Personal Journeys: Courage to Mentor

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"... I'm nobody special. I have nothing to impress, no charismatic voice. How can I guide this child? What if I'm too dull? What if he just ignores me and mocks me behind my back? I can't connect if I just turn into another teacher who says 'no' and 'stop-it'. I want to connect ... Wilson Cheung"  

In 1998, I started volunteering for Big Brother's / Big Sisters as a school mentor to 11-year old Terron.  Terron's role models came from TV sitcoms, pop stars, professional wrestling.  In today's world more of how you fit-in socially depends upon what brand clothes you wear, the electronic gadgets you have, or the kinds of toys you have. I felt I could show him how a seemingly regular guy could command more respect then than the many who put effort into looking "cool" or "hip." I knew I could offer Terron an example of an adult doing very well who doesn't live the hype. What I didn't anticipate was how much Mentoring would help develop me.

I was a bit unsure how Terron, would feel about me since I was Chinese. I was worried about
Racism. I've often been made fun of by younger African Americans, because I was Chinese. At first it felt like both of us were just going through the mechanics. Terron would give me reserved looks like "Gee, I hope he's not a nerd." But, just when I started thinking there's no connect here. Terron starting asking me if I'd come back tommorrow. Whenever I told him that I would have to miss a day because of a business trip he got slightly upset! He actually looked forward to meeting me! He start showing me off to his friends. Other kids were in awe and asked if I could be their mentor.

That first year with Terron in 5th grade really built up my self confidance. I got plenty of opportunities to loosen up and be a kid again. When was the last time you played a game of tag with 10-year olds? When was the last time you wrestled with 6 kids at the same time? When was the last time you became a "star quarterback" for both teams on the playground? And despite all that the experience did for me, teachers thanked me for what I did for Terron. I never ever actually worked on his studies, yet somehow he was doing better in school!

After my 1st year, I definitely got to give that shy kid inside of me a chance to express the glory he never dared show before. Now in my 2nd year I've matured, but there's so much that's unknown. Once again I feel the jitters again and start thinking: "Does Terron really need me any more?, Maybe, I should just get assigned to another child?" But, I want to teach Terron about consistency and loyalty. I'm don't want to be another "here today and gone tommorrow person" He's seen too much of that.

Teachers say Terron's slow.  I think he's really sharp.  So he comes off appearing less capable.  However, he's got loads of the most important thing, a good caring heart.  There's plenty of excuses available for him to grow discouraged and giveup.  I want help him grow up proud of himself! I want him to know he can do anything!

8/10/2000 - A 2nd year has ended. Terron has graduated from 6th grade and will be entering Junior High School. There is a huge difference between that 5th grader and now. The biggest issues seem to involve the need to be agressive and disruptive to fit-in. It's "cool" to be the instigator. It's still ok if you're not the instigator, but by no means do you want to back down from a confrontation. According to Terron's lingo if you don't fight back from a confrontation, then you're a "punk." A "punk" is derogatory label for someone who is weak, a "push-over" a "whimp". However, he knows very clearly about my disapproval for getting in trouble for fighting. He's told me that many times he's gotten in trouble for things he didn't do. I do believe that he's been punished unfairly, but I told him that comes with the territory if you develop a bad reputation for yourself. I know that partly because of his size (he's not a little boy any more), his speech, and unfortunately his skin color he's going to be suspected of wrong doing. I've strong encouraged him to at the very least do whatever it takes to not get in trouble, because a single incident on his part will increase his chance of being accused unfairly in the future. I try as much as possible to praise him for him not getting into trouble. I'd say that in some ways the goal of not getting into fights is a step back from not getting failing grades.

As I approach the prospect of a 3rd year with Terron in Junior High School, I look forward to helping Terron. It would be easier to move back down to 5th grade with a new "little" brother, but once again I want to show him some consistency. In Junior High School, he's going to get exposed to some increasingly rough stuff. So will I. I just hope that it's not too rough for the two of us.

