While strolling through the Griffith Park Observatory on one of those educational trips that I enjoy and she endures, my 14-year-old mentee tells me she was busted for ditching class and for smoking pot at school. My first thought: I must be a horrible mentor. My second: I remember getting busted for ditching class and for smoking pot at school when I was her age.
I believe that youth mentoring has the power to transform lives – the mentee’s and the mentor’s.
I joined AGBU Generation Next— a program that matches adult mentors with at-risk youth— about three years ago. I remember the first day I took my current mentee out. We walked around the mall: me, trying to fill the awkward silence with questions. Her, with her fists jammed into the front pockets of her jeans, lips pressed together. She couldn’t have said more than 10 words the entire afternoon.
Now, a year later, she sometimes tells me more than I know how to handle. I am not prepared for her school-bust confession. It takes me back to a place I’m not that eager to return to.
I wonder: if I had had an adult friend to confide in about my self-destructive adolescent ways, someone I could have talked to without risking disapproval or rejection, would it have made a difference?
At the Observatory, I make the decision to give it to her straight. I tell her about myself at her age and share stories about people I knew who did not survive. I tell her about a friend I had in middle school who called me from the psych ward after a bad acid trip. I tell her about three of the most popular kids at my high school who were killed in a fiery car crash after a night of partying.
Everyone needs something to belong to. If young people don’t find something positive and productive to belong to, they are going to find something negative and destructive. I was lucky. In high-school I got bit by the theatre-bug and spent most of my free time at rehearsal for school plays. The theatre became the place where I belonged. And a lot of my less-than-productive behavior just fell away.
The Observatory talk made me realize, I mentor two people: my mentee and the adolescent that still lives in me. It is a way to keep that young person in me company, congratulate her for making it through and show her how far I’ve—we’ve—come.
As I continue to try to steer my young charge toward her better self, I strive to communicate to her the following message: I see your self-destructive behavior and I care about what happens to you. I think you are worth better. And if you don’t feel like you belong anywhere else, at least you know you belong when you’re with me.
The time spent averages out to a few hours a week. Those hours are not always easy to find. But, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a way they might be better spent.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.