Years ago, I was invited to work with at-risk youth in a school in Southern Israel. Thirteen tired teenagers scrutinized me, heavy metal bars on the dusty windows behind them. "So they brought you in because we're troublemakers?" they questioned.
I smiled through the knot in my stomach and tried an icebreaker about football star Lionel Messi, how he thinks and operates. I thought this would be a friendly way to start a conversation. One student interrupted, "Why should we care?" Stumped, I tried something else, an exercise in creativity I had prepped with their principal.
"Divide into teams and convince the vice principal to give you the photocopy room key. The first team to do so wins!" I proposed enthusiastically. The vice principal was not aware of the mission, but I had approval from the principal. "Let's see you think of a convincing story," I tried, but they stared back, unmoved. A lanky teen reached into his pocket and dropped a keyring on the table. "Here are all the school keys. Had them since day one." Shocked, we all laughed, breaking the tension. Then I asked what he does with the keys, and he shrugged. "Nothing really. But good to have just in case." Consider the enterprising initiative he displayed in procuring the keys, and yet how unfortunate it is that his abilities weren't nurtured towards more meaningful purposes.
I asked all the kids to do one exercise in flexible thinking, to brainstorm alternative uses for a pot without a lid. "A pot can be a frying pan, or a drum," I demonstrated. “Now it's your turn, you need to get to at least thirty. No one leaves for a break until we have thirty," I said. The light atmosphere in the room quickly returned to fatigue and restlessness swept the room, but I persisted. "You're not leaving until we have 30 different answers". It was too late for me to back down. A strange tension arose in the classroom. Nothing here resembled a regular lesson, and the children looked at me with an intrigued expression. I stood in front of the door. Some of them could probably physically move me from my spot if they wanted to, but something about my demeanour surprised them all. The strangeness of it all seemed to grab their interest. Between protests, they tossed out ideas: Flowerpot, chamber pot, target practice game, weapon, shield. We continued like this until the blackboard was full of thirty options.
On the way to the car one of them approached me with a smile. "Thank you," he whispered, "for being the first not to give up on me." It was a special moment that I take with me to this day. We all need someone that will fight for us.