2/5/2001 - I have yet to see Terron. I hear his current Big Brother still sees him. Last year it took several months for the Big Brother organization to get me reconnected with Terron's school. By the time they contacted me, I was already busy with so many other things and suddenly felt all loss of motivation. The biggest thing bothering me was I now wondered what the purpose of visiting Terron was. Sure it would be continuing a good deed, but I no longer felt any purpose coming from the heart. So instead of just doing it, and feeling like it was an obligation I never started seeing Terron. Especially since Terron already had a full-time Big Brother, I felt that my importance was greatly diminished. Now I think what I would like to do is at least visit Terron once just to say goodbye and bring closure here. I will probably look to mentor someone else who lacks any mentor.

5/10/2001 - I'm finally scheduled to meet with Terron! I'm happy and excited to be able to meet him. Lately, I've found myself getting more and more wrapped up in my work, that the days just flew by. I'd remind myself in the morning to get in touch with Terron's counselor, then someone would come in with an urgent request and like magic the day is almost over. Finally, some high priority things at work are being resolved so that I was able to talk to the school counselor's voice mail and get a call back with me present.

5/8/2001 - Today I saw Terron! I was originally expecting maybe he had grown to be much larger than me. He's now at Junior High School, but he is still so very much the same Terron I remember back in 5th grade. He seemed almost the same size as a 7th grader. He's matured but still very much that same very quiet and reserved Terron with a deep-seated sort of disillusionment and resentment about life. I thought he'd be giving me a blank stare, but he smiled when he saw me. Despite not always being sure what my purpose was with him, he was kind of glad to see me.
Clearly the key thing that holds Terron together is the deep love of his mother. His relationship with his father is a sore point. Terron's last name is different than his father's last name. His role models have been other people who've also been frustrated with life and have ultimately ended up in jail. He mentioned that his elder brother got in trouble for stealing and joy riding in cars. His father's done more serious things and so Terron often doesn't see his father.

This past February Terron's grandmother passed away. I know so much that his grandmother as much as his mother was a really big part of his life! Whenever, their was trouble in his family, his grandmother's place would be the place of refuge. Terron said he cried a lot, but that now he was over it.

I think Terron thinks of me mostly in the context of the person interested in his grades. He told me how poorly he was doing in math. However, I was again bothered by the fact that he said he knew he could do much better if he wanted to. However, he didn't want to. Why, get good grades? He's happy as long as he passes. Yet he did sometimes gloat about how well he does in other courses like reading, where he got some A's and then frowned about the time he got a lowly C. So then it seemed strange that a D average in math was good enough even he could do better.

My guess is that truly it stems from his self-esteem. Although he says he's doing ok in math, I think that he honestly has difficulty with the subject. And since it's difficult, he afraid that if he tries harder and still doesn't do well, then that will show he's weak. So by not trying hard, he has an excuse for not doing well. He did say that he could have really used my help in the 1st and 3rd quarter. I was saddened a bit I wasn't there for him.

I asked him if he wanted to see me next week. He responded, "I don't know" Like I said earlier I was prepared to make this a goodbye. However, because of that smile I saw in his eyes when I first saw him, and because of the fact that he still looked like that 5th grader I remember, I think it was a bit too early to say goodbye. At the very least I think he does enjoy bouncing off his thoughts against me.

I think what I'm learning much more about is the importance and power of being more than doing. For as long as I've known Terron, I've been frustrated by my lack of ability to "do much" with his grades. His attention span drops real quickly for things he doesn't do well in. I don't push the grades issue too much because I see there are much deeper issues to face with Terron, like making sure he doesn't end up in jail when he becomes an adult. There's this sudden urge to "do something" yet when I look at the situation, there's nothing I can do that wouldn't be just forcing something to just make me feel better. And so often I feel like I'm just there to sit with him and do nothing. Yet somehow sitting with me and doing "nothing" is something he kind of looks forward to. So I guess there's a lot more power to just being there than we have all been taught. Those who need to do will come and go because they’re done. Those who just be, just tend to stay and stay.

I started to help Terron with some of his Math homework. I wasn't quite prepared to be actually helping him with his school work. I was totally embarrassed when I just kind of fumbled on how to perform long division on irrational numbers. Quick. Can you remember how to calculate 17 divided by 121 by hand and write out the result as a percent with no rounding?

