At twenty-two, I still feel myself bombarded by voices telling me who and what I should be; how I ought to be, act and think if I want boys to like me, and what not to do if I want anyone to like me (liking God is usually at the top of that list). The sight of the average magazine cover, even as it stirs my ire, prompts the tiny voice in my head that I could be a little leaner. The whole time I was in college, I felt like a side-show attraction because I didn't drink myself to oblivion and make myself available to any dude that came along. My resolve and my principles are firmly grounded, mind you, and those little voices don't actually bother me much -- but they are there. Since high school, it's been a constant fight to keep believing the things I believe, to preserve them from the ever-present temptation to compromise, just once.
One of my seventh-graders got the talking-to of her life because she kissed a boy in the library. Innocent, you may think, and in another world it might have been, but there is a weed working its way through my students. That girl had no idea why what she did was not a good idea, even as her best friend was crying because she liked the boy, too. They don't understand why I won't let them refer to each other as "sexy", nor why they can't roll the waist bands of their skirts, making their thighs more visible so they don't look "nasty". At eleven and twelve, many of the boys and girls are already desperate for a girl/boy friend, already smearing each others names when they are envious.
Their teachers and the sisters are constantly trying to show these students real love, but so many of their families are falling apart, and they want something tangible now. They live hard lives and they are faced with a lot of choices I didn't even know existed when I was that age -- which wasn't long ago at all. It is a poverty deeper and more insidious in many ways than material poverty. It is, as Blessed Mother Teresa put it, the poverty of feeling unloved and unwanted. So far the damage is reparable, but if the trend continues that won't be true much longer. They are wonderful, beautiful, brilliant, good-hearted children, but every time they say or do something that hints at the demons hunting them, part of me starts to panic because I don't know what I can do to help them. It is, in the end, their fight.
I -- and you, Dear Readers -- can only keeping loving these children, pray, and pray, and pray for them, and for all children in all forms of poverty, and hope Jesus gets to them before everything else does.