Here is a lovely essay from Bill Fokes, whose name may be familiar to regular AJC readers as he is a prolific letter writer. Today, he writes about the joy he has found in mentoring students:
By William B. Fokes
About five years ago, I attended a Christmas party in my new neighborhood. As I met my new neighbors, we asked each other about our interests and activities. One of my neighbors was very enthusiastic about a volunteer mentoring program in which he was active. This was the start of my path to great rewards. The program he described involves students in elementary school, middle school and high school in Jackson County, Georgia. The focus of the program is students living in single parent households. The name of the program is Lindsay’s Legacy. Similar programs are active in other counties, but not in my home county of Gwinnett.
My neighbor explained that each mentor commits to spend about one hour per week with a student, one-on-one, at the school, throughout the school year. I am very fond of young people (especially my three grandsons) and I know how important they are to our country’s future. As we talked, I told him I was interested, but did not know how to be a youth mentor. The program he described includes a three-hour orientation session, but I did not think that would adequately train me for the important duties of mentoring. He managed to convince me that I would do fine, so I volunteered. I submitted my fingerprints and other information for a background check, then attended an orientation class with other volunteers, a school counselor and a trainer.
I learned that all mentors may select the grade level of the students they will mentor. The school counselor, who has met the mentors and students, matches each mentor with a student. My first student was a sixth grader. Before my first meeting with him, I was afraid that I might fail as a mentor. After all, I was a 64-year-old retired corporate attorney. How could I relate to a sixth grade boy? Then I remembered that each student and his parent must actually request a mentor before being assigned one by the school counselor. In effect, my role as mentor had been pre-approved by student, parent and counselor. That is a good start, I thought.
I decided to start off with my student by asking questions and seriously listening to learn his interests. My student was friendly and outgoing, so it was easy. As we talked over time, we developed a lot of mutual trust. In addition to talking, we sometimes played games, tossed baseballs or footballs outside, or shot basketball in the gym. All activity was on school grounds. After establishing a relationship of mutual trust, I decided to confront my student about a problem I saw. He was almost passionately interested in violent video games and spent a lot of time playing them. I told him that this was a normal interest, but he should know that real violence is not fun at all. I requested that he replace most, if not all, of his video time with reading.
He grew quiet and I thought that our relationship was in danger. In fact, however, that talk resulted in a stronger bond between us. We began actively discussing his reading material (Percy Jackson series) and enjoyed each other even more throughout the school year.
I had a similar experience with another student who was caught cheating on a test. I spent my whole hour with him one day, explaining that he was only cheating himself of the opportunity for a successful future. He was very quiet that day but since then he has stayed out of trouble and we have developed stronger mutual trust. I have many more stories I could tell.
So far, I have mentored six different students, typically mentoring two per year, all year – sometimes for several years. When I see in their eyes that we have established a bond, I get an incredibly warm glow. When I have serious talks with them, I feel that I am doing something important. When I see how desperately these students want to have an adult they can trust and relate to, I know I am needed. When each school year is over, the sincere gratitude expressed by these students pays me many times over for my efforts. When students move away, they (and sometimes their parents) tell me how much they will miss me (and I miss them). Others go out of their way to proudly introduce me to their fellow students. One student decided, on his own, to make a hand-drawn, framed certificate, proclaiming me world’s best mentor. These are just a few of my great rewards. Other mentors share similar stories with me.
Lindsay’s Legacy tells a parable about a “starfish slinger.” The parable starts with an older man walking one morning along a deserted beach. The previous night, a violent storm washed thousands of starfish onto the beach, stretching to all the way to the horizon. As he looked further, he saw a solitary, younger man who was picking up starfish, one at a time, and tossing them into the water. The older man asked, “What are you doing?” The young man replied that the starfish could not get back to the water, so they would soon die, when the sun dried them out, unless he tossed them in the water.
The older man said, “Look at all these starfish! You are wasting your time. How can you possibly think that what you are doing will make any difference?” The young man quietly picked up another starfish, tossed it into the ocean, then turned and said, “Made a difference to that one.”
That story moves me. As we look at all the world’s troubles, we can each make a difference. Lindsay’s Legacy asks this question: “Who cares?” If you care, don’t be intimidated (like I was) by thinking that a mentor must serve as a tutor or a disciplinarian. Tutoring is permitted, but not required. Others provide discipline. All that a mentor really needs to do is to be there — to listen, to advise and to encourage a young person who really wants and needs you.
For caring adults, mentoring is ridiculously easy but enormously important. That is why I believe that, outside of family duties, mentoring is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. My only regret is that I did not start mentoring sooner. Avoid that regret. Male and female mentors are urgently needed for male and female students. Resolve to become a mentor now and begin reaping great rewards. Talk to a counselor at a school near you. Or contact me.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog. (If you want to contact Bill, send me an email and I will forward. firstname.lastname@example.org