I've met with Terron after school to help him with his math. I was happy because it was one of the first times ever that I really got a chance to sit down with him to work on actual school work. I brushed up on my long division so that I could teach it, and then I tried my best to express the math in real life terms such as money. Terron is having great difficulty with Math. He also finds Math one of his least favorite subjects, most likely because he can't do well. In general he kind of declares whatever he can't do with ease as something that's dumb or that he doesn't like. I worked hard to keep his attention focused on the math. I felt that I made some although small progress.

This was a tough day. Something really seemed to be bothering Terron. He was very elusive. When I came to school to meet with him, he had decided to participate in another activity involving a rock climbing event sponsored by the local leadership development group. He immediately told me he didn't want to do math. He intentionally waited in the back of the line to prevent me from tutoring math. However, I was glad to see him attempt the rock climb of this outdoor rock climbing wall. He made many fustrated attempts to try and scale the wall. Unfortunately, in the end he was not able to make it up very far. It hurt to see him finally give up with a look of defeat. He was on the verge of tears. I just told him that it was great to see him try and that what he was attempting to do was quite difficult. However, I held back from trying to soften up the situation by saying "it will be alright" or "that rock climbing is stupid anyway". If you just try and cover it up, you teach the skill of supressing and hiding from your fears and pains. I've learned that it's best to take things at face value even if it hurts. You ultimately grow that way. I just tried to be with him in his time of defeat by encouraging him just to take a quiet walk with me to just sit, not talk, just be there for when he wanted to talk. I was able to squeeze about a 5 minute Math lesson with him with mild success. We parted planning to meet one last time next week. I don't know if we will be meeting each other in the future. It's kind of fustrating because I can see Terron really could use someone like me in the long term. However, it's discouraging because it seems that he doesn't really care for me. In fact he seems to find ways of making it difficult to meet him. He kind of has this impression that I'm this paid social worker whose obligated to meet with him. We've had discussions before where I've told him that I'm strictly a volunteer doing this on my own time. I don't think he fully trusts that statement. Therefore, even though I think he could use me, maybe the I'm doing him a diservice by staying with him, by teaching him to take for granted and neglecting things of great value.

This past year with Terron has been overall a bit more encouraging. As I have been always stating, I've never been quite sure if I was doing anything of value for Terron. I only meet him once a week for one hour, and during that one hour we generally accomplish lunch, a small chat, and a 10 minute basketball game. This past year I tried to help him from failing in Math.

Terron had several week to prepare for a state math exam to see if he could move on to the next grade. I talked to him and asked if he really wanted to pass. He insisted he needed my help. That he wanted to pass. His current goals were to play college football and to be a lawyer. He was doing so-so in most of his courses and in Math he was failing badly. His academics clearly weren't in line with his goals.The subject was introductory geometry, involving things like identifying shapes, measuring angles, and measuring distances. But it was fustrating to teach Terron. One day we focused on measuring angles. He couldn't measure angles because he didn't have a protractor. We then tried measuring the length of lines and once again he couldn't becaue he didn't have a ruler. He claimed to have never had a ruler and protractor! So I went out and bought him a nice protractor and ruler for him to keep, so that he could even do his homework. The next week I was fustrated when he left his protractor at home. The following week brought the protractor and then in my presence, I watched his eyes glaze over as he started playing with the moving arm of the protractor in boredom. He broke the protractor, treating like it was empty can of soda, ready to be discarded. He was bored if he believed that I was reviewing things he already knew how to do. But at the same time he was afraid to prove that he could do the things he claimed he knew how to do. He claimed to know everything in math at the same time he would say that he didn't understand it. For every hour we met he had about 5 m inutes of attention span, with the remainder of time spend sliding off his seat underneath the table, staring blankly upwards. That's when I realized the futility of trying to help Terron academically. I asked him once again did he really want me to tutor him, and would he rather that we go back to playing basketball. He said he didn't know, staring at the ground. But his actions said he want to learn. I told him that I was ok with just playing basketball and that when he was really serious about me tutoring me to let me know. He never asked me to tutor him and we just continued playing basketball.

