My fourth year teaching, a former student of mine tried to hang himself on his fourteenth birthday. The kid actually had a lot of good reasons, from clinical depression to soul-crushing circumstances and dim prospects for the future. Regardless, his little brother found him and saved him, and it shook me up a good bit as his teacher. He was one of my special kids; you know the ones. The ones you worry about a little extra.
And because I worried about him, I wanted to do more. Something beyond the 45 minutes we spent together in the classroom every day. So I started working through our counseling office to figure out ways I could get involved in this student’s life and help him out.
My family had concerns, which they enumerated as follows:
1. That it would be a huge time commitment.
And that it would cause me to wait longer before having children of my own. (Not a legitimate fear. In fact, when I went to the doctor and found out I had miscarried my first baby, I was due to help Jose with his summer reading the next day. Spending time with him actually helped me get through that horrible, horrible week without losing hope for myself as a parent.)
2. That I would get attacked in his incredibly unsafe neighborhood.
(When I wandered around aimlessly trying to find his apartment, people did stare, it’s true. But they also showed me where apartment 7D was, even if they were laughing while they did it.)
3. That I would get sued for, well, anything.
(Driving a kid around is a risk. Hanging with a kid outside of school is a risk. My family was right on this one.)
4. That I’d get arrested for driving around with an undocumented immigrant in my car.
That had recently become a crime in my state. (Never happened, but it was thrilling to think that we were breaking the law every time we drove to the frozen yogurt shop!)
I was concerned as well, mostly about the time commitment mentoring would involve. But I knew that Jose needed more—and I didn’t know anywhere else he could find it. Right or wrong, I felt that the buck stopped with me.
Fortunately, I work at a school that actively encourages a lack of boundaries between teachers and students…last year my principal asked if a kid could come live with me. (I said yes, but that she’d have to sleep on an air mattress for now because we didn’t have a bed. She ended up living with my principal instead.) The school was totally thrilled with this mentorship plan, even if my family still had their hesitations.
I found an all-purpose, generic waiver online and got his parents to sign it so he could ride in my car, although I assume that thing offers about as much legal protection as a magic feather or security blankie. Unlike every other area of his life, the fact that Jose’s parents are undocumented worked in my favor here; I had a lot less to be concerned about in terms of a lawsuit. Jose’s dad’s an alcoholic jerk, so I’ve always avoided him as much as possible, but his mom is totally on board. We don’t talk a lot—language barrier and all—but we keep each other posted on the important stuff.
There was also the time factor.
I had a full-time job, and soon after we started the whole mentoring relationship, I had a baby on the way. We had to find a way to fit this into my regular life, or it wouldn’t work. Jose lived about a mile up the road from me, which certainly helped. I’ve got an overactive beagle who needs a two to three mile walk every day. We decided that once a week, Jose and I would take my dog for a walk It was public, it was exercise (which is great for depression, of course), and it was easy. Once my son was born, I’d throw him in the stroller and take him along.
Of course, as Jose’s gotten older, the relationship has changed. We don’t walk my dog anymore. Now he volunteers at my school, and we’ve been working on job applications and figuring out how to pay for college. We did all his application stuff and his placement tests, but the kid has to find a way to pay out-of-state tuition, since he’s undocumented. That makes getting a job more difficult, too, although he has a work permit. It’s been a bureaucratic maze, but we’re working on it.
Throughout this relationship, I’ve redefined success a hundred times.
I’ve come face-to-face with my limitations over and over and over. At first, I’d hoped to get Jose into a private high school. They laughed at me. He went to public school and didn’t end up in any of the special programs or AP classes or extracurricular activities that I’d hoped would put him on the fast track to college. His parents couldn’t pick him up after school…and, I had to eventually admit, neither could I. I couldn’t do everything for this boy, no matter how badly I wanted to.
I’ve had other mentoring relationships since then, although nothing quite as formal or structured. I’ve got a few kids that I’ll pick up every now and then and take out for coffee or ice cream. There are half a dozen who text me or call me when they need help, and I edit papers, write recommendations, and put them in touch with resources they need. But I’ve also had other students who were as special as Jose and who needed as much help, and I’ve had to recognize the fact that I can’t be everything to everybody. Much as I’d love to be a second mama to every kid who crosses my path, it’s not possible. But I can help some kids in some ways, and I’ve had to let that be enough.
Jose and I found answers to all the mentoring questions that worried me at the outset, but there was one question I didn’t know to ask. Before you get involved with a kid as a long-term mentor, the number one question to ask is this: Am I willing to grow?
Because honestly, growth kind of sucks. It’s like getting in shape, which I understand is also unpleasant. Just like becoming physically healthier means giving up foods that you enjoy (like s’mores-flavored ice cream drumsticks and everything on the menu at the Waffle House), growing in understanding means giving up assumptions or beliefs that are familiar and comforting.
Mentoring Jose hasn’t been the made-for-TV Hallmark movie I was envisioning. That kid has caused me endless hours of aggravation and reams of paperwork, one of my least favorite activities. But he’s helped me grow. And while that definitely wasn’t my original intention in becoming his mentor, it’s been completely worth it.