The local high school football stadium is close enough to my house that I can hear the crowds cheer from my back yard on Friday nights in the fall.
I can hear the dispassionate voice of the stadium announcer saying that it’s third down and two yards to go for the Leeds Green Wave at the Elmore County 17 yard line.
I have a powerful emotional reaction to high school football. It was a big deal in the town where I went to high school and I was there for every game. The entire community seemed to be there. The stadium was always packed — and we went all the way to the state championship game during my senior year.
It wasn’t just “them” — the team — rather it was “us.”
It felt as though it was all of us, from the students and teachers all the way to the city business owners and civic leaders. Everybody was there. It was a source of pride. We were part of something bigger than just ourselves.
I’m sitting in McDonald’s late on a Friday evening watching high school kids who have just watched Leeds defeat Elmore County 33-27 — and watching them reminds me what it felt like as a 17-year-old to need to belong.
It’s been busy in here for the last hour or so. The local people are happy. A smattering of visitors from Elmore County seem a little glum as they stop for some food before their drive back home. (I don’t even know where Elmore County is.)
I can’t really identify with these kids. I have little in common with them. But if I squint hard and pretend the time is long ago, I can imagine that it’s my high school peer group — after a game or after church on a Sunday night — gathered around multiple tables and making an obnoxious amount of noise.
There’s a wide variety of teens among the groups I’ve been watching. They’re racially mixed. Some are attractive and some are a bit homely. A couple are still wearing cheerleader uniforms. There’s one guy who seems to be the clown of the group and he loves the spotlight. And a few of the players came in after they had showered and changed clothes.
They all seem to be working so hard to fit in. I can’t even explain that. Maybe I’m just projecting what I unconsciously felt at their age. Their jokes are loud and fairly unfunny, but they all laugh confidently, just as my friends and I did so many years ago when we were their ages and eager to fit in.
We weren’t really what I thought we were at the time. My crowd was mostly other kids from the youth group at First Baptist Church of Jasper. I had been president of the Youth Council for a couple of years. We were the biggest youth group at the biggest church in the county.
We would have thought of ourselves as better than the other kids. The thinking that went into that was complicated and contradictory. We were “good church kids” who had a lot of pride in being good, not mature enough — either as Christians or as human beings — to understand that our pride was sin.
I needed that group.
I had moved to this little town when I was in the eighth grade. Most of my fellow students had been together since elementary school. I was a bigger-city kid who didn’t really fit for awhile. But after a few years, I worked my way into leadership positions and found myself being part of these groups in which I had been the outsider in the beginning.
My identity was tied up in being part of certain groups and positions. I was one of the school’s “smart kids.” I was one of the First Baptist crowd. I was the editor of the school paper. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I craved the attention and approval of my peers.
As I watch these kids tonight, I’m powerfully aware of our need for social belonging and mutual acceptance. Humans have filled that need in various ways throughout history, but few things in the modern era have been as powerful as the sense of belonging that many of us had from being part of a close-knit smaller community.
It’s a testament to the power of that emotional attachment that I still check high school football scores on Friday nights in the fall to see how my old high school did. Even though the school board changed the name of the school — from Walker High to Jasper High — I still care how they did, even though I no longer know anybody connected to the school and have no real connections to the town anymore.
I was happy tonight to note that my Walker Vikings — excuse me, Jasper Vikings now — defeated their rival Dora Bulldogs by a score of 66-0. We’re ranked No. 1 in the state in the 5-A classification and that’s a pretty big deal.
None of that should matter to me, but it still gives me an odd sense of tribal identity to be proud of something which I was a small part of many years ago.
These kids in McDonald’s tonight are loud. They’re a bit obnoxious. Some of them are pretty full of themselves.
They’re just like we were way back when. And I was part of the group — wanting to be liked, wanting to be accepted, wanting to fit in — but telling myself that I didn’t care what anybody thought of me.
Life in human society can be tough, especially for those of us who are determined to live as we believe it’s right to live. Even people like me — who don’t want to live as other people dictate — need to belong.
I don’t want to need other people’s attention or approval, but I do. In many ways, I’m still that insecure 17-year-old who wants to be liked and loved and accepted.
We all need a place — a group, a community, a crowd — where we belong. No matter how old we get.