On the Pain of Loving Others

December 9, 2012

Tomorrow I will give this letter to a 26 year old young man who I mentored for 17 years. I wish there was more I could do than write letters like this. It is so hard to love others and want good for them and yet also know that we cannot do it for them. It feels so inadequate yet is the best I can do. Sigh.

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My dearest B,

I hope you’ll take time to read what I have to say here

The first thing is that I love you. I love you deeply and with all my heart, like a family member. I have always seen a spark in you, a wonder, and magic. I have always believed in you. I will always believe in you no matter what, and I will always love you no matter what.

Secondly, I know I cannot know what your life is like. You have faced many many hard things – since you were small and since you have been an adult. This is not fair. No one should have to face the things you have. But, yet, the world is broken and unjust and good people face things they do not deserve. I know I cannot know what this is like.

Third, I’m sorry if you think I lecture you too much or I am too silly or cheerful with you. I somehow thought that you liked this and that this worked well for our relationship. I am happy to stop this, to tone it down. I thought somehow that you appreciated it, as a bit of cheer that you may not have other places in your life and also that you knew that my challenging you came from a place of believing in you and loving you and knowing your great potential. Please feel free to be honest with me and tell me what you need from me. I much prefer an honest real relationship, to a fake relationship like I am some sort of social worker or something.

And, in the spirit of being honest, here is what I have to say. I hope that our relationship over the years lets you know I say it with deep love and respect for you.

You have two dear children and another child that is like a son to you. Their lives have already been too hard. I believe that you, with sweet E, have the ability to give them a better life – the kind of life that you did not have. But, and I know you know this, this is going to involve making hard decisions. No one taught you well how to make hard decisions and I know it is very hard to teach yourself that. In many ways, you’ve succeeded on your own to do better than many from your neighborhood which is amazing and speaks to your spirit and strength.

But, what your boys deserve – and what you deserve – is a stable life. The house on H Street will not provide that sort of stable life – it will not fix everything. But, it is a start. You have the possibility to OWN the house. To get support from me, and from M, and from others that we connect with. I had that sort of support from my family – it was pure luck. Sometimes we get it from our biological families and sometimes we get it from others who love us deeply even if they are not blood family. I have no desire to force you to do anything, but I do want to say that I want you to jump on this opportunity. Sometimes doing the right thing is just very hard and takes several tries. I’m sorry about the challenges with the house the first time, but I want you to give it a second chance. I really believe we can make it beautiful, that you can own it, that you can live in a decent neighborhood and with time get decent jobs where you make more and where life is not as hard. This is what your Mom wanted for you – an easier life, a better life.

I also really want you to go to the job center and get food stamps. I know you don’t like it, but it is there for a reason and would make a difference while you and your family try to get on your feet. I have loaned you a good bit of money which I am happy to do, but I also want you to do whatever you can to get support from other sources too. I would also like you to try to get medical coverage. If you don’t do it for you, I wish you would consider doing it for your boys who need you to be healthy.

I want you to know from the bottom of my heart this is not a lecture. I believe in you more than I think you do and perhaps more than anyone in your life. I KNOW you can be more than someone who plays fucking video games all day. That is such an insult to who you can be and what you can do in this world that longs for good, decent loving people like you. It is a waste of who you can be and who you are. I am never sure how religious you are – and maybe I am not sure how religious I am – but I do believe that you were created and brought into this world for a purpose. That you were made by a God that has plans of goodness for you and your children. I want to find a way to get to that – to live into that Hope and Love that is part of who you are.

I will love you always, no matter what you do. I will believe in you always. At the same time, I think this is turning point in your life. It is a time when you can decide to be another Black kid from the projects who half-asses things. I would love you even if that is what you decide. But I believe you can be more than that. You are one of the most special people I’ve ever known. And I want to see you live into the fullness of who you can be. I was pleased the other day when you told me that I do not over-estimate you. I hope this is the time when you live into the fullness of who you can be. I don’t expect miracles, but over time, deep effort, lots of trying, lots of hard choices will yield a life that is worthy of all of your gifts.

