Tuesday, May 22, 2012
My letter to my Care Group kids (Year 12 Retreat): Overcoming struggles and placing complete trust in God
I felt it on my heart to share with all of you what I wrote to my students during our Year 12 retreat that took place last week. I've omitted a few things here and there (because there are some things I would like to keep between my students and me... no skeletons in the cupboard; don't stress!) but I hope that you too will see how God has been a constant in my life during the good times and especially during the bad.
I remember my own Year 12 retreat (14 years ago… yes, do the math and you’ll know how old I am) and I remember this same very evening reading letters from parents and receiving “warm fuzzies” from friends and people I least expected to receive “warm fuzzies” from. I cannot begin to tell you about the amount of self worth I suddenly felt and realised that evening. I expected my parents to say nice things about me and write these things in their letters to me, but it was important that I read it. Back then I thought I didn't need the written or verbal encouragement of my parents because I thought I could do it all by myself and find my own energy and motivation. How wrong I was. After reading what my parents had written to me, I realised how much I need to read and absorb those words. As a teenager I had a pretty low sense of self-worth, but even the fewest of words managed to undo all that hurt and self-loathing I had when I was your age.
This retreat is an opportunity for you to examine and consider where you’re at in life at the moment. The final year of your secondary education is so important and so very, very busy. You hardly get time to blink or breathe and the pressure that you feel is overwhelming and may seem insurmountable. Over the course of this retreat you will be given the opportunity to re-treat yourself; not simply to “get away” from this or make an attempt to escape it all, but to re-energise and re-invigorate your spirit so that when you head back into the world once more, you are ready for it. Facing the challenges in life is more than knowing things, it’s having the maturity and humility to accept the fact that not every challenge can be overcome… at first. I've always told myself and this is what I will tell my children when they are old enough to understand: in life, it is not what happens to you in life that matters… what matters is how you RESPOND to what happens to you. To highlight this, let me share a brief story about myself with you.
Into my first few years of high school, I was bullied. I wasn't so much physically bullied as I knew how to defend myself, but the abuse I endured was verbal and psychological. I was called certain names, rumours were spread about my family and me, and I was left intentionally isolated, ignored and ostracised for no apparent reason. Granted I knew that I was a bit of an odd child; I kept mostly to myself and had very few acquaintances that I would have considered to be real friends, but I didn't do any harm to anyone myself nor was I a nasty kid. It would seem that these peers that bullied me knew how to get to me and they thought me to be an “easy target”. I was a meek Christian kid after all; a good Catholic boy who would forgive very easily and not apparently fight back.
The bullying was relentless. Every class, every Recess, every lunchtime, every bus ride from home, it didn’t cease. Most times the bullying was very subtle; it may have been a simple hand gesture or look from one of these bullies, but I knew what it meant and it still stung. It got even worse when - on the very rare occasion - I would try and say something back to defend myself only to have it backfire because no one would ever side with me or stick up for me. I was alone. I was miserable. It all got to me and I thought there was no way out of it.
When I was 14 I came back from school after a particularly testing day of school combined with the bullying, I went straight to my bedroom and sat on my bed to think. I had had enough. I decided that it was time I put a knife to my wrist and be over with it all. Suicide was something I had been contemplating for a while even before that afternoon, so much so that I was prepared… a couple of weeks earlier I managed to sneak a very sharp knife from the kitchen drawer up into my sock cupboard and hide it at the very back of it so it could be felt or seen by anybody else (especially my mother whom I had worked out never really bothered to check the back of my sock drawer because I never tended to wear the socks at the back). My mind was made up; I was going to end it all that afternoon.
I sat upright on my bed and held that knife very closely to my right wrist. I pressed the blade down on my wrist very hard; so hard that it was beginning to cut off the circulation to my hand. I began to think. My thoughts were running at a million miles an hour but somehow I managed to hear a call from my conscience and that voice became just a little bit clearer. I thought some more, “So what if I do it? What would happen?” I began to think of my immediate family and how much they would miss me. I began to feel a bit guilty about putting them through the anguish of the loss of me, but I was still angry; still mad. My thoughts, however, were still drawn to the people around me.
