In Part 2, Ben Light explains how he deals with youth who struggle with gender issues, along with understanding drug addiction and increased suicide rates.
[Darris McNeely] Welcome to our Beyond Today Studios, “Beyond Today” interviews. We’re in part two of a discussion with Ben Light, an educator from Oregon, 15 years experience in the public schools of Oregon on issues and challenges that are facing young people today with some practical ideas and tips as to what we all can do to help make a difference with our young people today in our homes, schools, and our churches. Ben, you remember, we talked about the starfish, we’ve got this here, people may be wondering exactly what that’s all about. But the idea that the little boy on the beach in the early morning, starfish all over the place, throwing one at a time back into the ocean to try to make a difference in saving one even though it’s almost an impossible task, is really the setting for what we want to do as parents, educators, mentors with young people in wanting to make a difference, even if it’s with only one. I think you brought that up last time, the power of how that is when you do even with one, it makes all the difference in the world.
[Ben Light] It does. Yeah, it does. I mean, you can really take a look at the number of kids that you interact with as an educator, you know, there’s so many over the years. And, you know, if you make the difference in the life of one and obviously, as a teacher, you’re gonna make a difference in more than just one. But even one, you can call it a career. I mean, you can say that it was worth it.
[Darris] I think you can. I have had people come up to me that I knew and when they were young, and because now they’re adults, and I’m older, and we still have a relationship. But even though I may not have realized how significant it was, I did make a difference with them as their life on something, a word, a comment. I had that even happen to me as a young person and a turning point in my life when actually my pastor came up one day when I was at my lowest and just made an offhand comment from him, turned my life around and gave me that hope. So, there’s starfish out there and we can make a difference with one. Now, we were talking in this last program about the issues of transgender. You brought up that your son in the third grade had a classmate dealing with gender change. Blows my mind away.
[Ben] Yeah. I mean, it’s one of those things where the prevalence of the issue is increasing significantly. And I think the boundaries, like we tend to think that it’s this narrow band of certain ages, you know, that it’s gonna be the 12, 13, to 15, 16 kind of range, when in reality, those are now being pushed. And it’s getting younger, it’s getting…and it’s with all of our issues, drug use, sexual activity. All those things are happening now younger and younger and younger than what they were back when we were in school.
[Darris] How would you tell someone, a parent, a teacher, a concerned adult faced with someone who was caught up in the LGBTQ community and the acceptance of that in our society today to the point of law and certainly cultural norms? How do you deal with that when it comes down to the one on one situation with somebody you know? You’re confronted with it, someone you love.
[Ben] Yeah, it’s a very sensitive issue and it’s a tough issue. And if it’s somebody you love, you have a very open conversation with them. And I think, you know, if it’s somebody that you love and it’s somebody that you have a real strong relationship with, you can make clear that you realize I can’t condone this lifestyle. You realize that I’m looking at, you know, my life is governed by Scriptural truth, my life is governed by the guidelines of the Bible, you know that I can’t condone this. That does not, however, stop me from loving you and being someone who cares about you deeply. And you can even express concern, you can express the concern that you have that this person is struggling in this way and having these feelings and these issues.
[Darris] How do you help an adult working with a young person dealing with say gender issues, determine whether or not it’s a fad or phase because, you know, that’s what some will say. And it may well be that it is a fad or phase influenced by culture, but how do they tell the difference between a fad and what really may be a deep-seated issue, emotional matter that can be within the rest of the life and impact the rest of their life?
[Darris] How do you tell the difference?
[Ben] It’s tough, it’s really tough. You know, I would say if if there has been issues and things for a length of time, you know, if there have been indications earlier on in life that especially if it’s somebody you know closely and you’ve had time with this person, earlier on in their life, I think you can kind of see a pattern or a trend of data points that kind of illustrate to you that this might be a gender dysphoria thing. What I noticed and what I observed in the classroom was, as soon as DOMA lapsed…
[Darris] Defense of Marriage Act, right?
