Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Journey Through Mentoring.

I thought I was still young at 37, that is until met Zena, my 17 year old mentee with multi- colored hair and multiple piercings, having volunteered for the WB mentoring program. As it turns out, I don’t have a clue what goes on in a 17 year old’s life, especially one from South Central LA, who’s afraid to go out after dark because of the gangs and who’s not even sure what nationality her father is, let alone who he is. Her 9 year old sister has a different father and he’s not around anymore either. Her Guatemalan mother works all hours in a factory to make ends meet and when she had cancer a few years ago, Zena took care of her and her young sister.

The situation for all the other kids in the program isn’t much different, some of them have even been in gangs but have managed to get out, sometimes like David at the cost and sadness of leaving their family hundreds of miles behind to keep them safe. Apparently it’s no myth of the danger of trying to leave a gang.

Birthdays are celebrated as an achievement, some don’t expect to see the next one. Isn’t this the stuff we just watch on the TV?

I had no idea what to expect from the program, I certainly had no idea it would make me laugh and cry as much as it did. The kids are encouraged to find their voice through various group activities, sometimes fun activities, sometimes serious. You can’t believe the contrast between their humor and spark through the fun activities and their vulnerability in the serious ones. We watched one of the strongest and most entertaining personalities, Marcus, a 6ft tall young black man, hang his head and describe how small he felt as he tried to apologize for accidentally bumping into somebody, but they just called him a nigger and hurled plenty more verbal abuse at him. I don’t think I can describe in words the atmosphere in the room as he relayed this incident and just how worthless it made him feel. Usually he had us in stitches but this day he had me in tears.

As for Zena, there was just something about her that made me want to get to know her and so I was very pleased when we were matched. As it turns out, she really wants to play the violin and loves to listen to classical music to de-stress. I play the violin and have a degree in classical music. We also found out more recently that we share the same Aquarius star sign so it seems we were drawn to each other somehow.

But now what? After a few group sessions, we started one-on-one sessions. This is where we could spend much more time getting to know each other but she soon stopped showing up to sessions. Since we only met every other week, a month could go by with little or no contact.

Then one Saturday we had agreed to spend the afternoon together. It wasn’t the first time we were meeting outside of the program, it wasn’t the first time I slightly nervously drove into South Central to pick her up, or the first time I got to see her gangland neighbor’s work on the building opposite – the name of their gang in 6ft high lettering sprawled across a warehouse wall. The artistry is actually quite impressive, if only they would put their talent to something more worthwhile.

However, this time she wasn’t there, and wasn’t answering her phone, or my knocking at the door (whilst the neighbors looked on wondering what the white girl was doing hanging around these parts). I waited for a while but after no sign gave up and went home. I was relieved when she showed up to the next session but this was a group session (group sessions and one-on-one session are alternated throughout the program) so we didn’t have much time to talk. But fortunately this was the poetry writing session where street poets come in to give guidance on poetry writing.

Everybody writes a poem before those that are brave enough are encouraged to read them out, cue more tears as the kids read out their heart wrenching stories. I will never forget Kike, another big strong young man who blew his heart open and ran out of the room in tears as he finished reading. Witnessing this, we were left to wipe away our own tears and pick up our jaws off the floor after tough guy Kike finished relaying the struggles and disappointments of his life in a few hundred powerful words.

Incidentally, Kike just graduated from high school - something he didn’t expect to do a few years ago.

I took my opportunity to write my poem about Zena and how I was feeling and my frustration at her “testing” of me, how I just wished she believed I really was there for her. This turned out to be our turning point. When we were asked to hand all the poems in at the end, she handed her own in but kept mine.

I think Zena expects to be let down. One of the things she told me was that she didn’t expect me to show up that particular Saturday I went to pick her up. Her father has never tried to have anything to do with her and her last mentor left the program to have a baby. Zena is very mature for her young years and understands that her last mentor had other important priorities and it wasn’t that she didn’t care. But I think from experience she expects to be let down whether it can be helped or not.

In the last few minutes of the poetry session as we were all saying goodbye, I rather sternly pointed out to her that I was committed to this and that it took both of us to be committed to get anything out of it. She was holding a couple of cookies at the time and just looked up and meekly said “cookie?” as she proffered said cookies in my direction. I took that as an apology for her absenteeism and she’s never let me down since.

Now that she was showing up, we got to talk more and this is when I began to realize just how little I know of what goes on in a 17 year old’s life. I literally don’t understand most of what she tells me, especially about school. It probably doesn’t help that I was brought up in England in a completely different system. She’s into music and so am I. I thought working for a record company before WB would help here but apparently not - the only band she likes that I know or have even heard of is Daft Punk, and even they are getting old now!

Something we definitely have in common is our sweet tooth so I started bringing her different chocolate treats from England which she loved. In return, one day she presented me with an all American bar of Hershey’s milk chocolate. I was more touched by the thoughtfulness of the gesture than she probably realized.

Zena loves film and would love to be an actress so when we manage to meet outside of the program, I try to take her to the movies. We went to see Toy Story 3 at El Capitan which she loved. Afterwards they had the extra entertainment where you could meet the characters or play games related to the movie. Zena decided she wanted a picture of us sat on an oversized armchair. As she handed her camera to an agreeable passer by, she turned to me and said “look cool.”

Those words struck instant panic in me. I’m just not cool. And I don’t have multicolored hair which puts me at an instant disadvantage. She struck up a funky pose whilst I crossed my legs, uncrossed them, leant against the arm of the chair and generally felt as awkward as possible. The picture was taken anyway. Zena looks cool. I don’t. In fact, we look like chalk and cheese but somehow we still manage to make a connection.

Some mentors have trouble getting more than a few words out of their mentee. We don’t have that problem, the only problem I have is the trouble in understanding most of what she tells me! She knows this but she also knows I keep listening anyway and I keep asking questions to try and better understand. I found out at the end of the program that this was very valuable to her. I don’t think there are as many people in Zena’s life that have time to really listen as there are in mine.

Taking part in the mentoring program is not always easy. I had a lot of doubt that I could do it, especially when Zena wasn’t showing up - I thought she must not like me and I didn’t know what to do about it. Her phone was constantly disconnected and she had little access to email so communication was very hard but now every time she gets connected again, she is the one to get in touch and I just trust now that she will be in touch when she can. This is big progress for us.

The program is so rewarding, especially when you hear that only about 24% of kids graduate from high school on average in their area but of those that take part in this program, 92 to 100% graduate - it just shows how far a little bit of encouragement can go to motivate them, as well as seeing a world outside of their world. There are those at the start that are so shy they can barely look you in the eye to say hello, but by the end they find the courage to speak to the whole group even though you can see they are still scared and still finding it difficult to speak with confidence, but at least it’s a first step and for them, it’s a huge one.

We are just beginning the next program and I’m very happy that Zena is back as she starts her final year of high school – I can’t wait to see her graduate and I have no doubt that she will. I’m excited to really start to get to know her. The last program seems like it was really only an introduction. This year she has declared that she is going to teach me how to be cool. In return, I will try to be a good student - but mainly, I just want to be there for her.

Rosalind - mentor to Zena


Kevin said...

Thanks for sharing your story.

Anita O said...

Beautiful... thank you for sharing your story!