Last weekend I went on a youth retreat. Fifteen middle schoolers, a few high schoolers and some adults spent the weekend in a four-story historic mansion in West Marin. We went kayaking in Tomales Bay, hiked, told stories and played games.
The weekend was 70% scheduled activities and 30% free time. The students started playing structured improv games about the time I was ready to fall asleep for the night. The water balloon fight that erupted during free time lasted most of Saturday afternoon, when I’d usually be napping or sipping a chardonnay.
I’m 29, but you don’t have to be old to be intimidated by youth — though if you can listen while intimidated, you might be encouraged.
We prepared and served all meals following a kitchen duty rotation. The students didn’t love doing dishes. They left their shoes and jackets all over the common room floor. But that was the most of our difficulties.
They laughed like we were crazy when the leader went over the rules, “No sex, no alcohol, everyone in their bed at lights out.” I don’t think anyone checked a smart phone at an inappropriate time all weekend. Without any enforcement, all phones and tablets were kept in their bunks unless a parent was leaving concerned messages to which they didn’t know how to respond.
When we broke into groups to work on a video project with an intent to post the clips to YouTube, the leader and students all knew what their parents thought about videos of themselves being posted online. They had discussed details addressing specific concerns around being filmed as a group or individually.
I think about internet and technology policies all day at work — about how social media and communications platforms are used and how to keep people from misusing them. My colleagues and I ask ourselves and each other a million questions a day that boil down to, “How much do we have to regulate the use of technology, of the internet?” We grapple with whether or not we can provide enough education and the right tools for people to resolve their own problems when they encounter them online. Do you know who is going to be so much better at this than me?
She’s an 11-year-old who navigated BART alone for the first time, so we could meet and go to West Marin together. She said she wasn’t that scared because she had her phone. She texted with me and her Dad while waiting at either end of her trip. Because her parents had packed schedules, she might not have gone on the retreat without her phone, which helped her meet up with the group. I planned my wedding almost entirely by text message, but I did not use text messages until I was quite a bit older than she is. She’s the expert.
She offered me some wisdom nonchalantly while recounting the first half of her day at school: how you can’t rely too much on technology or it will cheat you out of learning things. That you can’t avoid technology or you won’t be able to compete in class. She lurched back and forth as the BART train stopped, since she could barely reach a pole to hold onto.
I’d like to invite her to my office to help out. She wouldn’t be intimidated by a conversation about online abuse. I’m sure she’d fully participate in a debate about what you can and should do when someone posts your photos online without asking. That’s more than I can say for most people my age and almost every baby boomer I’ve told about my day job — writing safety policies and educational material for a tech company.
The first improv game involved one student setting the scene for a second student to take over. The students started suggesting violent situations within a couple rounds. Before any adults could register what was happening, a high schooler yelled, “Hey, lets agree not to pretend to blow things up or plot to kill, ok?” But the game didn’t even have to stop to continue sans violence. The tenor changed. Teenagers mimed the stuffing of their faces with cake and built houses instead of plotting to blow things up. All it took was a suggestion by someone just slightly older than the average age of the people in the room.
Over the course of the weekend, everyone participated in times of silence and times of gratitude. They made space for sharing difficulties, embarrassments, and funny stories with little input or suggestion, and they easily broached subjects like race and family. They made sure the vegetarians and pescetarians got their share of meatless pizza and vegetable lasagna.
I wasn’t a chaperone, really. I was there to learn. They didn’t need me, except for the ride from the BART station and help with the kayak. Just after spring break, they will probably write essays full of elegant solutions to the issues I will debate over conference room tables tomorrow.
In ten years, I will be doing my darnedest to pursue a meaningful career, raise children and a dog or two while holding my own in a sea of new technology. But I don’t have to worry, because there will be new adults to take these challenges on. They are excited, engaged, and unimpressed with the things that confound us: They’ve Totally Got This.
These notes are from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church’s Annual Spring Youth Retreat.