[Ben] Yeah. So, as soon as that happened, we saw an uptick in individuals that felt comfortable enough at least to begin expressing some form of same-sex attraction in the school system. Whether that’s a fad, whether that’s a phase or whether they just now felt comfortable enough because of the legislation to be able to come out, I don’t know. But there was a definite uptick after that.
[Darris] Did you have the resources to deal with that as an educator?
[Ben] No, no, not really.
[Darris] You were unprepared.
[Ben] Very much.
[Darris] Was the system unprepared?
[Ben] I think so. I think it changed faster than the system was ready to have changed. We had a training, one very brief training on ensuring that we used appropriate terminology to refer to people and that was kind of it, now go and teach.
[Darris] Go and deal with that.
[Ben] But, you know, the issue that we’re dealing with here with teachers especially is they’re dealing with all of this extraneous outside stuff. You know, the technology and the change in society and all these other issues, and then are still expected to teach their content and still…
[Darris] Math, science, history, and kind of things.
[Ben] Absolutely. And it’s hard, you know, there’s so many outside distractions that are preventing that and making it difficult.
[Darris] Do you think we’re far enough into this to see the effects of it?
[Ben] I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so yet. I think the long-term, long-range effects I think it’s like anything. You know, make a change and then you don’t see the effects for another, you know, 5 to 10 years down the road.
[Darris] Or a generation.
[Ben] Or a generation. I think we are just now starting down that road and I think 10 to 15 years down the road, it’s gonna be interesting to see.
[Darris] You’ve made the transition from the public sector of education into the ministry, working in a church setting now with congregations and people of faith, you’re a camp director, youth camp director for the church. How do you see this…has it crept into people, families of faith?
[Ben] It has, yes, yeah. To an extent, I think there have always been issues of same-sex attraction, you know, the Scripture has discussed it. I think it just has not been as societally accepted so it’s been kind of kept quiet. Where I think once society began to accept it, I think there was a certain push towards well, you know, I can be a person of faith and also, be a person who is living a homosexual lifestyle.
[Darris] So, have you seen this in your church camp setting?
[Darris] How did you deal with it?
[Ben] We, as much as possible, tried to educate the kids that were involved in the situation. We tried as much as possible to ensure that we had those kind of crucial conversations with all of them.
[Darris] Through the counseling staff and other adults working there?
[Ben] Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, and it’s one of those situations where I don’t know that you can necessarily change the mind of the individual. I mean, you can try and you can make an effort. But I think by the time that individuals to the point where they’re coming out, their minds are pretty made up at that point in time, and there’s not…
[Darris] Do you think they made up permanently?
[Ben] I don’t think permanently. I think you can have an effect.
[Darris] You can still make a difference.
[Ben] I think so. But I think that it’s an uphill battle at that point in time, that that individual’s gonna have to be very open to the possibility that they’re living contrary to what God is teaching. And if they somehow see that there’s a melding of God’s Word and this lifestyle, it’s gonna be a very difficult battle.
[Darris] So, the church and a parent has to make a very clear sound teaching and voice on these matters to show good and evil, right and wrong. Standard of morality, there can’t be any compromise.
[Ben] No, there can’t be. No, there can’t be.
[Darris] Do you see that compromise creeping into families in faith in a church?
[Ben] I think that societal conditions ultimately are going to creep into the church in a way no matter what you do, there’s going to be a small trickle effect that’s gonna come in from society. I think that there is a general feeling of well, you know, Christ stayed with sinners, Christ stayed, you know, with all these individuals.
[Darris] He did, which is often used as a crutch to support immoral behavior.
[Darris] Well, Christ didn’t condemn them. He showed love, etc.
[Ben] Right but at every turn Christ said, “Go and sin no more.”
[Darris] Go and sin no more to those, yeah.
[Darris] How does a parent prepare their child to face a world without God?
[Ben] I think it’s twofold. It’s exceptionally important that the parent makes sure that that child knows where true north is, that they understand where those morals are, they understand what the expectations and the guidelines are. So, I think teaching our youth what God says and what God teaches about these issues, you know, about these kind of hot-topic issues is important. I think that’s step one, the kids have to be educated in God’s ways. But I think step two is, there’s got to be conversations happening at a much younger age than what we had traditionally thought.
