Meeting Christ in Teens

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Meeting Christ in Teens:
Startling Moments of Grace

Published 2002 by St. Mary’s Press
trade paperback, nonfiction
120 pages, $10.95

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In spite of societal myths that point only to the negative side of teenagers, young people regularly transmit God’s gracious love in the world.  In his eleven years teaching and coaching high school students, John Rosengren saw how grace happens when hanging out with teenagers. Now he shares those startling moments with us--parents, teachers, coaches, youth ministers, anyone who lives with or works with teens--and empowers us to see God’s gracious activity in the teenagers who are part of our lives.  In his personal and poignant style, Rosengren offers stories, insights, and affirmations of teenagers that will make you truly appreciate their amazing gracious goodness.

“Here is the conscience-based work of a journalist and teacher whose skills help create a world where spirituality matters, justice is pursued, and peace is possible.  John has a voice that deserves a wide audience.  If only we had more writers like him.” -Colman McCarthy, author of “I’d Rather Teach Peace”

“Each one of these delightful columns, which originally appeared in The Catholic Spirit, makes a point of reminding us that God’s spirit comes in our midst in beautiful and surprising ways.” -Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis

Author interview

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Q.  What was your inspiration for these reflections?

A.  I was teaching English and coaching tennis at St. Thomas Academy, a college prep school in suburban St. Paul, and found that the students were teaching me as much--if not more--than I was teaching them. Through the course of our routine daily interactions, they taught me humor, gratitude, integrity, sportsmanship, humility, compassion, desire, courage, caring, patience--and so much more.  I realized this was God’s grace at work, and I wanted to share my experience with others, knowing that they would discover the same in their interactions with teens.  I began writing a bimonthly column for The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper of St. Paul/Minneapolis, and those grew into this book, “Meeting Christ in Teens:  Startling Moments of Grace.”

Q.  That’s a paradoxical premise:  the student as teacher.  Is it also a paradox to talk about the goodness in teenagers, who are often seen more as a problem than the occasion of God’s presence?

A.  I think many adults are scared of teenagers.  Even those of us who care deeply about them can be put off by their baggy pants or pierced noses or stunted communication.  They can seem foreign to us.  But I find it helps to remember our own teen years.  Today’s teens are experiencing the same angst and confusion and struggle for identity that we did.  Once we move beyond the appearances, we discover the substance is the same.  Remembering that provides fertile ground for our understanding and connecting with them.

Q.  So, who’s going to read this book?

A.  Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, counselors, youth ministers--anyone who cares about kids.  They already know what they love about these kids, but I hope these reflections will remind them of how to find that goodness when it’s sometimes difficult to spot.  Thing is, once we start looking for that goodness and those moments of grace, they multiply.  We not only start recognizing them more frequently in teens, but in others and other situations.

Q.  How was the column received during its run?

A.  I was amazed at the number of people who called, wrote or stopped me at school,  church, restaurants, wherever, to tell me that one of my reflections had resonated with them.  I think people are tired of being bombarded with negative messages about teenagers; they’re eager to read about their uplifting and inspiring traits.  That’s what I focus on. These reflections are intended to provide some hope and reassurance.

Q.   How’d your own turbulent adolescence contribute to your appreciation of teenagers?

A.   Having struggled during my youth has given me a special sensitivity toward teenagers.  I was a good kid from a caring family who was scared and confused.  That led me down the path of addiction to drugs and alcohol.  By the grace of God--and the help of some generous adults, including my parents--I found my way out of that darkened wood.  Now, when I see the fright in a young person’s eyes or hear the struggles they’re facing, I remember what it was like to walk in their shoes and have someone reach out to me.  I want to pass along the grace that I’ve been so freely given.

Q.  You dedicate the book to your parents, how did their faith help them--and you--survive adolescence?

A.  They prayed.  They prayed for us, and they prayed with us.  Though I rebelled in various ways, I never questioned their faith nor their belief in us.  They modeled and practiced a faith that provided a foundation that I could return to.  These reflections challenge adult readers to do the same.  They also provide fodder for discussion in helping teens sort through their own questions and rebellion.  My hope is that teens and adults will finish this book with their faith strengthened and an increased awareness of God’s presence in their lives.

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The Catholic Spirit, September 26, 2002

As a high school English teacher and counselor, John Rosengren saw students at their best and their worst - but always as works in progress, who taught him "to see the face of God spotted with acne."

