In the early 1970’s the Catholic fad of elementary school uniforms swept into Springfield, Illinois coloring the boys a medium-security-navy-blue, and the girls, a Kmart-pink. Knowing human nature, I probably added my own squeaky voice to the chorus of complaints against the change. But somewhere beneath the façade of public indignation, there lurked a private appreciation for the beauty of a newfound freedom from the tyranny of wardrobe choices. “Short sleeves, or long sleeves?” “Black socks, or navy blue socks?” Mornings became elegantly simple.
1974 was a bad year to leave the safe harbor of grade school uniformity. The summer of my graduation was the summer of Robert Redford’s “The Great Gatsby,” and funk/pop-music. These simultaneous cultural influences exercised a kind of one-two punch, temporarily knocking out America’s fashion sensibilities. Robert Redford might have looked okay in cuffed, plaid pants, and “stacks” (a face-saving way to refer to boys/men’s high-healed shoes). The rest of us were polyestered, gangly, adolescent clowns.
When it came to high-heeled shoes, I must have assumed that little girls received guidance and mentoring from the sorority of older, experienced, high-heeled mentors. I assumed that their first pair came with small training wheels to assist them as they wobbled to and fro. How else could it be that women of all ages balanced themselves so effortlessly on their fashionable stilts?
I was soon to discover, that boys in the 1970’s had no such training. I remember my maiden voyage in two-inch plastic heels. They were purchased along with bold, cuffed, plaid pants, and shiny polyester shirts in a back-to-school shopping spree the week before classes began. It wasn’t quite as bad as my first foray into ice-skating. But I found that, like ice-skating, it was helpful to maintain an awareness of nearby objects that could be utilized in a split-second as makeshift canes.
My appointment with fate occurred on that first day of my high school career, just after I had purchased a huge armload of books and supplies for the semester. The unsteady cargo under my left arm represented a 35% increase in my freshman body’s total mass. My concentration must have been wholly invested in keeping the load under my arm steady. That’s why I forgot about the project of high heeled, bipedal locomotion. I made it to the stairs with no trouble. But while I was navigating the final twelve steps, my left foot suddenly froze. It refused to respond. I sailed headfirst down the stairs. Books launched from my outstretched arms. Too late, I realized that my left high heal had gotten caught in the cuff of my right pant leg. Faster than you could say, “Great Gatsby!” I was lying face down on the stairs with my books being kicked to and fro by several hundred boys engaged in a spontaneous game of text book field hockey. Not wanting to stand out in the crowd, I waited for the hallways to clear before I picked up my tattere new texts one-soiled-volume-at-a-time.
Christian scriptural theologians regard “The Beatitudes” (Matthew 5: 1-12; Luke 6: 20-26) to be the heart of both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. In them, Jesus, anticipated that those with a commitment to a spiritual life, must eventually be willing to take off the school uniform of cultural acceptance. Eventually, the spiritual life will demand that we put on the clothes of a courageous authenticity. By the end of these passages (Mt. 5; Lk 6) a stout warning is issued. If you really clothe yourself in the Beatitudes, you will eventually stand out from the crowd. And frequently, like the boys in my high school hallway, crowds have a way of turning on you.
My Freshman in college has probably forgotten this memory. I haven’t. By the time she hit Seventh Grade, thirteen-year-old Lizzie had become troubled by the divisiveness manifested in political and social interactions she was observing. My little Filipinno-American, and her Vietnamese-American friend, Megan, spent hours of their recess time constructing a middle-school Martin Luther King Day activity that sought to bring to awareness the disparities that continue to advantage some, while disadvantaging other groups of people. Due to an ice storm that cancelled school on MLK day, Lizzie and Megan led this school-wide activity a week later on my birthday. When I came to pick her up, three faculty members pulled me aside to shine the light on my not-so-little girl’s convictions and determination. The buttons on my shirt, almost hit one of them in the eye as my chest swole in pride and gratitude. Once I took her home, our celebration took a somber turn as she showed me two Instagram messages that she received from classmates who were angered by her facilitation.
When Jesus says, “Happy are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Mt 5: 10), I can’t imagine that he is saying that persecution is to be sought out as if it were a good in and of itself. Rather, I think he is getting at a central pre-requisite for living a life of real blessedness and a profound peace that the world cannot give. To live a whole-hearted life, dialed into the Ground of your being, you must eventually shed the need for other people’s good opinion of you.
I frequently hear adults worrying about their child’s susceptibility to peer pressure. But I find that adults are usually no better with peer pressure than children. In each of us, there is a little inner-Freshman who wants to be dressed in the clothes of the “in crowd.” Communal bonds are the very essence of how human beings have thrived through the millenia. To push against that instinct for acceptance and approval can be terribly frightening and counter-intuitive. Surrendering the need to garner the good opinion of others does not require that we kill our “inner-Freshman.” It requires that we acknowledge our poverty of spirit (vulnerability) as we stand up and stand out…. Here are a few things I observed in my Seventh Grader that could benefit any one of us trying to live the Blessed Life.
Seventh Grade Guidelines for Countercultural Living
Whatever age you are, find a wise mentor, and rehearse your response to adversity.
Like Dr. King’s SCLC training for volunteers, Seventh Grade Lizzie constructed her presentation with the help of a wise mentor. With help, she was able to anticipate the potential for difficult responses to her facilitation. When resistance came, she didn’t love it, but she wasn’t totally surprised by it either.
Like MLK, refuse to humiliate or hate your opponents, rather, stay in relationship with them.
Almost unbelievably, Lizzie was able to listen to her classmates’ concerns with a real attempt to understand. She never came to full agreement with them, but she preserved the relationships. Needless to say, she wasn’t engaging her nay-sayers on social media. Even a Seventh grader knows that social media is no place for deeper conversations (or real reflection for that matter).
Don’t slay the Inner-Adolescent
When Lizzie shared the pain of feeling vulnerable, her mom and dad had the good sense to normalize how crappy it is to feel misunderstood, and somewhat rejected. Providing your inner child non-judgemental self-compassion is the very foundation of the spiritual life. It is through the double doors of self-compassion and poverty of spirit that we know the blessedness of the Kingdom of God.
Musical Selection from the Late David Crosby ( Aug 14, 1941- Jan 18, 2023)