[Darris] And you mentioned your third grade son, your son in the third grade and the reality is it has to start that early.
[Ben] Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Yes. Yeah. And there’s always been certain innocence to youth. There’s always been that, for a number of years there’s been a certain innocence to youth. And then you reach a point where that innocence kind of begins to become to degradaded. It’s sad to know that that innocence has been degradaded at you know, six, seven, eight years of age.
[Darris] You live in Oregon.
[Ben] I do.
[Darris] Marijuana has been legalized out there, other states have legalized it as well and it’s freely available. Legalization of drugs being pushed in that way, is it far worse today than in my day or some previous time in terms of the availability and the impact of these things?
[Ben] I don’t know if it’s worse. I would say that the usage of marijuana, especially in Oregon, there has been a definite feeling amongst the young people of Oregon of, well, what’s the big deal? It’s no different than alcohol, it’s no different than, you know, tobacco, it’s the exact same thing. When you start to look at usage like, rates, I don’t know that it’s necessarily increased significantly among the youth. I think there was still experimentation that occurred in drugs in your day in the schools and things. I think that’s still the case today, the difference is the potency of what is available is very different. There have been recent studies that have come out that have shown a direct link to daily usage of high potency, high THC marijuana to things like schizophrenia and mental illness. And it’s been scientifically shown there’s a link to this. And I think, again, we talked about earlier, what’s the ultimate long-range forecast for what’s happening? We don’t know. You know, we’re doing these things now and 5, 10 years down…
[Darris] Are we flying blind?
[Ben] I think we are in a way. I do think we are in a way. I think, again, we legalized before everybody asked the questions that were needed to be asked.
[Darris] Did you deal in your setting much with suicide?
[Ben] I can thankfully say that I did not have any students during the time that I was teaching that took their own life. I didn’t have anybody in my classes that did that, I didn’t really have any that I can recall in the schools in which I taught where that occurred. We had a lot of deaths, we had car accidents and freak, you know, issues that came up health-wise. And so, you know, my year before my high school teaching especially has a number of dates underneath, some of the pictures that kids had died. I did have one situation that you kind of brought up the starfish story earlier, there was the young lady and one of my classes at the middle school that I taught at an eighth-grade class and she was very quiet. She didn’t really interact a whole lot, she was very withdrawn. And we did a little reflection one time talking about kind of what people don’t know about that person. And she opened up and she wrote that she felt like no one saw her. She felt like she was invisible, that no one saw her no one cared, etc.
And I still don’t know why I did it. I really don’t. But I wrote on the side of the little thing, a little note that just said, “That’s not true, you are seen, you’re not invisible. You know, I see, I’m very thankful that you’re here. I’m very thankful that you’re, you know, are in the class and all of that.” And nothing came of it. Nothing came of it for a number of years. She went on to the high school and they did a little letter about somebody that impacted them and I got a letter back from her that said, you know, “That time when you wrote that, I was contemplating taking my life. And that really made the difference with me to where I realized that I had a future and I had a hope, and I had people who cared about me and people who were interested in me.” And it made all the difference in that one starfish’s life, so to speak, to have that note that was given and that note went right in that box in my sock drawer to remind me why I did what I did. But that was one of those situations where you realize the impact, but I didn’t know the impact right away. It took three or four years before I learned that impact. You know, she was junior when she wrote the letter.
[Darris] I think we’re at the heart of the solution to a lot of the things that we do talk about. The person thinking that she is invisible to any other adult, any other peer and not being significant. I really do think Ben that that is at the basis of a lot of these problems that we’re talking about, from drugs to suicide, even alcohol abuse. They’re the end result of something that begins very early, that breaks that chain of a relationship that they have, should have with a parent. And it could be up because of toxic family conditions which has been caused by parental behavior that is along the same lines here, we are in there. My wife taught in the public school system too for a number of years and she dealt with that in classrooms on a regular basis. But it does come back to the issue of relationships and nurturing those maintaining them and making sure that people feel that they are safe. But they are also…they are loved, and that there is a person that they could go to, to sit down and talk and to be understood.
