Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Beauty on the Boardwalk

My family made a quick trip to the Jersey shore a few weeks ago. While we were there, I saw a beautiful display of human goodness. It wasn't what you think -- not some kind of gesture of charity; nothing about old ladies crossing busy streets; not a hero jumping in to the fracas to defend a lady in distress. This was more about three teenaged kids who sort of just...stood there.

My boys were using the restroom on the boardwalk and I was waiting outside and there were three early teens in front of me -- maybe fifteen -- a boy and two girls. The boy was skinny and shirtless, with blond/brown hair and two earrings; a handsome young man who did a lot of smiling. One of the girls was blonde -- his sister, maybe? -- and she wore a white cover-up over her bathing suit. The other girls had dark hair in a ponytail. and she wore a pink cover-up. They were either close friends or cousins. They had that blend of closeness and comfort.

The girls were as beautiful as the boy was handsome. Youth almost always equals beauty, but these kids were attractive enough to have had "attitudes" about it. Somehow, though, their smiles seemed to negate any possibility of narcissism. They were not too cool to smile, as many young people seem to be.

They were approached by an Asian boy wearing one of those string backpacks and his friend, a Irish-looking lad, who a wore a matching pack. The packs had crosses on them.

"Hi," said the Asian kid to the three teens. "Can I ask you a question?"

I don't know how it goes around the rest of the world, but in New Jersey, on the boardwalk, that pretty much means you are about to be accosted by a Christian on a mission. I'm a man of faith, but of a faith that is based on private meditation and private prayer. I shy away from flagrant displays of faith. Flagrant displays of faith strike me, I might add, as fundamentally wrong...maybe not wrong for everyone but truly against what feels right for me.

As a kid, I used to figure out ways to freak these teen crusaders for Jesus out. I'd tell them I worshiped Beelzebub or that I was a warlock or that I was a gay Zoroastrian who dabbled in voodoo on the weekends. Sometimes I would flat-out tell them to get out of my face; I had my own Catholic faith and didn't need to be them telling me it was not good enough. (Back in my teen days, a friend of mine once did all the work by saying, "Go away. You people are more annoying than burlap underwear." [Which, I think you will agree, would be pretty darned annoying.])

But these three happy teens were better than I ever was.

"Can I ask you a question," the Asian kid said.

"Just a few minutes," the Irish kid said.

"Sure," the blonde girl said. Her friends smiled.

"It's like a quiz," the Christian lad said. "Number one. On a scale of one to ten, how curious would you say you are about knowing God?

"Um," the girl said, biting her lower lip in earnest thought. "Ten, I guess."

"Ten," said the other two.

"Oh...okay. Great," said the quizzing boy, obviously surprised by these nice kids in a day strung with kids like me. "Great. So, then, on a scale of one to ten, how much would you say God loves you?"

"Oh...that's def'nly a ten," said the skinny boy, his forehead creasing a bit with concentration. The girls nodded, smiling with sincere eyes. "Ten."

This went on for about three minutes and they answered question after question in the same way. The Christian boys handed them some brochures and left the three friends in peace. What I expected next were rolling eyes and crumpling brochures. Surely these kids were just being polite. They'd start making fun of the two boys as soon as they were out of sight.

But, no. You could tell from their conversation that these kids were not particularly religious, but they showed no sign of disdain. The girls had nowhere to put their brochures, and one of them said, "I don't just want to throw it out..." The boy offered to put them in his backpack (his had no cross on it) and they did and the three walked off to enjoy the rest of their day.

These kids struck me as so heart-breakingly nice that it made me well up a bit. There was no cynicism; there was no judgment; there was no stereotypical teenaged role-playing; no air of intellectual superiority.

As a teacher of high school students, I often find myself noticing the best in humanity. Sure, I get frustrated, but, in the end, I find that working with kids makes me feel better about the future. These three moved me with their sincerity, their openness and their manners. They were beautiful humans.

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