I love you dearly, B. You are an absolute miracle with unlimited potential.

I hope you don’t get too irritated at me for writing this. I hope you read it all.

With deepest care and affection,

Elizabeth

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Sharing a Little Christmas Spirit Love

November 30, 2012

Regular readers of this blog know that have mentored a great group of young men since they were in elementary school (going on 17 years now!). One of the young men and his partner of 7 years and they have three boys ages 10, 5 and 3.  The oldest is the mother’s son from a previous relationship, but the young man I mentor acts as his father and treats him like a son. Both the young man I mentor and his partner lost their minimum wage jobs this year and became homeless, losing all of their possessions because they had no where to put them. They are both now working – the young man since summer and his partner since October and are trying hard to get back on their feet. They rarely ask of anything of me except moral support, but I told them I wanted to help with Christmas. They have good hearts and are defying many statistics – no drugs, no arrests, no abuse, raising children together – but they still face a lot of struggles. I’m working with them and friends to try to get them into a house where they will pay rent, but the owner is willing to work with them on a rent to own plan the next 20 years which is an amazing thing for them and we are also working on GEDs so that they can try to get better jobs – she would like to be a nurse and he loves to cook and would like to work his way up in a kitchen somewhere. They desperately want to provide a better life for their children. I told them I would take care of Christmas (they protest every year, as they are proud, but I insisted). We’ve covered a lot of it and also tried to get donations from friends here who have boys the same age and have extras to give to them. However, since so much was lost in being homeless (they are currently in a precarious, overcrowded situation with extended family) they have a lot of needs. I made an amazon wish list for them here http://amzn.com/w/1D8EO82EXCGS3. There is no pressure AT ALL, however, if you’d like to help out and buy a little thing for them, they and the boys would be very appreciative. I’ll try to deliver everything to them by December 15 or 17.


Hard Decisions in Mentoring

March 6, 2008

One of the young men I mentor has been having a hard time – went one year away to college but it was too far from home and too expensive (do you know how hard it is to be away at college when your family doesn’t have a car to give you or to come and get you with or spending money to give you?). Came back, took classes at a community college but had a hard time living with his mom, around all his old friends, having to work a lot to pay part of the rent to his mom, and such. It isn’t that it wasn’t do-able, its just that it didn’t work well for him. He isn’t Mr. Hero perfect, you know? Like a lot of middle class white kids, he’s bright, not brilliant, a hard-worker, but not a super-achiever. But many middle class white kids have parents to help pay for college. And parent who went to college and are familiar with the system. It is a hard system to figure out if you are the first one to do it and most of your friends aren’t doing it.

So, we’re brainstorming, talking, thinking about what to do and he says he’s thinking of joining the service.

What in the world am I supposed to say? It breaks me apart inside to think of him being in harm’s way. But it would sure make things a hell of a lot easier – we both agreed that the disciplined environment would be good for him. The job and plan would be good. The place to live would be good. Did I mention how nice it would be for him to have a job, training, money for college, and a plan and discipline?

Oh, yeah, except that that there is a war going on.

I don’t want people yelling at him or putting him in harm’s way. I don’t want him to have to be a soldier to make it in the world.

But who am I to get on my liberal high horse about the military and wars. Not that what I say is the be all, end all, but I do influence him and I don’t know what to do. Can I offer him money for school? Can ANY of the well-off “we love kids and Jesus so much” people at the after-school program where I met him give him money for school? Apparently they are paying off the mortgages of their McMansions and swimming pools in gated neighborhoods and buying new big video screen projectors for the new youth center they just built at church so no they can’t help, apparently.

I once made a really really bad call in advising one of my young mentees when he was only 16. Maybe a different approach on my part could have made a difference, maybe not, but the point was that I made a bad decision not recognizing the full weight of my opinion and the consequences of the situation.