[Ben] Absolutely. I think that support of a mentor or someone to be able to come alongside and say, “Hey, you know, I see you, I, you know, I understand that you’re here, I know you’re going through a hard time but I wanna help, I wanna help where I can.” And trying to just get that idea of across that you don’t throw away a life that’s a little banged up, you don’t throw it away. That’s the big message to get across the kids especially that are dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, dealing with suicidal tendencies, dealing with whatever it might be, that you are loved, that people do care about you, that, you know, this is not so far gone yet, this can be taken care of, this can be fixed. But, you know, it’s gonna take work and it’s gonna take some effort on their part to be able to make that return.
[Darris] As you look at young people today that you work with in a church setting, in a church camp setting, during summer camp sessions. What are some of the good qualities, the positive qualities that you do see and I’m sure keeps you coming back to work with them in today’s youth?
[Ben] Yeah, I would say, you know, the millennial label gets a bad rap. You know, in a way there’s a bad rap that comes from that label, but there are some incredible positives. One of the things that I’ve seen in kids there is a genuine passion and a care for societal issues. You know, there is a want to try to fix the ills of the world. What I see in this generation, I don’t see a wringing of the hands on that front, I see a desire to engage and a desire to become passionate about whatever it might be, whether it’s environmental causes, or whatever it might be, there’s a jump into these causes and a jump into these these…
[Darris] They wanna make a difference.
[Ben] They wanna make a difference, and they want to make a difference however they can and right now. And so, I see that and that is a really neat positive, where I think there has been a degree of wringing of hands in past generations of, “Oh, we can’t fix this, so why try? This younger generation wants to tackle this stuff head-on. That said, you know, there’s a degree of jump in and then, okay, like there the staying…the follow-through is a challenge.
[Darris] And the reality of what actually can be done in somebody’s huge issues.
[Ben] And I think sometimes they just…they bite off a little piece and realizes how much bigger issue that can be dealt with. The other thing that I see is just a thirst for knowledge and understanding and which is great for working to preach the gospel message. It’s just a matter of connecting with and really instructing them of what God desires of them.
[Darris] Well, that’s the one big positive that I see when I teach the Bible to students every year in our Bible College, Ambassador Bible College. They do come wanting to know about the Bible. They may not have full knowledge and understanding of everything that’s in this book, but they have enrolled and taken a year of their life to come to learn and go through the entire Bible Genesis to Revelation verse by verse and have it explained to them, but they want that. If I would ask you Ben in conclusion here, for one who wants to be a mentor and help, what one solid piece of advice can we leave to somebody who wants to make that difference, that starfish difference with a young person in their life?
[Ben] I think I would tell them, jump in. Don’t wait for the young person to come to you, don’t wait for them. Interact, build those relationships, get to know those young people, you know, ask genuine questions about their life, you know, ask, be interested. And I think when that happens, those young people realize, “Hey, this person’s interested in my life.” They want to help build this relationship and then they’re gonna be much more comfortable when they have these questions about, you know, transgender issues or whatever coming to the person and saying, “Hey, what do you think about this? You know, what would you suggest I do in this situation?” I think sometimes as mentors we tend to wanna sit back and say, “Well, I’ll wait till they come to me, you know, they’ll ask when they wanna ask.” In my experience with youth, that’s not the case.
[Darris] So don’t wait. Be proactive.
[Ben] Don’t wait, jump in there, be proactive. You know, get in there, start building those relationships because like you mentioned, without the relationship, it’s not going anywhere.
[Darris] Ben, I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to come out here in the midst of you’re working with youth at this time with the camps and church work that you’re doing and sharing this experience with us.
[Ben] It’s a pleasure to come out.
[Darris] And for our “Beyond Today” audience, thanks for watching “Beyond Today” interviews, we will be producing additional ones giving you some very practical information and dealing with your life today, helping you to understand the full meaning of what “Beyond Today” is all about for a better future for you. Thanks for watching.