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Pull up a seat: Mentoring in real life

“I want to start this off by saying, I made it without you. And please do not perceive this open letter to be anything other than to acknowledge that. I made it. I am not writing this because I am bitter – I am actually numb. I just want you to know that, because of you – I am more of a man than you could ever be.”

The National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR) asks, “In real life, who do you turn to?” Think about all of the students who don’t have a healthy answer. For those who do, it’s the one-on-one relationship with a caring adult that refuels them.

You just read an excerpt from my mentee, Trey. I tasked him to journal about something that I knew was bothering him for a few months — the absence of his biological father. In previous months, I observed a change in his attitude and behavior, which negatively impacted his grades. When I talked with his mother, she had no clue why, but relayed that he had been very distant. We both chalked it up to teenage moodiness, but the next time we met in the school library, I wanted to figure out how to help him open up to me.

“I have to pause, because I feel as if you are still going to misconstrue this as a diss. Not even close. If this letter comes off aggressive, it is only because of the aggressiveness I had to learn while I navigated these streets. This aggression is what helped me survive. My skin is hard — my hair is hard and my heart has been hardened. Plenty beat-downs and fights taught me that. I actually learned that if I wanted something … I had to take it. That theory got me in jail for one year.”

What is mentoring in real life?

I was introduced to Trey through a mentoring program at a local high school a few years ago. Initially, program leadership asked for volunteers to commit at least one year to building a one-on-one relationship with a student. The school had identified a handful of students that needed both academic and social competence support. In my experience in juvenile justice and Communities In Schools of North Carolina, I truly was a believer in the importance of a one-on-one relationship (mentor). The foundation of mentoring is a structured and trusting relationship, which many youth may not have experienced outside of their immediate family.  In Trey’s situation, there was an abundance of risk factors, and some of the traditional role models (parents, grandparents, and extended family) were often absent or have let him down with their lack support. That, along with school disconnection, was a recipe for a surrogate family to intervene — gangs.

“First jail … then a gang. I am no longer “that” man. I am a man that is now holding down a job … who has a  beautiful daughter … a man that believes a strong work ethic can get me places. I am a man that helps others learn that life has more to offer — if you have your priorities straight. I got nothing but respect for my lost boys in the streets — I was one of them. My anger for you fueled me to positivity. But I will put all of my energy into building MY family. I will make sure MY mother wants for NOTHING. I will make sure MY daughter has all that she needs. I’m not perfect, but I am a success story. Thanks for nothing …”

Life takes teamwork

I learned so much from my weekly time with Trey. He was closed off, and our hour together often felt like eternity. But research tells us that consistency is one key to a successful mentoring relationship. Showing up, being an active listener, and investing in a $2 journal provided Trey the opportunity to share this letter. This letter, along with other entries, provided me some valuable insight on some of his tough situations. But more importantly, it gave me an opportunity to provide interventions and engage his family and school in his support. From our first meeting, I would have never guessed the load he was carrying.

“I can’t even identify your actions as that of a man. In my lifetime, I have been introduced to many men who played the part. From teachers, to preachers, to the corner store guy who gave me a bag of Doritos when I was hungry. I got mentors! All of these people (and more) shaped me to the man I am today. You, sir, had nothing to do with it.”

I called Trey to ask if I could share parts of his letter — my call went to voicemail. When he called me back, I was informed that I called during a job interview. Trey is being considered for a manager position at a local restaurant.  After agreeing to share his story, Trey asked that I include a statement about not giving up on youth today and the power of a mentor. Trey is one of 17 students that I had an opportunity to impact and walk with on the journey of life. In this role, I’ve seen gains in academics, positive decision making, character development, and critical thinking. The $2 journal has been a central component of my relationships.

If you are impressed with Trey’s success — please know that this story is not uncommon. Mentors are changing youth trajectories daily;  I’m just glad I had a front-row seat to Trey’s evolution. Would you like to pull up a seat?

Danya Perry

Danya Perry is the vice president of Communities in Schools of North Carolina.