A living example

About six weeks ago, I sat in a conference room with three other prospective mentors and learned that we were all just days away from being matched up with kids. This was the second of two training sessions following an orientation, at which we’d learned that it often took months to make a pairing. But at this point the program had a long list of kids who were unmatched—some had been waiting for a long time. The other adults and I had read the handbook, been fingerprinted, and had our references checked. Since the program leaders trusted us, the parents of children who’d signed up would have to trust us now too.

That last thought struck me with unexpected force. As the program director continued speaking, I became overwhelmed with gratitude and fear.

For years I had thought about mentoring, but during that time I gained little actual experience with children. I’ve never even been a babysitter. The thought of being responsible for a six- to nine-year-old, even for a few hours at a time, was scary. On the other hand, I’d earned a lot of wisdom and self-confidence over the past few years. I’d also gained an audibly ticking biological clock, which may be responsible for my logically unfounded softening-up toward children. Where I used to be annoyed and intimidated by them, I now felt warm and sympathetic, and began to want kids of my own. Maybe mentoring would be a way to practice mothering.

Despite my supposed qualifications, it amazed me that some mother I had never met was ready to grant me the privilege of a relationship with her son or daughter. That’s what nearly brought me to tears during the meeting: thinking about this hopeful woman kneeling in front her child and saying, “We’ve found a special friend for you.” It wasn’t like I’d be saving someone’s life, but I was going to have an impact. I wondered if strength and love would be enough to carry me through this uniquely important position.

I steadied myself for the rest of the training. My confidence grew as we shared our life lessons with each other and talked about the meaningful friendships we’d had. The program leader said that our task was simple: teach the kids what we know, and act as “living examples” of our values. She told us that the simple act of being there, providing a listening ear, was more important than we could imagine. Mentoring began to sound nearly effortless.

Whether or not it was going to be easy, I was excited. I assumed that it was going to be a rather one-way relationship, at least in the beginning, and I was full of ideas for activities that I thought could be fun for my little girl. It turns out, of course, that my seven-year-old mentee has a strong will of her own and feels free to veto my ideas when they don’t work for her. When I see her, she brings her own ideas for play. We’ve been together for just over a month, and although we’ve done a few things at my suggestion—picnicking, making chocolate-chip cookies—I’ve also given in to the unplanned and unexpected: putting on (pretend) rock concerts in my living room, going (pretend) fishing, (pretend) flying to the moon, and hunting for (pretend) treasure in the park. It’s been awesome, and in a way … easy.

But the hard parts are really hard, because I’ve never had to deal with them before: being a role model, a teacher, a friend, and an authority figure all at the same time. I thought I would be tougher and less permissive than I am. I thought I would have the cleverness and presence of mind to weave little lessons into the fabric of our hours together—pointing out fun science facts during a walk in the park, tossing out words of wisdom that she might not understand now but would appreciate someday. So far, though, I haven’t learned how to do anything except be a playmate. Building an actual relationship with her is a challenge that I hope I’m approaching correctly, by being patient and attentive and trying my hardest to be trustworthy.

I know that I’ve made mistakes already; I just hope they aren’t serious enough to counteract the good I’m supposed to be doing.  She is counting on me—not for everything, but for what she’s not getting enough of in the rest of her life. And she deserves every ounce of me that I can give, during the small windows of time that we share.

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1 Comment

  1. Kristen ~ this sounds so wonderful. i too have found myself softening to children this past year or so. even crying children don’t bother me these days – i’d prefer that noise to the sound of the business men hollering down their cell phones any day 😉 keep us updated!

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