Rosengren, now a full-time freelance writer, said that he discovered the goodness and wisdom of teens through his daily encounters with them - and these encounters inspired him to write a regular column about teens, but directed to parents and others who had contact with youth.

The column appeared regularly in The Catholic Spirit from 1996 to 1999.  Rosengren collected the columns into a book, "Meeting Christ in Teens: Startling Moments of Grace."

Rosengren, 38, said that his students taught him "humor, gratitude, integrity, sportsmanship, humility, compassion" and much more.  He called these encounters with teens "moments of grace," where God became present to him.  Through the columns, Rosengren said, he hoped to touch others with stories that would make them more aware of God's presence in the world.

"Students did recognize themselves [in columns], and mostly they like it," he said. "Parents were aware that I was writing it, and they said nice things about it.  What I loved about these kids is that they were always themselves."

Rosengren said he could relate to young people in a special way because of his personal experience, struggling as a teen-ager with alcohol and drug addiction.  He also saw from his own experience how a parent, teacher or other adult could make a positive difference in a young person's life.

"Teen years are a turbulent time of self discovery, and it's a rocky road," he said.  "Even though superficial appearances today may have changed somewhat from when I was younger - we were rebelling with pierced ears back then - the underlying issues are the same."

Three people were especially influential and never quit believing in Rosengren during his turbulent teen years, he said.  He described his parents, Bill and Rosemarie, as "wise and nurturing people" who instilled in him the Catholic faith and modeled it for him.  English teacher Roger Mahn helped him discover his writing talent, as well as "something good about myself," Rosengren said.  He dedicated the book to those people.

Today, he also gets inspiration from his wife, Maria, and two children, Brendan and Alison. "Grace also has helped my writing mature.  I always start with prayer and ask God to help me say what I should," he said.

He left a full-time teach position at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights so he could write full time, he said.  He tries to read his writing and pushes himself to it, he said.

"I work at my craft," he said.  "It rarely happens that there's nothing to write about.  My problem is that I have too much to say, and so it's more a matter of disciplining myself to stick with the task at hand."

He typically works eight hours a day, four days a week.  However, he said his subject matter is always on his mind, and as recently happened, he will like awake at night thinking about it.  His current projects include a book about high school hockey in Minnesota, where he follows the Bloomington Jefferson team for a season, and a guide to the text of Alcoholic Anonymous for young people, which must be finished by Feb. 1 and will be published by Hazelden Press.

And then there are the stories he decided not to publish.  "At the academy, I was sometimes moved by a student's personal struggle, but felt it was too raw or personal for me to tell others about.  I needed to respect that student - that came first.  I only wanted to tell a student's story if I thought others would benefit from it."

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Take a Walk in Another’s Moccasins
Yes, Virginia, There Is A Jesus
An Unlikely Encounter With The Wife Of Bath

Take a Walk in Another’s Moccasins
© John Rosengren

Growing up, I had a prayer hanging on my bulletin board: “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”

Often, that walk is taken with the ears. To listen to another’s story is to learn what it is like to walk in that person’s moccasins.

One day, several years ago when I used to facilitate student support groups, the group’s discussion drove home the message of that prayer. Alex, a vivacious, charming young man, came to group very upset. He’d been standing in the lunch line, wearing his new, black leather, Chicago Bulls cap that he was quite proud of, when a casual friend standing behind him said, “You’re not going to turn nigger on us now, are you?”

Alex, a light-skinned African-American popular with the “in” crowd, was hurt that a white student would criticize him for what she perceived to be his identification with his race. She seemed to expect him to act “white”; that she would reject him for being who he was hurt him.

After Alex finished, David spoke up. He talked about how he felt when kids would ask him, “Do you want to go fly a kike?” And how he felt when kids would kick pennies at him, expecting him to pick them up. And when kids in the cafeteria would ask him if his lunch was kosher.

Then Sally spoke up. She talked about how she felt when the male jocks in the commons put down her sport, saying volleyball was for sissies. And how she felt when teachers wouldn’t call on her in math class. And about the hurtful reputations her female friends got for doing things with guys that seemed to boost the guys’ reputations.

