This being the fall, my seniors are now in the college application process, which puts me square in the middle of letters of recommendation writing. It’s not a required task for teachers but a courtesy to their former students. Thus, it’s work in addition to my work. However, I’m happy to be a part of the process of seeing them getting accepted into their dream colleges and embracing the unknown futures before them. Also, it allows me to gently reminisce about how these students contributed to my class in a meaningful way, as I have many that have made a lasting impact.
In the letter, I traditionally break up the recommendation writing duties into two areas: academic and personal, how they are as a student and how they are as a person. In the first part, I discuss their writing abilities, how they contributed to discussions, and an anecdote or two about their experiences in my classroom. The second part of the letter addresses what their character is like, who they are when no one is seemingly watching. With the select few, I also discuss how they socially and supportively interact with others and how they balance their life, time, and efforts towards a number of commitments ranging from academics, athletics, extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, and possibly job employment. What often develops from these observations is how they are a tremendous role model for others. People look to them for example and can’t help but follow as a result. They become pubic figures not be means of self-promotion but through true leadership: they work harder than anyone else does.
Now, it’s very easy to look at these high school seniors and think that it’s adorable that they are great models for their peers and to proudly smile at how hard they are working, but perhaps we are too shortsighted in seeing it that way. Perhaps there is much to be learned in these teenagers’ examples. Maybe we should look at how these individuals are role models for us adults, as well. Maybe their example is one being set not just for the building, but for the community and beyond. We claim that children are the future leaders, but maybe they are the current leaders, too.
In our house, my nine-year old son has an infinite more amount of wisdom than I do when it comes to comforting his mother, my wife. When she becomes stressed out and at her wits end, I try to cheer her up in all the wrong ways, sometimes with choices that just exacerbate the situation. However, when I observe my son approach her during these times and model a different, more empathetic approach that considers other aspects of her personality, I see her façade melt as he helps her forget her troubles with just the right words and actions. Despite his age, he sets forth a model for me, showing me that wisdom can come at any age and that leaders are not always those with experience but are those with insight.
We too often confuse age for wisdom and youth for foolishness, but I know plenty of old foolish people, so by default, there must be young wise people. We quickly dismiss young wisdom and example, as it seems to be our jaded nature to do so. We think that if the bearers of ideas and concepts are young, then they must not know what they are talking about. When we do, though, we then miss out on the blessings that are being offered in their examples when we can’t see beyond their age.
Similarly, when the apostle Paul took young Timothy under his wing in his ministry, Paul could see not only the potential in him, but also how tremendous a leader he currently was, too. Being twenty years his senior, Timothy looked up to Paul as a leader and mentor, but what Timothy often failed to realize was that despite his age, Paul looked up to him as a leader as well, a result of Timothy’s model-like behavior that was on display for everyone. In 1 Timothy, Paul encourages Timothy to not let his age be a stumbling point for others, as his ministry was strong and worth listening to no matter what age Timothy was: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (4.12). Timothy was only around thirty-five during this key part of his ministry, and as his teaching flew in the face of so many of the elders, Timothy was looked down upon, usually because of his age and lack of life experience. Paul’s words to Timothy encourage him to overcome the discouragement that sometimes comes with being young and trying to be a leader.
Young people have just as much to offer as their older counterparts do, sometimes even more. They possess a wisdom not tainted with pessimism that settles in as a result of our own experiences and failures. The problem with us, the older generation, comes from the lack of humility we possess, as we feel that we know better. If we can take a moment and swallow that pride, we might be able to open ourselves up to wisdom that can significantly benefit our lives. If we can spend time examining the given wisdom, and not the age of the carrier of that wisdom, we can grow as individuals and draw from the leadership of those that we too often overlook. This week, ask God for humility and wisdom and be prepared to receive great gifts in very small packages. Amen.