I remember one night when he called me up after taking the state math exam. He said he wasn't sure how he did. He didn't think he did so well. He asked me do I think he passed. I said to him I was concerned that he wasn't prepared enough for the math exam, but he might possibly pass if the parts on the angles and triangles didn't count too much. I don't believe he passed and he is now in Summer school.

For Terron, there were problems bigger than his academics. Terron also had a temper about him, especially with teachers. If you look at Terron funny, or do something to hurt his pride, then Terron will totally disespect you. For example if a teacher asks Terron to go to the office for talking, Terron will stand his ground, and ignore the teacher. If threatened with detention, Terron might respond with a statement of knocking your head off. Ultimately, Terron will choose the path of escalating confrontation rather than backing down and lose his pride. This past year this quickly escalated to having a police officer talk to Terron and then escort him home in a police car. Terron was told that he was suspended for one day, and that he would be arrested if he showed up the next day at school. Terron showed up the next day anyway. Fortunately, nobody quite noticed, since it was near the end of school.

I did get a chance to give Terron a piece of advice, which I remember giving him back when he was a 5th grader getting into trouble. I told him that life is often going to be unfair to you. That because he starts getting into trouble more often, that it's going to harder to not get into trouble. That teachers will always start assuming that he's the instigator. That other kids will have the ability to throw the first insult or punch, and when you fight back, you'll be the one caught and thrown into detention, because in the end it will be your word against the word of another kid. And since Terron's record was bad, he would always tend to lose. I warned him that as he gets older the consequences would ultimately land him in jail.

Maybe a police officer talks condescendingly to Terron, maybe he provokes Terron without any due cause. Then Terron talks back, and soon Terron is in jail. Soon he can't find employment. Soon he's back in jail. Soon he's well on his way to being a hardened criminal, who at heart was merely a boy with a good heart, who was dealt too many bad cards. This was the picture I painted to Terron. The key question I told him to always ask himself is "Is it worth it?" Forget about is it fair or is it right. If someone of authority tells you to be quiet or challenges you to a confontation, "do you butt heads or back down" I emphasized to Terron, that he should just back down. If he want to hold your pride, it's ok to try that with a peer. But when it comes to a figure of authority, just back down, even if you're in the right, even if it's unfair, because will the result be worth it? Terron answered "no" I emphasized to Terron, that he was too damn good of a person to end up in jail. But that if he didn't change his attitude that's were he was slowly but surely headed.

The more I think about it, I realize that mentoring is very much about finding my value and purpose, probably even moreso than simply helping another human being. I've learned there isn't very much in terms of any one kind of activity, behavior or will that I can do that will effect Terron. No matter how much I don't like admitting it, no matter how much I try and convince myself otherwise, I always learn that in the end it comes down to Terron, himself, and what he ultimately decides he wants to do. In many cases that simply comes down to deciding that he even wants to decide. Because the act of avoiding decision is itself a decision that's disguised so that you feel like you can blame your problems on everyone else since you didn't make a decision.

Anyway at the end of this school year I was pleased to hear Terron talking to me about how busy he was going to be. He was going in his 2nd year of golf camp. He was participating in baseball. He was playing in a local basketball league. He was going to Summer school.

It's been over a year since I've written. I'm still in touch with Terron although less so. Partly this is because Terron is a bit set in his ways.

Terron in Summer 2003

A lot is because I'm just too swamped at my job as a project leader for software developers. I've been busy traveling more and attending meetings more. I'm by no means a big time manager, but for my life style with Virginia, the slightest amount of travel and increased workload can become overwhelming. I got a dog in early 2002 and have been busy taking my dog, Muffin, through dog training classes.

Muffin 2002

Admittedly, Muffin has filled a lot more joy into Virginia's life and mine. I haven't seen Terron for a few months, but I will probably start seeing him again by December or January. I don't know how much more I can help Terron. He's becoming grown up.

 Terron Taylor my "little" brother