY!!
I realize there are naysayers in the public square concerning the value of public education versus private systems.
I understand the conflict between public school and faith based schools.
I even get the issue when athletics becomes the talking point, as a private school has access to a lot of resources not easily available in a public school.
But when you walk on the campus at Valor, there’s something different.
Every person I met welcomed me with a smile, the students shook my hand and looked me in the eye, the sheer professionalism at a world class institution was enough to startle me into thinking, How can I get my kids here?
Of course there are those in town who look at Valor as a bunch of Rich, White, Evangelical, Christians isolating themselves from the world. But I wonder how much of that sentiment is based in this longing for all our kids to have this world class opportunity. The facilities at Valor rival some of the Division I University Campuses I’ve spoken to, and I’m can say with certainty that the people I met yesterday were more kind than many of the University staff I’ve worked with.
So after walking the halls, speaking to students and teachers, getting a survey tour of the facilities, I had the chance to talk with the 850 students at the school from 9th – 12th grade. And well, this is what I found.
High School is Still High School
No matter where kids go to school, high schoolers are still high schoolers; and I love it!!
I watched as the kids filed into the gym for the morning assembly, and there wasn’t that much difference between the students I work with in other public schools, and it was almost the same scene as would be with other private schools. Kids are worried about who they’re seen with, what they dress like, what section they sit in. I just smiled. Every group of High School students, no matter where they are, where they come from, what culture they’re living in; all of them have this incredible sense of insecurity. You can feel it in the air. Of Course, there is certainly a culture of excellence at Valor, and you can sense it from the moment you walk in. But humans are humans. And I think it was so refreshing just to spend some time with the students in a real way, get down to real issues, and find out how they see the world. After all, these are going to be the leaders of the next generation. And I love encouraging them to find out who they are, and how they can be confident to face the world.
I spoke on my book ALONE: Finding Connection in a Lonely World
I talked with one of the teachers the night before I went to Valor and I asked, So what are the issues the students of this huge school are dealing with?
The answers didn’t surprise me:
- They are under tremendous academic pressure to perform
- Athletics takes up so much time
- They don’t know who they are
- They’re pretty lazy when it comes to getting things done on time (from a teacher perspective)
- There is a constant struggle to make sure students get enough extra stuff as they try and figure out how to excel academically
That’s High School Everywhere
I locked in on the pressure part.
I travel the country from sea to shining sea working with schools, youth organizations, parents, churches, and basically anyone who works with youth.
What I find is…
Our culture is obsessed with activity. Boredom is the grandest sin of all time for an average 15 year old. We get them to school, get them to practice, make sure they have time with friends after school, take them to music lessons, work on homework after school, go to sleep, and wake up to repeat.
OVER AND OVER AND OVER again, students are in this RUT of life. And what we’ve un-intentionally created is this obsessive life that has the pressure to perform in doing, but lacks the discipline to slow down and recognize the being. We’ve created a life so busy, there’s really no space to reflect and introduce the art of contemplative human understanding.
In a Results oriented, linear based society, value is only quantified by what you can produce, not by who you are. We say things like Character Counts but we don’t spend much time allowing character to develop. We’re constantly rushing from one event to another without allowing our kids to find out who they are, and it’s more present than ever in high income affluent neighborhoods and schools.
The Result: Lonely
The result of planting the seeds of activity in an obsessive culture is the harvest of loneliness. Students don’t have the time to make deep bonds of friendship. They’re always moving on to the next thing. They’ll tell you, Don’t worry about me, I’ve got lots of friends. But after my talk yesterday at the assembly (which was only 20 min.) I spent the next hour talking with students who were saying things like:
That’s EXACTLY how I feel, a young man confessed to me
How can I make real friends?, another pleaded
I was just struggling with this last night, a young girl said with tears in her eyes.
What am I supposed to do? another asked quietly, and I found myself empathizing to the point my heart was physically hurting for the students who were here on a gym floor confessing how hard it is to be a teenagers today. I could have stayed there all day long, and maybe even all month long, working with students to develop the skills it takes to engage with others.
I looked over at one of the students who looked like she had life together and I said, “See that girl right over there?” and the girl I was talking to nodded in agreement. “If she was honest with you and I right now, she’s feeling the same things you are.” and the student just started weeping.
They’re scared to death.
They’ve got this image they have to protect.
They have no where to go to be honest with themselves and the environment around them.
They think they’re the only one’s feeling this way
And you know what?
They’re exactly like all the other groups I’m running into.
Pleas don’t read this article as a criticism of Valor. The teachers and administrators are trying at every angle to create relationships. In fact, the Dean of Spiritual life told me, “We’re ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIP.” So above all, they’re trying. But there are some real needs in the larger scope of adolescents we’re just not paying attention to.
When we can create environments for students to be themselves without the fear they’ll be laughed at, made fun of, or called strange; we can help introduce WHOLE, FULL, ABUNDANT, LIFE. But if we keep trying to tell students what to be, without the option of hearing how they are, I’m afraid for the issues our culture is about to face.
Long term: We’re about to introduce a load of teenagers into the American Culture who don’t have the ability to connect with one another. And we’re going to see further isolation, and loneliness leading to depression, anger, and purposelessness. (Just ask the hundreds of parents who have called me with their kids returning from University without a vision for life)
I’m excited for what Valor has going in Denver. It’s really a neat concept. But I’m also a bit sad. I’m sad for the millions of teenagers out there without a place to be who they were created to be. They’re living behind the thin vail of confidence without the outlet to explore their deepest relational needs.
The Valor students have every opportunity in the world. But you know what I found?
And, They’re ALONE.