He happened to be in the assistant principal’s office. Trouble had arisen on the playground. While he hadn’t started it, he’d made a “bad choice,” spitting like that.
As problems went, I was assured, this was hardly major.
Several of us who had presumed to become “mentors” were gathered in the administrative suite of an elementary school in inner-city Little Rock. We were receiving our assignments, our “mentees,” as they were annoyingly called.
He heard me say his name. He jumped to the door and grinned.
He was 11 and in the fifth grade. He had recently completed a tour of duty at a camp for kids with behavioral issues. That had been his mother’s idea, though school officials didn’t think he was so much the miscreant. They described him as one who would behave responsibly if left to his own devices.
But other kids wouldn’t always leave him to his own devices. One had to learn to work with others.
I didn’t mention that I got occasional grade-school marks of “U,” for unsatisfactory, in that very thing.
When I received a friend’s invitation to become a mentor, it occurred to me that I’d be better off with the inconvenience of doing it than the guilt of not. I wondered what difference it could possibly make in the life of a socially and economically disadvantaged fifth-grader if I went to his school to chat with him for an hour a week.
Motivated by guilt and dubious about the value — those probably weren’t the mentor’s optimum attitudes.
Soon the young man got suspended for three days. The counselor said she hoped I could find out why his single mom was no longer bringing him to school and why his grandmother and aunt were dropping him off.
The teacher came to give me credit for his improvement. I knew better. He’d gotten straight the old-fashioned way. He told me his mother had told him that if he got in any more trouble, he was going to military school.
He also told me that his mother had moved in with his grandmother because of finances. He said she was working two jobs, including overnight at a restaurant, to try to make enough money to get back into a house of her own.
One day a fifth-grade girl bragged that her mentor had taken her to Burger King. I told my young friend that I was sorry he didn’t have a better mentor, one who did such favors.
“This is better,” he said. “We talk.”
In late spring, he took me to the bathroom and pointed to something written about him on the wall. He said the perpetrator kept wanting to fight him.
I told him: Don’t dare start anything. Do everything you can to ignore this fool. But if he starts a fight, fight back.
Then I told the principal what he’d told me and what I’d told him. I asked her to check the obscenity on the bathroom wall.
He graduated last week. His teacher handed him his certificate and said the best word to describe him was “contemplation.”
I’d have chosen smart or sensitive.
Then I heard “Mister John, Mister John.” He came running to say that he wanted to introduce me to his mom and grandmother and to have our picture made with the teacher.
His folks handed me a card with a note, signed by “the parents and grandparents,” thanking me for “being there for him.”
If indeed it takes a village, this one was built on a hard-working mother, a dependable grandmother, a good aunt and a teacher, counselor and principal in a public school that struck me as quite a bit better than the public schools’ reputation.
At most I was but a small and fleeting part.
For once, though, it may be that the young man and I worked reasonably well with another. Maybe there’s hope for both of us.