I thought of my funeral, “Who would be there?” Sure, my immediate family, but I thought that those that never got the chance to get to know me would be there as well. But what of the very few friends I did have? I began to think about how upset they might be. It was becoming quite conceivable that some people in this world would morn my loss and regret me not being around any more, but I then began to think as a Catholic; as a child of God. “What would God think of what I am doing right now?”
It might sound unusual to you, and I can’t quite explain it properly, but what happened to me next is what got me thinking straight… what ultimately saved me. I had this vision in my mind of Jesus, dressed in a pure white robe, bursting into my bedroom discovering what I was about to do. But very gently and calmly, he pulled the blade away from my wrist and hand, threw it away, placed his hands on my shoulders, looked me directly in the eye with his own, and asked me, “Don’t you know how much I love you, Stephen?” And it was with that I came to my senses. Life suddenly seemed worth living. I suddenly remembered all that I had learned at church and my Religious Education classes: Jesus came to save me from my sins - to save everybody from their sins – and that if we suffer, we should place our sufferings at the foot of his cross.
What I realised is one very important thing: all that bullying, all of that hurt and abuse, I made a conscious decision to try and fight it but helplessly. What I should have been doing instead was seeking help from someone… anyone. It was trying to do it all by myself and carrying that massive burden that nearly pushed me over the edge. It was Christ’s sacrifice for me through his death on the cross that reminded me that he did that so that I may live. Jesus Christ said it himself:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10
These bullies, these “thieves” robbed me of some living, and they nearly effectively robbed me of my life too. I had to make a decision: I had to pick myself up from being pushed so very, very far down, but I needed help. And so I called upon first the assistance of Our Father in Heaven. I began to pray, “Lord, give me strength”. I wanted my life back; I was determined to start things anew.
Going to bed that evening I made a decision: no more being a victim; from tomorrow, I fight. I cannot stop the taunts, the jibes, or the heckles, but I can make a conscious decision to keep my head up, eyes set forward, one foot set in front of the other and body upright moving onward. I decided then that God is my strength and I place all trust in him. If it was for God, if it wasn’t for Jesus dying for us, I wouldn’t be here writing this message to you all. I wouldn’t be alive.
In the years gone by I forgave these nemeses. At my 10 year high school reunion I made an effort to go and speak to some of these “bullies” and let them know that I forgive them, but before I could even utter a single word of that kind to them, I got an apology from them first. It was unbelievably liberating. My faith in this little microcosm of humanity had been restored.
“’Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the LORD.” – Jeremiah 1:8
Here’s how I see things now:
1.) Being a victim is being someone who blames all their problems on their circumstances and what has happened to them;
2.) Being a fighter is being someone who rises to at least try and overcome those problems. If they fall, they pick themselves up again and are not afraid to ask for help if need be.
Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in the Superman movies back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, defined a hero – a fighter – this way:
“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
My dear 12 Evans B Care Group, you are MY heroes; I find inspiration in you because I have seen each of you face such overwhelming challenges and obstacles in the time I have been your Care Group teacher. And while it may seem at times I don’t know what’s going on in your lives or if I don’t seem to care, I am aware and I do care and all I hope and pray that you get during your years at our wonderful college is peace, joy, success, and for God to touch your lives in some way, shape or form.
If you are hurting or feel like you can’t handle things at the moment, you know you can talk to me; I want you to know that.
While the next few months are going to be very challenging for you, I have full confidence that you will rise above them and conquer them. I pray daily for all of you.
Have faith, even if it is a little bit of faith, have it and use it.
“And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.’” – Luke 17:6
I am proud of you all and I am proud that I am with you guys on this journey of yours to the end of your secondary high school career.
Enjoy this retreat and get the chance to speak to someone you wouldn't normally speak to if you can; you may find a new friend in a relative stranger. In the years to come you will appreciate those small conversations and civility towards each other; that is the high school experience. My hope is that the high school years, with me as your Care Group teacher, have been some of the best years of your lives and that you will look back on these days with a smile. I will never forget the Evans B kids that I took from Year 9 in 2009 to Year 12 in 2012.
God bless you all.
Mr. Stephen C. Spiteri
Carer of the best Care Group a teacher could ask for