On the last day of Sports Camp I was walking around the outside of the baseball field with my charge, Hunter, holding his hand so that he wouldn't make a break for the woods - or the road. We were dragging our hands along the fence to high-five the kids in the lineup when I heard the coach shout, "Miss Kate, could you go get Jackson*?"
I looked up and there was Jackson. A sandy-haired eight-year-old who'd gotten mad, slammed his mitt into the ground and stormed off the field. He was grinding his foot into the grass with his bottom lip stuck out so far he could have tripped on it. I handed Hunter off to a teenager who was helping me shadow and thought,
"Here we go."
Jackson had been a tough cookie all week: whining about every injustice, every inadvertent bump at the water cooler. He argued about his place in the lineup, which bat he received, and he made a big fuss about having to hit off a tee during practice. And now, here was Jackson, running off, pouting, and exhibiting 27 types of selfish, attention-seeking, childish behavior**.
My instinct was to launch into Mom-mode and make this a teachable moment. The plan was to ask him why he was mad, find a solution, give him a firm speech (in a caring tone) about how throwing fits is a waste of time and energy and not a productive way to get what you want. (Neither is it socially acceptable for an 8-year-old and no one will want to be your friend if you keep pouting.) Then I would shoo him back onto the field where he would wait his turn with renewed patience and be reconciled to his teammates. End scene.
But on the way over there something caught inside my heart - I did not go with my gut.
I found myself thinking, "Nothing that could have happened on that field warrants this reaction. He's reacting to something else. Something bigger."
It occurred to me that this might be it. The reason he was at Sports Camp, or the reason I was. It occurred to me that Jackson had been at Sports Camp all week and this conversation about to take place between us was likely the first (and last) opportunity for anyone to really hear him. So I bucked against all of my instincts: I made it my goal not to react.
"When he tells me why he's mad, don't react." "When he tells me what he really thinks about the coaches, don't react." "When he mouths off, don't tell him he's wrong or suggest an appropriate way to express it. No teaching. Just listening."
Jackson must have been expecting me to go with my gut because when I took him for a walk up to the top of the bleachers, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and asked with surprise, "Am I allowed to be up here?"
I smiled. "As long as you're with me, it's okay."
He knew I was on his side. Then it all poured out - and I listened.
Jackson talked all about his baseball team, his big sister, his summer vacation, his favorite memories with his uncle, and all the injustices of Sports Camp.
In less than 10 minutes I heard what I was listening for: Jackson's mom was in the hospital. His parents split less than 6 months ago, and he was afraid.
I get that. I lived that.
That afternoon, Jackson didn't need someone to put him in line. He didn't need someone to shoo him back onto the ball field with a stern pep talk. Maybe he needed shooing the day after that and the day after that and the day after that - but on the last afternoon of Sports Camp, eight-year-old Jackson needed me to tell him about forgiveness. He needed to see the hope of Christ in my life, and he needed me to tell him how much a good church can be like a family.
The point of Sports Camp is not to teach kids how to play sports; it is to teach kids about Jesus using sports. If getting a kid back on the baseball field interferes with an opportunity to tell him about Jesus - baseball can wait. The point is Jesus.
"Don't miss the point."
That's what I learned at Sports Camp this year.
*Names changed to protect the precious. **To be fair, he is a child.