Some of you might not know this about me, but I was homeschooled up until 7th grade. I actually repeated 7th grade because the public school figured I was too young for 8th grade, but that’s neither here nor there. As a kid I struggled really hard with anxiety, especially in large crowds. Being packed into a crowd not only made me uncomfortable, but it made me feel real panic. I’m telling you this because I can vividly remember my first day of 7th grade. I rode the bus in and waited outside the building until they opened the doors. Then, like a herd of cattle, myself and all the other students pushed through the open doors into the main hallway.
I made it through my first class and then got to my second class, Advanced Math with Mrs. Beilfuss, and that’s where it all went downhill. I can remember sitting in math class, with all these new students sitting around me, and one kid (shout out to Mikey-O) going, “Hey man, you look really pale.” He was right, I was pale, sweaty, and felt terribly nauseous. I got sent to the office, they called my mom, and she came and picked me up. I came back the next day, feeling a little bit more confident, but that confidence quickly evaporated as, for the next 2 weeks, everyone called me “the sick kid”. What a way to start my public-school career. As a treat, here's my blurry class picture from 7th grade for you to enjoy.
I’m telling you all of this because I was never popular. Like, ever. I was a quiet kid. Shy, with a lot of anxiety. I was a bit out of shape (although if I’m being honest, I’d kill to be only that out of shape right now), not incredibly athletic, socially awkward, and I was kind of a classically nerdy kid; I enjoyed reading, writing, playing games, and was just generally not very “cool”. I mean, in 7th grade I carried a giant blue Trapper Keeper with a small stapler insider it, just in case. Here’s the thing though, and this started even back in 7th grade, like I said, I was never popular, but eventually I found the space where I belonged. I made good friends, some of them I’m still good friends with. I found the things I enjoyed; music, drama, quiz bowl, video games, and cooking. And even more importantly I found people who enjoyed doing them with me. I had a tight circle of really good friends, a wider circle of people I knew and who liked me, and kind of beyond that it didn’t really matter.
Let me tell you, there’s something very freeing in coming to this place where you decide just to be yourself and let that be enough. Now I’m not telling you I didn’t struggle sometimes to feel like I fit in, and I’m also not going to say that sometimes it didn’t hurt to not be one of the popular kids, but what I am saying is more often than not when I was surrounded by people who cared about me, it didn’t bother me in the slightest. To be even more honest, looking back at it now, it didn’t matter. All of us, the popular kids, the bandos, the football players, the theater geeks, and me, the captain of the quiz bowl team, we’re all just people. Now most of us have jobs, a lot of us are married, many of us have kids, and if you would have asked any of our 16-year-old selves if this is what we thought our popularity or lack thereof would have led us to, I think we all would have said no.
Over the course of the next month or so, you’ll all get the opportunity to hear from a number of other people about what middle school and high school was like for them. What they did, or didn’t do, to fit in and to be popular, and what God has taught them about all of that. What I want to leave you with today, and what I think the biggest thing that God has taught me about myself is this. God created each of us. All the things you’re good at, the things that bring you joy; music, art, sports, God knew you’d love those things. In fact, in a certain way, He created them for you to love and you to love doing them! God didn’t create you and think “Man I hope that insert your name here is popular and gets invited to all the best parties and wears the coolest clothes”. He just created you and said “I want you to thrive. I want you to enjoy life. And I want you to know and glorify me.” Now we all know that there’s a lot that really goes into what I just said God wants for you, but at its core, He wants you to be you. Being popular? Fine, whatever, as long as you’re you. As long as you’re seeking after God. As long as you’re loving the people around you. Because in the end, no one’s going to ask how popular you were in school. All the running around, the game playing, the social maneuvering, the stress, it’s not worth it. If I could go back in time and give 7th grade me some advice on that first day it would be to go home after 1st hour so you don’t get called sick kid for 2 weeks. After that it would be this. Find your tribe. Be yourself. And love God.