By Ross Carper
Since as long as I can remember, I’m a hat wearer. Depending on the time of year, it’ll either be my trusty Seattle Mariners New Era 59fifty or a Krochet Kids beanie. As a Catholic school kid who wore a white polo and slacks every day, a “jeans day” was a coveted prize. But even on those rare occasions, my hat (then a Chicago Bears Starter snapback) could only be adorned outdoors during recess. Maybe this is the deep-seated psychological reason for my biggest pet peeve: hat stealing. I seriously can’t stand it when someone yanks my hat off my head.
I’m a middle school youth director. This pet peeve is a problem.
Of course, one of the perks of my job is that I am (for better and worse) expected to act and dress like a man-boy. My office is full of whimsical items instead of serious, businessy stuff. And I dress for the job I want, because yep: I’ve got it. So my job is the reason I’m wearing a hat to begin with, but when I’m surrounded by a gaggle of middle schoolers at an event, they’re usually amped up and pretty ripe for giving in to their powerful hat-stealing impulses. At some point, it’s getting grabbed.
I was reflecting on why this bothers me so much, and all at once, both my humanity and that of my students came shining through. For me it’s on a surface level: sometimes it just plain hurts when an uncoordinated young teen grabs my hat. And of course there’s the aesthetics to consider: my quadruple-cow-licked, matted, receding-hairline hat-head looks particularly terrible, not to mention the fact that my forehead will have red marks where the headband of the hat has been sitting all day.
But for the student, he or she is revealing a need. Sure: hat stealing is mild and basically harmless when it comes to possible attention-seeking behaviors. And it’s easy to see why annoying things like this happen. In an energetic social environment, it’s a learned skill for us to know what to do with our bodies and how to interact with the people around us. We know we want to have a fun give-and-take dialogue with the person next to us, but we sometimes don’t know how. The 13-year-old version of me in that Bears snapback certainly didn’t know how. Correction: this 34-year-old version of me still doesn’t always know what to do or say in a large group social setting.
But there’s something that could be deeper. I’m not psychoanalyzing anyone based on a single silly act, but the more I get to know specific hat stealers, the more I see some patterns. Perhaps it shows a certain social restlessness. Perhaps it’s an unmet need for affection, for attention, or for a simple moment of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances: in this case, running around the room wearing someone else’s hat. Maybe that need for attention runs deeper than I’ll ever know, complete with a history of broken relationships and pain. Maybe it’s just a kid being annoying. And as much as hat stealing annoys me, I try to go easy on the thief… just in case.
Over the past year or so, every time I feel my hat go off my head, I am simply reminded of needs: all the serious and not-so-serious ways that each of us hungers not just for attention, but for acceptance, and even deeper, for belonging. So I grit my teeth and try to be playful. I express honestly that the hat grab isn’t my favorite thing, but I also try to meet the unspoken needs in a more healthy and direct way.
It’s an oft-quoted line by Aristotle: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” As we look at our world, we can be overwhelmed by the needs we see. I mentioned social and emotional needs with the hat-stealing example, but we could list thousands more. As youth workers, our job is to live alongside our students in ways that not only attempt to meet some of their needs, but also in ways that help them see and reflect upon the needs of their neighbors, both near and far. And even further, we get to live among them such that they might–just maybe–meet the only One capable of fully meeting our human needs, and the One who shows us how to participate in the need-meeting Kingdom-of-God way of life:
[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
– Luke 4:17-21, NIV