Monday, December 21, 2009

Tony’s Blog: “Not a damn thing”

There was laughter, gamesmanship, strategy and haggling. “Number 32, 33 on deck!” I called out and the young lady promptly went over to “steal” the adult diapers, clearly the most unwanted gift in the game, then number 33 steals them from her, but later she has the opportunity to steal them back and the game ends with our young 15 year old girl holding the most undesirable holiday gift ever. The game is called “White Elephant Gift Exchange” and when your number is chosen you can steal any gift that someone before you got, or take your chance on a wrapped gift. Why do we do this? Mostly because it’s fun, but I try to make it a learning opportunity. Learn to deal with disappointment when that coveted gift is stolen. Learn to keep material possessions in perspective. “Talk to your mentor.” Learn that everything that happens, good or bad, is an opportunity for ones advancement and not to regret our misfortunes because they are there to teach us.

But every time I learn more than they do. I learn how clever and strategic these young folks can be, how quick thinking they are as they strategize with friends how to steal a gift from one so that he is freed up to steal what he really wants from another. They are playing chess in real life. I learn to be a little better at managing and containing so much energy. I also learn that to some of these young people the laptop or mp3 players sprinkled in with the joke gifts are their only chances this year at the kind of gift that they dream of. I am reminded of just how materialistic we train our citizens to be. This sets me off on reflection about what we have become as a society, and the values that an over-commercialized consumer culture teaches its kids. I remember reading that Oprah chose as one of her most ambitious projects to open a school in South Africa partially because when asked what they most wanted, the kids there said books and school uniforms, whereas American children talk about the latest fashion trends, ipods and sneakers. Look what we have created folks. Those of us who dream of a society with higher values know that we have a long way to go. My hope in getting there rests in the faces that I see in the crowd of mentors and mentees. They come together on this night to celebrate the instant community that we created. California is the richest state in the union but ranks 46th in self-reporting of happiness. Yet, here I see a lot of happiness: mentors laughing at the spectacle and youth in an environment where they can let their shoulders down and just be kids for awhile.

So, back to the game. I also learn how good their memories are. The reason that Jasmin wanted to end up with the adult diapers and Darryl looked to steal the Mickey Mouse stickers is because they remember that the preceding year I made up a last minute rule that the person who got ‘screwed’ the worst could choose any gift in the house to steal in exchange. I’m still not sure if it was a clever life lesson to them or just a cruel hoax that I did not invoke that rule this year and they got stuck with the lousy gifts.

Mostly what I am left with are these memories:

• Dozens of cards signed with personal messages from youth and mentors for one of our young men who languishes in prison. We’ll send one each day to help him pass the lonely time.

• The giant card with “get well messages” that will be delivered to a young lady’s hospital room where she will spend the holidays due to severe complications associated with her sickle cell anemia.

• The beautiful reverence as all 100+ people in the hall reflect on our good fortune to be together and speak the names of those less fortunate of our community who cannot be with us tonight.

• And finally this: An exercise at our worksite mentoring program at HBO instructs mentors and mentees to reflect back on the year just past and ask“what would you change if you could do the year over again?” The mentor reports with pride that she and her mentee (who had been through some trying times that year), without collaborating both ended up writing the exact same answer:

Not a damn thing

With love, laughter, peace and blessings,


Happy Holidays. May your dreams take flight in 2010

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