talking to teens

Every once in a while I catch something that impacts my thoughts on reaching students. I thought I would share this video with you and give you some things to chew on.

December 4, 1974 Donald Sherman sits down inside the computer lab of FSU to order a pizza. Donald suffers from Moebius Syndrome. Moebius Syndrome causes paralysis of the face and those who are challenged with it can neither move their eyes or form facial expressions. In some instances it impairs their speech and in Donald’s case it has inhibited him from speaking clearly over a phone and face to face. He has never ordered a pizza before. Researchers built a computer with a voice synthesizer connected to a phone and keyboard that would enable Donald to call Domino’s and  articulate an order. Watch the video to see how this unfolds.

Prepare for cheesy (no pun intended) music. Keep in mind that this is a history making moment and the first ever pizza order by computer. It’s a bit long and you need only to watch the first five minutes.

I don’t understand you.

As I watched this video, I was struck with the thought that every week I cross the path of students who struggle to communicate who they really are and how they really feel about themselves and the world around them.

When teens speak…

Donald simply wanted a pizza. The voice through which he would order a large pepperoni and mushroom with ham, was discernable but unconventional. This unconventional way in which Donald only could speak his mind was too much for the operator to overcome causing him to hang up on Donald and history several times.

Domino’s lost their chance to make history. Four tries later someone chance it and took the call seriously.

If you’re like me, you felt a sense of compassion for Donald as he pleaded with the operator to be patient as he communicated in the way he only could. I couldn’t help but think about the countless students out there whose outer shell, demeanor, and voice are, in and of themselves, barriers that we are tasked to absorb and interpret.

Every teen wants desperately to be heard.

We too quickly forget that students are experiencing so much in their life. Physically, teens and tweens are experiencing hormonal changes that affect their emotional filter. As they grow they are developing their capacity to understand who they are and how they interact with the world around them. Even if they grow up in a sociologically safe environment with stability and support they are still bouncing in and out of new experiences and experimentation.

This often puts them in a season of communication development that may come across as “too rough, too quiet, too loud, too needy, too rude, too rowdy, or a whole host of extremes” that adults misinterpret.

The student’s perceived character and communication masks our judgement and if we’re not careful we will simply hang-up on making history with what is really at the core. For Donald, it’s pizza. For our challenging students, it’s being heard, loved, understood, and accepted.

A large pizza please.

Another face palm came to my mind as I listened to Donald ask for a large pizza. A large is a large. A medium is a medium. A small is a small. The operator could not help but want to qualify Donald’s request.

Sixteen inch? (pause) sixteen inch? (pause) sixteen inch?

If you were like me your heart again went out to Donald. You wanted to jump in and say to the operator, “The man wants a large pizza. Isn’t it enough that he asked for a large? GIVE THE MAN A 16″ LARGE PIZZA!!!”

Taking students seriously.

Too often we dumb down the conversational with unnecessary words that are only intended to put ourselves at ease. Once get past the exterior walls of a student and finally discern their core need we are tempted to qualify it. For youth leaders it may be that we want to hear them prove what they say. “How badly do you want this?” Or, “Are you sure this is what you want?” Even if we misread what they say, we have to believe, that so long as we listen and take them seriously, they will continue to express themselves because we are receiving them 100%. 

Waiting patiently and adapting.

Love, love, love the moment that Donald pleaded with the operator to come down to his communication need.

Can you please phrase a question so that I can answer it with yes or no?

Youth leaders can learn so much from students when they change their preferences and eliminate their adult default reactions. Adapting to the students world in the places they live and in the way they live helps us to see who they are. Our temptation is to create environments that are easy and comfortable. Intentionally or unintentionally we convey to students that we only help them when they fit our construct. This is that moment when you hear a student say, “They (your group) only help the kids they like.” Or, “They play favorites.”

It’s unfair, I know, to hear students react that way but can you blame them? Even if it’s untrue it’s still on our calling to go where they are at and take extreme measures to right the wrongs so we can make history in their life.

We are not alone.

Okay, I may be reaching with this one but you’ll get my point. How many people were in that room?! An entire brain trust was on hand, emotionally connected to the moment. Standing on the edge of history their faces registered the struggle as well as the triumph.

Would you spell that please? “S-H-E-R-M-A-N.

We need to realize that we are a part of story being written in the life of a student. We only need to play the part and understand the task that God has called us to. I was reminded that Heaven itself is overcome with joy when a life is turned toward Jesus.

Thanks for absorbing this lengthy post. Keep chasing after students.


5 Responses to “I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU”

  1. Josh Mitchell January 23, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    Beautiful. Thank you for posting this. Just shared it with some ministry friends.

  2. chadswanzy January 23, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    Thanks Josh.

  3. Wilson January 23, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    Great post. It’s so easy to forget that students can’t always tell you what they think because at 15 they’re not always sure exactly what they think. But they usually are being earnest even when it sounds outrageous. Awesome, awesome post and the video illustrates the point so perfectly. I’m going to bring this up in conversation about a hundred times this week.

  4. chadswanzy January 23, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    thanks so much.

  5. Nick Arnold January 24, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    This reminds me of the device in “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” that allows monkeys (or was it dogs?) to communicate. We sure could use that kind of thing with some teenage guys! (This movie was great, by the way, would highly recommend it!)

    [Spoiler Alert]
    Finally, at the end of the movie, the dad, who has been trying to communicate his love for his son despite his quirkiness, gets a chance to share because of that device.

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