I just sat and listened. I’d had no idea that they experienced this sort of prejudice daily. But then, I wasn’t black, Jewish, nor female, so I hadn’t lived what they had. By telling me their stories, they let me in; they allowed me to walk in their moccasins.

As I listened, I learned the meaning of that prayer. Sometimes I presume to know what it’s like for another, but those kids that day taught me I don’t have a clue what another’s experiencing until I see life from his or her perspective.

I tell my students the story of that day’s group when I hear them being critical of another for being different or when they seem to show no understanding of the ridicule and abuse some suffer in our society simply for being different. I tell them the message of that prayer, which is really about empathy. I ask them to place compassion before criticism.

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Yes, Virginia, There Is A Jesus
© John Rosengren

One hundred years ago, in 1897, an eight-year-old girl named Virginia, wrote a letter to the New York Sun, “Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus. Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

In a now famous editorial, Francis P. Church replied, “Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They do not believe except what they see. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”

I thought of this during these twelve days of Christmas when I overheard several adults at lunch discussing the ages at which their children had stopped believing in Santa. I think of it, too, when I hear students deny the existence of God. What if Virginia had written instead, “Please tell me the truth, is there a Jesus Christ?”

Here’s how Mr. Church might reply today.

He exists as certainly as love. He’s in the patience a teacher shows in working with you late after school to help you understand an assignment. He’s in the kindness of a small gesture, such as the driver who let your mother merge this morning during rush hour. He’s in the humility of the student who picks up some paper towels off the bathroom floor and throws them in the trash without getting noticed. Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus Christ.

He exists as certainly as generosity. He’s in the older student willing to take a younger student without friends under his wing. He’s in the students who dressed up as Santa and passed out gifts to the senior citizens. He’s in the students donating money and gifts to needy families selected by Catholic Charities. Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus Christ.

He exists as certainly as devotion. He’s in the grace a student says quietly to himself before eating lunch. He’s in the students singing strongly at the school liturgy. He’s in the Lord’s Prayer said daily at Catholic schools across the world. Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus Christ.

He exists. He’s in the birth in the manger. He’s in the death on the cross. He’s in the resurrection. He’s in the love in your heart, in the Eucharist on your tongue, in the prayer on your lips.

Yes, indeed, Virginia, Jesus Christ exists. Of that, you can be sure.

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An Unlikely Encounter With The Wife Of Bath
© John Rosengren

The thing about grace--when you least expect it, expect it.

I can vouch for that. Happened to me in a recent interaction with a student.

Last spring, I’d been praying for wisdom--a useful quality to have in any situation, but especially when dealing with teenagers.

Toward the end of the school year, I spotted Caleb, one of my students, in the hallway on a no-uniform day. His T-shirt (“Give me another

beer”) caught my eye. I made a mental note to ask him to turn the shirt inside out or change it. Since there was hardly anyone else in the hallway, I stopped to talk to him a moment. The week before, he’d turned in a paper about one of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, the one told by the Wife of Bath, and written that he liked her story about relationships.

To appreciate that, you have to understand Caleb. He’d be the first to tell you that he doesn’t like school. Matter of fact, he had told me that on several occasions. Usually after he’d been given a reading assignment. So, when he wrote that he liked something he read, I was delighted to hear it and told him so that day in the hallway.

He said again how much he liked the story and that it had made him think about relationships with women. He said he’d learned from her story. He even said that it changed the way he thought about women.

You can imagine my elation after struggling to show him--and other students--the value of literature, what it has to say to their lives, to hear him tell me he’d connected with something he’d read. I decided not to say anything about his T-shirt, because I didn’t want to tarnish the moment by disciplining him. I wanted him to be able to walk away from our conversation with a positive feeling.

After he’d walked away, I realized what had happened. My prayers had been answered. For that moment, in making that decision, I’d been granted the gift of wisdom. I believe those moments, when we get the help or inspiration we need in dealing with someone, are grace.

Caleb may have already forgotten that conversation, but I haven’t, because it taught me several lessons. First, to be flexible and open. Second, to accept teachable moments when they come along. And third, God answers prayers.

That moment, the inspiration to keep the conversation positive, was grace. That was God acting in me, not of my own doing. I believe those are moments of God’s presence, moments of God working through us. If it truly was wisdom at work, God’s spirit was present. Teach me your wisdom . . .

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St. Mary’s Press:
St. Thomas Academy
The Catholic Spirit

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