It was 1980. I was 28. The idea of mentoring a young person appealed to me so I signed up for a Little from Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS)—a program designed to develop one-to-one mentoring relationships with at risk youth.
Paired with thirteen-year-old T_, I arrived at the house where she lived with her mother and two younger brothers for our first encounter. I was invited inside and ushered to the couch. Her mother, a prodigious woman with a wary gaze, looked me over while the youngest boy, about two years old, crawled in my lap and slid slobbery fingers over me as if reading by Braille. Not a fan of infants and toddlers, I sucked in my distaste and tried to converse with this woman who had enrolled her daughter in the BBBS program yet seemed reluctant to let the girl leave with me. A normal parental reaction, I thought; I was, after all, a stranger. After a few minutes, T_, a slender and quiet girl, hiding her bespectacled eyes behind a forelock of rich brown hair that glinted red when the light hit it just right, led me down the hall to her bedroom. The house was chaos, and her room was no exception—typical teenager’s room. After a few minutes we returned to the living room, where I perched uncomfortably on the couch again, eager to share with T_’s mother my plans for a fun excursion the following week. We would go to a BBBS event at the Fairgrounds, not far from their home. As the youngest child romped over me and tugged at my hair and earrings, I noticed that rather than disciplining the offender, T_’s mother yelled at T_ for allowing him to misbehave.
After about 45 minutes I left—40 minutes longer than seemed bearable. The following week I arrived punctually. Again, I was ushered in and told to wait while T_ finished the chores she had not completed. There was a lot of yelling and shrieking. Again, both younger boys pushed the limits of civility and somehow T_ was at fault for each of her brothers’ misbehaviors. At last she had permission to leave.
In the car on the way over, T_ was shy, but valiantly kept up her side of the conversation. At the home improvement show, the BBBS staff handed us a sheaf of raffle tickets to sell. I figured we’d be lucky to move any of those tickets in this venue packed with couples dreaming of renovating their tired dumps into cozy, catalogue-worthy homes. But I hadn’t counted on the butterfly emerging from her cocoon. T_ turned on an innate charm and smiling broadly, approached strangers with a mile-a-minute line about their chances of winning a great prize while helping teenagers like herself. In short order, she offloaded our entire packet of tickets. We went back for more tickets, and she made those magically disappear as well as I trailed in her wake, amazed by her transformation. At the end of the event, T_ was the top raffle ticket seller. As we drove back to her home, the quiet, shy little girl who had sat beside me on the way to the event had been replaced by an excited, giggly, teenager, high on success and the praise of strangers.
We arrived at her house 15 minutes earlier than I had promised—a tactic which I insisted on for each of our outings. T_ burst into the house eager to share with her mom the success of the evening. After she’d rattled on for a few minutes her mother gave her an icy stare and told her to go to her room.
“You’re trying to be someone you aren’t. You aren’t talking like T_, you sound like you’re imitating someone else.” T_’s shoulders sagged. The air escaped from her soul. She thanked me, said goodnight, and trudged back to her room, eyes cast to the floor.