Desperately Seeking Leah

And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through.

David Bowie

   This quote appears at the beginning of the movie The Breakfast Club. In the movie, five teenagers confined to their high school library for a Saturday of detention grapple with stereotypes, parents, and growing up. It's the first (and I think still the best) of a rash of movies released in the last few years that picture adolescents trying to cope in a threatening world.

   All of them seemed to agree on one thing: teenagers are growing up in a virtually adult-free world where they are forced to figure out life for themselves without adequate role models of parental supervision. If there are parents at all, they're gone all the time, divorced and preoccupied with someone new, or so emotionally unstable that they need their kids to prop them up.

   I used to wonder if this picture was very accurate until I struck up a conversation while sharing a hotel jacuzzi with a young teenager one night.

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   Her delicate features told me she was just a child, but her face betrayed a premature heaviness characteristic of the adult world. I threw out a couple questions to try to get over the uneasiness I felt being alone with her in a hot tub. I quickly found out David Bowie was right: she knew what she was going through.

   In fact, she knew it so well she surprised me with how she could articulate her situation so clearly. Had I made up this conversation myself for a novel or a short story, I would have rejected it as being too well-developed for a person her age.

   "Here for the weekend?" I asked.

   "Yeah."

   "Are you with a group?"

   "No. I'm here with my parents, but they've abandoned me."

   "What do you mean?"

   "I might as well be living by myself. They're never home. My mom and dad both leave about 11:00 in the morning and get back about 3:00 the next morning. I never see them. When I do, we fight. I fight with my father mostly. It's no use. I've given up trying to be nice anymore. I usually let my father have it. He has it coming to him.

   "He said he'd buy me a gun. A boy I know has threatened to rape me, so my father said he'd buy me a gun.

   "Now, what am I supposed to do with a gun? I don't even know how to use one! Once I tried to run away to Canada but I didn't have enough money. I can't wait until I can make enough money to leave home. I might as well; I'm on my own now — it's just that I never got to be a kid."

   "How old are you?"

   "Sixteen."

   "Do you ever tell your parents how you feel about all this?"

   "Yeah."

   "What happens?"

   "They treat me like a baby for three days — bring me to a hotel like this — and then everything goes back to being the same."

   "Why not tell your mom you want her home until you finish high school?"

   "Oh no. I've gotten too used to not having them there. I don't think I could handle having my parents around now."

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   "How long has this been going on . . . your parents both gone so much?"

   "About two years."

   "Do you think if things could change and your parents were around more, you could be a normal 16-year-old?"

   "No. It's too late. I don't think I'll ever have kids either."

   Her cousin came and interrupted our conversation along with a hotel employee closing down the pool area. There was a brief exchange with two older boys in the game room; then she and her cousin were off down the hall toward their room. It occurred to me I hadn't gotten her name, but I had a feeling I knew what it was: The New Teenager in America. But for now, let's just call her Leah.

   I wonder about Leah's generation.

   Given the accessibility of birth control and the propensity each generation has toward avoiding the pitfalls of the former (getting married and having children, according to Leah's assessment of her parent's generation), I wonder if the new generation will have any children, if there will be any survivors.

   One thing's for sure: love and caring are still the best ointment for healing a wounded society. The hardness that was already forming on Leah's 16-year-old face was simply a common defense against a lack of love. The saddest thing is, she's probably going to give herself away to somebody who will promise to give her in one night what she hasn't had for a lifetime.

   I thought of the group of high school-aged young people I was with for the weekend. They were almost all Christians, here to attend a leadership conference at a Bible college. I found myself seeking Leah to bring her to our meeting the next morning. She probably would have found the games corny and some of the young people "uncool," but if she would have resisted at all, it would only have been on the surface. Deep down inside she would be longing to be part of a secure environment where she could truly be 16 again.

   I thought of relatively healthy Christian families and the incredible ministry they could have by simply opening their doors — surrogate families to a whole neighborhood of wandering teenagers, homeless in their own sort of way.

   Some of you who read this book can provide a home to the Leahs in your neighborhood. Teenagers are always going to

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their friends' homes when their parents are gone, so why not invite them to your house. It will probably mean putting up with some loud music, weird characters, and rearranged furniture. But a home that provides genuine acceptance, love, and caring will truly be what Jesus said we are to be: a city on a hill that cannot be hid.

   I can't get to Leah, but I can get to you. Who knows? Maybe somewhere out there, one of you will find her before it's too late.

Chapter 49  ||  Table of Contents