Written by: Kacy Leyba – East Campus Principal – 11/17/2017
Our computer teacher at the Denver Street School gave a simple assignment to her students last October: Write a letter to someone who has been a positive influence in your life.
Later that afternoon, she sat in our weekly staff meeting and explained that the majority of her students took the assignment to heart and began to type out letters of gratitude to moms, grandmas, teachers, and coaches almost immediately. But in the corner of the room, James* sat and stared blankly at his computer screen. Vicki observed the situation for ten minutes or so before crouching down next to him and quietly asking why he hadn’t started his letter.
“Miss, I can’t think of anyone that’s been a positive influence in my life.”
As she told us this, I took a moment to evaluate the life of this 17 year old boy I was just getting to know.
He was oldest child of a single mother with a dad who took off well over a decade ago. He was a hard worker with an even harder edge to him, but a smile and sense of humor that could make even the crankiest DSS student laugh. He was the same young man that had shown up to my class a month earlier on crutches after having been shot in the leg over the weekend. He wasn’t a gang banger; he was shot while trying to sell his Playstation 4 so he could buy new school clothes for his little sister and himself.
Tears caught in the back of my throat as Vicki continued on.
“I pressed him,” she said. “‘Surely there’s someone who has been a good influence in your life.’”
“Miss, really. I can’t think of anyone…”
“I encouraged him to dig deep, to think of someone who has inspired him to be the kind of man he wanted to be, and I walked away to give him space to think. A few minutes later he started typing, so I left him to it for the rest of class. At the end of the period, my heart broke as I stood behind him and read his letter over his shoulder– his letter to the most influential man in his life began:
Dear Bob the Builder,
Thank you for teaching me how to be a hard worker when my dad wasn’t around to teach me what it means to be a man.”
It’s been a year since James wrote that letter; I know Vicki read the rest of it to us in our staff meeting, but that devastating first line is burned into my heart and mind for one reason:
The most influential, positive role model one of my students has is a fictional cartoon character created for toddlers.
Before you continue reading this, I want you to take a moment– let the gravity of that sink in.
Where are the strong men in his life? The valiant heroes? The patient, loving father figures? The mentors? The invested disciple makers? Where are they and why haven’t they shown up for so many of my students?
I don’t know. And neither do they.
What I do know is that the absence of Christ-loving, positive role-models in my students’ lives likely explains another tragic phenomenon we’ve come up against in the last few years at the Street School — the headline phenomenon. It’s the other gut punch I’ve written about experiencing on a horrifyingly regular basis when familiar faces show up in my newsfeed or my inbox with a news headline attached to them.
5 killed in Adams County homicide
Man arrested for attempted murder of police officer
Father arrested after death of 3 month old daughter
Aurora Police investigate rush hour shooting that leaves 1 dead
As my staff and I returned to our students after our fall break last week, I was reminded that the week away from DSS that was so refreshing and full of adventure for me, was full of bad decisions, abuse, neglect, and struggle for my students. For many of them, the Street School is the safest place they have in their lives. While I’m thankful that DSS can be that refuge for them, that realization simultaneously took me back to the feeling of urgency that I felt in late August– the urgency that overwhelmed me on August 29th as I drove away from the hospital in which one of my former students had just died from a gunshot wound. That afternoon I screamed and cried in traffic while I beat my fists against my steering wheel wondering how we got “here” and I haven’t been able to stop wondering that since.
That urgency for my students, for the teenagers of the world like James who may not have anyone cheering them on, lovingly placing boundaries around them, mentoring, parenting, or discipling them, has me by the throat these days. It’s an urgency that is threatening to kill me and I am begging the world to hear me out, to listen attentively to James’ story as well as to the call of Jesus in The Great Commandment:
“Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.
Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the Threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20, MSG)
Your ministry niche or the burning burden on your heart may not be inner city teenagers; it may be coworkers who don’t know the Lord or social justice for the sojourner. Whatever the urgent burden on your heart is, I am begging you with all of the fire-y urgency in my heart to “risk yourself totally”, as The Message puts it, and “go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18, ESV).
And as you personally go, I am also begging you to join me by falling on your knees for my kids, for those in our city (your city) who are lost and needy.
Would you join me in interceding for these students like James? My students are the future of our city and they so desperately need to know the love of Our Heavenly Father; they need to know that He can redeem every moment of pain, neglect, and every poor decision they have ever made. Would you pray for mentors to come alongside my students and support them? And for their advocates and teachers at the Denver Street School who have the joy of doing so everyday?
It truly is our honor to spend our days discipling our students at DSS, but the truth remains that they need more people who love Christ pouring into them. Our world needs bold followers of Christ to shape our culture with Love; our future truly depends on it.
Because I don’t know about you, but I can’t fathom letting another teenage boy make it to the age of 17 and have to say, “Bob the Builder is the most positive influence I have in my life”.
*Student’s name changed to honor their journey and privacy.