Damn. I don’t want to do that again. And it is such a hard thing. Sure, college might/could work without the military. But it will be way harder and a clearly rocky path as the last two years have shown us.

But then again being dead or injured is sort of a bad option too.

Ugg. Again, no good answers. And none of those Jesus-loving, big-hearted, super-rich Christians who started this afterschool program around to help either. Sorry if I sound bitter. But for all the freaking electrical equipment they buy to recruit suburbanites to come to their megachurch, no one has ever suggested maybe super-huge scholarship fund (like the super-huge everything else this church has) for the kids in the afterschool program might be a good idea. Which would be real helpful right about now.


When there is not a thing you can do

January 19, 2008

The mother of one of the boys I mentor has had a stroke. I have known her for 13 years. Her health has never been good, but it doesn’t make it any easier for anyone. There is no one there to be her advocate – to manage things. When someone in my family is hospitalized, there are enough of us to hold vigil – drinking coffee from the coffee vending machine, telling stories, sitting in silence together – whatever it is we do when we wait and hope together. And always someone who works closely with the doctors – explores the options, makes sure the person is comfortable, attended to. In the case this lovely woman – all of her family has children, no one else to watch the children because everyone works so much, precarious jobs, no car, no money, etc. Just getting to the hospital is an ordeal, much less staying there, going back and forth, negotiating with intimidating white doctors. I HATE living so far away and there is nothing I can do. She is in the ICU and there are blood pressure issues involved on top of the stroke. She has no minister to attend to her either. Sigh. I know that her family is doing all that they can. I know that the young man I mentor is scared and hurting. Sometimes there is just no good way to make things better. And we can only do what we can do. Which isn’t very damn much.


What does it take for mentoring “at risk” kids to “work”?

June 25, 2007

So I have “mentored” three young men for the past twelve years. They rank in the top five joys and blessings of my life. I love them so much and think they are just so amazing beyond words. That said, it has been hard. Very very hard. For them. For me. These are my thoughts on that process and on the “afterschool tutoring”/”mentoring disadvantaged kids” trend that is quite popular these days. This is a tad long, but I think worth it, as it is one of the areas I am most passionate about and actually know a little about.

First a note on terminology: I put “at risk” and “work” in quotes because I’m not sure if either of those are the greatest terms to describe what I am talking about, but I can’t think of others that work better. I think we label inner-city and/or minority kids “at risk” and it turns them into Those At Risk Kids rather than just people trying to make their way in the world. That said, kids whose families are poor, kids who grow up in the inner-city, and/or kids who are part of a minority ethnicity/race, face a whole host of factors that stack the cards against them, and it is important to acknowledge that they are up against a lot that has really nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with the way our society is structured. I say “what does it take to make mentoring “work”?” because the whole idea of what is a “success” that has really “worked” makes it seem like mentoring is meant to churn our “good” members of society. This is a problem. I wanted the boys I mentored to be happy, safe, and feel loved, like most people want for people/children who they care about. Part of this is the hope that their criminal record would be non-existent or minor, that they wouldn’t have children earlier than they were ready, that they wouldn’t be involved in drug sales (one of the only lucrative jobs available to them with the sort of sucky inner-city education they got), that they could have a job that make them happy and feel secure, that they would find a partner they loved, etc. This is different than the grappling, desperate hope of preventing “those kids” from becoming criminals, which is the underlying message/goal of lots of inner-city mentoring/after school programs.

So, enough with terminology. I think you get the point.

The main thing I wanted to raise in this post is that afterschool tutoring programs and mentoring programs mostly serve the purpose of exposing privileged teenagers to social injustices. The best result of this is that they are more aware of these social injustices and aware that they are structural issues (and not because poor/minority folks are lazy or bad parents, etc.). This is actually important because I can’t think of any other way to get privileged people to understand their privilege, and to understand social injustice other than getting to know people different from them. Volunteer programs help with this and the good ones help volunteers reflect on this, and integrate it into their world view. The idea would be to produce volunteers who will be moved enough by their experiences to want to change the world.

