This is a guest post by my good friend Walt Mueller. Walt is a global youth ministry leader, the <a href=”Name Your Link""“>author of several books, a blogger, and President of (Center for Parent Youth Understanding). You can follow Walt on Twitter at @CPYU. If you’re interested in writing a guest post, go here for details.

Gym Class Zeroes. . . Spontaneous Ethnography That Made Me Want To Cry. . .

Yesterday Lisa and I were away from home for a speaking engagement. We found the local high school stadium early in the morning and got out on the track. After a few laps a 9th grade gym class came through the gate led by their female teacher. I knew they were 9th graders as the girls all looked like grown women, while the physically awkward half of the guys looked like they were anxiously awaiting the onset of full-blown puberty, and the other half looked like they needed to shave twice a day.

While you might think this adolescent invasion was a nuisance. . . after all, we were there first! . . . I actually like this kind of thing as I default into the observation mode. It quickly became obvious that as instructed by the teacher, those who wanted to play a game of flag football separated themselves from those who wanted to walk around the track. It just so happened that all the girls went straight to walking . . . very slowly I might add. The guys lined themselves up on the side of the field.

On my next lap around some interesting things took place. First, I passed the group of girls on the outside lane. . . for the simple reason that they were taking up all the other lanes. As I approached, one of the girls turned, smiled large, and gave me an enthusiastic wave. OK, that was a little bit reverse creepy. I was glad I had my earbuds in. Somewhere on that straightaway. . . halfway between the walking girls and the guys who were lined up on the sideline. . . I traveled back in time to my own adolescence. It was a combination of asking myself why the girls never waved at me like that back when I was their age, and what I saw unfolding among the guys on the sideline. It was clear that during my last lap two “Captains” had been chosen. Of course, they were the two most athletic looking guys in the group. “Nothing’s changed,” I thought. They had already taken turns choosing teams and only 5 guys remained. They were a strange combination of skinny, overweight, and unathletic looking kids. I could also tell how uncomfortable the whole thing was for each. I knew exactly what they were thinking and feeling. . . .”Why me, again?”. . . “Choose me, choose me, choose me please.” . . . “Oh God, please don’t let me be the last one chosen.”

As much as I wanted to look over my shoulder to see who was picked last, I couldn’t. It was just too painful and it broke my heart. Why? Because I remember being there myself over and over and over again during my own childhood. Watching it happen in a gym class brought back all the painful feelings and it made me wonder what in the world that teacher was thinking. I was the youngest of the neighborhood boys who gathered every day after school to play the sport du jour. At the time I never thought about being the youngest. Instead, I always thought about consistently being the last one picked. I always dreaded it. It always hurt. It never got easier. I saw it all on the faces and in the postures of the last 5.

In the past, I’ve lamented the fact that in today’s culture we sometimes try to be too fair. . . you know, everybody gets a trophy or ribbon just for showing up. No, we don’t want to reward mediocrity. But at the same time, we live in a world where athletic prowess and achievement is the standard for value, worth, and acceptance. Do well, and you’re better than OK. Anything less and you’re worthless. We need to strike a balance.

Do we as youth workers buffer kids from that kind of stuff, or do we propagate it. . . even unknowingly? Here are three simple suggestions that I’d love you to consider.

First, value every kid you meet as Jesus values every kid you meet. When the new kids come into the room, which kids are you drawn to? Think about it. Are there any patterns? Make an effort to go first to those who are usually gone to last. . . or maybe never gone to at all. Get their name, ask questions, and make them feel as important as they really are.

Second, be a model of affirmation. Look for and encourage the strengths in every student you encounter. Many kids not only have to suffer for not measuring up among their peers, but they also take heat from their parents. Kids whose parents value the same things the culture values oftentimes live vicariously through their teens. I’ve seen and heard too many sad and painful stories over the years of parents whose expectations flattened and destroyed their kids. When you look for and encourage strengths you not only build resilience into kids, but you model an attitude that might just go viral in your group.

Third, never engage in the silly playground politics of choosing captains who pick sides. If you do, you’ll be stroking people who most likely don’t need the strokes, and you’ll be stabbing kids whose emotional bleeding has gone on far too long.

Yes, God redeems our suffering and turns things around. In other words, getting picked last can build character and make us more sensitive as adults. In fact, Lisa and I took a lap while talking about that very reality. She said, “It hurts, but we got through it!” “Yes,” I answered, “But look what we turned into!” I joked.

In the end, we don’t want to be youth workers who pile on the hurt when the hurt might already be too much to bear.

Question: Were you ever picked last? What feelings do you remember?