Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Kick Back and Deliver

So the new gig is this. Mentoring DC public high school kids from the far side of the Anacostia river, trying to give those with college aspirations the extra little oomph they need to make something of themselves. Seems a nice way to escape my recent preoccupations with navel-gazing and antisocial library-dwelling, and T, who has been doing it for years, sings the praises of this program.

Last week I met the other mentors, and we're a fine looking group. We got the skinny on what to expect from our students, and how to handle the inevitable rough spots. Don't expect a Hallmark card, they warned us. The students are in the program because they want to be, but there are broken homes and behavioral problems and some of them have endured abuse and gone numb to violence. You may be, they told us, the first person of your racial or ethnic background that these students have closely interacted with, and it can be challenging to earn their trust.

The organizers emphasized the importance of meeting the parents early. Introduce yourself, let them know who their child will be periodically running off with, explain the program if they're not aware, try to enlist their help in making sure the student shows up and makes an effort. I confess this made me nervous. It can be incredibly sensitive for a middle-class white girl to show up in the home of, say, a single mom working 3 jobs to get by, and explain that she'll be taking over from here. Toes can be stepped on, unintended implications of poor parenting can be transmitted. It seemed important that I find a way to explain my participation in the program (and in her daughter's life) in a humble and non-self-righteous manner.

But finally, last night, after much anticipation, I was to meet the student I'll be working with this year. We all gathered in a large meeting room, where the students clowned around and flirted and glanced at the mentors, wondering the same thing as we were. "Which one is mine?" The organizers started calling names and mentors paired off with their students. Some pairs looked like they could be sisters. Others, like the reluctant gangsta boys paired with eager PWC accountants made you long for a documentary filmmaker to tail them. I was so ready for this. Silently rehearsing my stand-and-deliver speech. My tough-love game face was on. I'm thinking Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Time to make a difference! Somebody needs me to believe in her! To push her onward when all the odds in the world are stacked against her! The chasm between our different worlds shrinking as understanding blossoms!

I was still burping out inspiration when Shanice sat down across from me. An adorable little thing with a quiet laugh and a ladylike air. My project!

"So," says I, indulgently. "Have you tried to think yet about what you might be interested in studying at college?"

She looks at me squarely. "Yes. International Relations."


This was unexpected.

"Wow. That's what I study," says I. She is happily surprised. "Have you thought about any schools yet, or should we start looking at programs?"

"Oh I pretty much have my list down - Cornell, Emory, a few others. I want to leave this area."

Aha. Uselessly, I glance down at the sheet of icebreaker questions handed to us by the organizers.

"And, uh. What activities do you like to do in your spare time?"

"I'm interested in photography. Other than that I just read and write a lot. But if I could, I would just want to travel all the time."

Sweet Jesus on a stick, this girl is like a 17-year-old Southeast quadrant me.

We skipped over the icebreaker questions and got straight into it. Career paths in international affairs, the future prospects of Latin American area studies, the ups and downs of working stateside versus in a field mission. My Michelle Pfeiffer playbook was worthless; this girl is more together than I am.

So I got a delightful young lady who is going to be a piece of cake to work with. I don't know what I can do for Shanice—though she seemed pretty psyched about coming to classes and talks around campus—but as for me, I want to find out how a kid like that comes out of Anacostia with such unblinkered determination. I have got to meet these parents.


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