What these programs usually don’t do is actually help the kids have any more stability in their lives, get better grades or be less “at risk.” I know that there are exceptions, but by and large, these programs do not actually help the kids. The best programs realize this, and instead do the programs with the knowledge that it is mostly about volunteers learning from communities, with a sometimes side-benefit of actually supporting those communities in the struggle for the justice that they deserve.

The programs mostly don’t work because, first, the schools that poor and minority kids go to are so bad that a little tutoring here and there by high school students cannot even begin to compensate for the inadequate education that kids from inner-city schools get. (How do I know this? The book Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol deals with this extensively, and I did the research for the book so I’ve poured over these stats and narrative accounts, and studies, um, a lot.)

Another reason they don’t work is because, there is a lot of talk about “loving the kids” and “building relationships” in these programs, but this doesn’t work if you volunteer for one semester, or even a year or two. As cute as the kids may be, “loving them” involves more than showing up once a week to tutor them. And they know it. Many kids from the inner-city have seen hundreds of people come and go, bearing gifts of bicycles, candy, fun games, parties, tutoring books (and often the message of Jesus). They are onto the game. They live it up. Play along. Hug you and smile, but they know that when it gets hard, the tutoring people aren’t around. Not when Dad goes to jail. Not when Mom looses her job, when the phone gets cut off, when the shots ring out.

Someone said something like this to me early in my conversion to Christianity when I was still trying hard to do everything everyone at my church told me to. They said, “Lots of people come and go in these kids lives. You need to be there for them.” So, when I got my first group of tutoring kids I decided, “Okay, these are my kids.” This is not to say, “Oh what a hero I am” but to say that mentoring can’t work unless it is for the long haul. Late night calls. Money transfers. Going out to Chucky Cheese even when you are so tired and just want to rest. Answering the hard questions and confused tears about why we are always stopped by the police – black kids with a white girl. Explaining to the people at ice cream store that we will not leave and you can’t just ban people from your store just because. Knowing when to be the tough big sister or when to just listen. Not having any idea what you are doing and needing to just keep going anyway. And explaining for the five millionth time why you cannot call each other gay even if you “don’t mean anything” by it.

Is mentoring some sort of answer? I would say absolutely not. It is great if you can do it. If you stick with it, love unconditionally, are willing to help financially, emotionally, even on those days when you are tired, and even when the mentorees make the ten thousandth bad decision (as most kids will do), it can “work.” It is the most rewarding thing in my life – the young men bring me more joy than I can put into words. I LOVE to laugh with them, and I am not a huge laugh-er. I think my presence and never-ending-even-when-it-seems-stupid belief in them has made a difference. But they still struggle SO MUCH because being poor in the United States is hard. Being black is hard. It’s like no matter how hard they try, there is often something else that just knocks them down. And there is only so much I can do, they can do, their moms can do. And my love and commitment to them hasn’t done much or even almost anything to change the system. And it has taken a whole lotta energy. I do it because I love them and they love me, but it is so so so frustrating to see that EVERY OTHER KID they know and I know from the tutoring program where I met them is not doing well. Pregnant very young. Shot. Jail. Abused. No decent educations. We sometimes go over the kids that we all knew, and we can’t come up with anyone doing well. It is depressing.

I don’t mean this to be some sort of authoritative article on mentoring or that I am some sort of guru. It is just that I don’t hear a lot of people sticking with the mentoring thing through elementary school all the way to college. It makes me upset to see mentoring programs that are all self-congratulatory and then don’t even have a long-term way to maintain contact with the kids. That is FINE if you don’t want to be in it for the long-haul, but if you want to make a difference, the long-haul is what it will take. I guess I am looking for more honesty about what these sorts of mentoring/tutoring programs can and can’t do for communities and their children. And honesty about what it really takes to make a dent in the numbing barrage of injustices that far too many children face every single day.

May we continue to do the hard work of love and justice wherever and however we can.

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