My nephew is at the sweet and tender age of 12.
He is at that awkward in-between phase of child and teenager. Hormones are filling his body. His voice is changing, squeaking and all over the place. He loves to stand next to me and see if he's taller yet (we are about even!). He hugs me without hesitation. He still adores me. He has crushes and friends. He loves gaming and reading. He is tender and kind. He is sensitive and complex.
He is so amazing. And in such a huge transition. Somehow he is managing it so gracefully.
It hit me on my way home from being with him yesterday: he is at the exact age I was when I started to realize I was different from everyone I knew. My body, too, was full of transition and hormones. I was changing and growing. And it was at this age I started to realize I loved differently. Not in the way my friends did. Not in the way anyone else I knew did.
I had had disappointment and sadness in my life before the age of 12. But it was at this age when my heart broke in a way that was foreign and new. And so incredibly painful.
It has been many years ago now, but the visceral memory of it is all too easy to access. The world I was raised in had me believing that not only was I completely alone in my feelings, but that I was also a bad person and would be going to hell for they way I loved.
But I was already in hell. Because as my tender heart was expanding and loving and young and hopeful, it was breaking and aching because I knew that how (and who) I naturally loved was wrong. And ugly. And unnatural.
And so I was silent. And shameful.
I wasn't "just a kid"---no kids ever really are. As a society, we assume an innocence in children. And although I had no external trauma to "take" my innocence away, I had the internal trauma of the unspoken (and spoken) messages that people "like that" were sinners. And different. And so perverted. And so my heart felt things bigger than I knew how to say. Or even understand.
I wrote my heartache down on paper. But when an adult I admired discovered it and laughed at me, the cracks in my heart grew bigger.
And so did the silence.
No one knew me.
My brain was still developing and I didn't have the tools I needed to understand. I was tender and young. I was scared and my chest was full of pain.
How I ached to be known.
So I (along with my 12 year-old self) am here today to give all of us adults a gentle reminder. If you have young people in your world, take a moment to get to know them. Get curious.
Just because you raised them doesn't mean you know them. Just because you teach them doesn't mean they aren't hearing messagesyou'd never want them to hear.
Children are people too. And although their day-to-day concerns may be different than yours, their innate humanity is the same as yours and mine.
Let them speak.
Ask without judgement.
They are individuals, not extensions of you.
I am not a parent and so I cannot pretend to know how rewarding and challenging it may be. I am not here to judge or point fingers. That is not my place or my desire. Rather, simply, my 12 year old self is asking you to see these wonderful people with new eyes.
See her as she is, she asks me.
As I look inside myself and see her, I say a prayer of thanks. She is tender and beautiful. The heart that I feel beating inside my chest now was beating inside of hers, too. We aren't so different, her and I.