Why Don't I Like Mentoring?
By emily timbol
January 21, 2010
When I was in tenth grade I had a job teaching a traveling fitness class to daycare children. It was very easy, paid well and I enjoyed it. One day, at a “business” lunch with the woman who owned the company (a mom I often babysat for) and her friend, I glibly mentioned that I really don’t like kids. My attempt to be funny and a little too honest, resulted in a horrified response from both women, followed by a request that I promptly find employment elsewhere.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this incident recently, as I’m 4 weeks into a mentoring commitment with a little girl from a low-income government housing community in my city. She is ten years old, relatively quiet, mostly polite and has yet to give me any grief. Despite all this, I am struggling to find the motivation to spend two hours a week or so with her.
When I first signed up to be a mentor I had visions of myself as Michele Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds. I would get matched up with a tough-as-nails 15 year old named Shayeesha who was straight out of Juvee and toying with the idea of joining her 23 year old boyfriend’s gang. She’d be failing all her classes and think she’s pregnant. After sixth months with me, spent in a montage reel with Coolio rapping in the background, she’d be getting straight A’s, accepted early admission to Harvard Medical School and have turned her boyfriend in to the cops. It goes without saying that her Valedictorian speech would be tearfully dedicated to me.
In reality I was matched up with a ten year old girl who was very much like most ten year old girls I know. She wore Hannah Montana shirts. The “ghetto” where she lived was nothing like I’d imagined it from movies and TV. Nobody looked at me funny. I wasn’t shot at. There was no Coolio. Instead of my offensively racist and completely ridiculous fantasy playing out, I had a very real little girl in front of me who was about as uncomfortable and clueless about what to do as I was.So, I did what my dad used to do when he didn’t know how to spend time with me: got out my wallet. There was a movie, followed the next week by a dinner, then a trip to a museum, then another dinner. After four weeks, on top of feeling like we hadn’t connected, I was broke and resenting her for depleting my checking account. I started to fear that I was falling into a dangerous, but common, charitable fallacy—that just because I was white and middle class, my presence (and money) would somehow make this little girls life better.
As I was toying with the idea of quitting, I started thinking about why I signed up to be a mentor in the first place. I wanted to feel good about myself, and be able to pat myself on the back for being selfless. I thought that being able to claim myself as a mentor would somehow ease my conscience that is sometimes tormented when I drive by a homeless person, or, while snuggled in a warm bed, agonize over the girls trapped in sex trafficking thousands of miles from home. There is poverty and pain all around me, and I wanted mentoring to be a substitute for actually doing something about it. It’s not. And it shouldn’t be. My trying to force one little girl into the role of thousands of hurting people I can’t, or won’t, help didn’t work, and instead left me frustrated and precariously close to doing what so many other people in her life have done—leave.
Thankfully, I didn’t—and I’m not—going anywhere. The burden that I had placed on myself to have this remarkably fulfilling experience has lifted. I went into mentoring thinking it would be all about me; how it would change me, how satisfied I would feel, and how cool I would look in my Michele Pfeiffer-esque leather jacket. Of course none of that happened, because mentoring isn’t about me. It’s about my kid. Mentoring is about investing a few hours into the life of someone who has been hurt, disappointed, neglected and been told in verbal and non-verbal ways that she doesn’t matter, will not amount to anything and is only as good as her circumstances. In order to combat those lies, I don’t have to spend money, I don’t have to take her to the “better” (white) parts of town, and I don’t have to become her mother/father. The only thing I have to do is be there for her, and show her I care.
Not being a parent, I’ve been very surprised how clearly a mirror kids are to reflect your heart. They make you see a part of yourself you might not have noticed before, or maybe didn’t want too. It’s no big deal to say you are a selfish person, but to see that in front of your eyes, played out at the expense of a helpless child, is horrifying. At the same time however, it’s refreshing to see the worst parts of myself, so I can change them, and try to be better.
Now that I no longer am looking at my kid to be the thing that provides me emotional and spiritual fulfillment, I find myself dreading the visits less and less. Once I realized that there’s nothing wrong with just bringing over coloring books and watching Hannah Montana, and asking her about her day, I started to actually care about her. Mentoring should be rewarding, it should be fulfilling and it should not be something you dread doing. But it also is not something you should do with the intention of feeling good about yourself, because if it is, you’ll hate it, you’ll quit and you’ll break the heart of a child who doesn’t need any more disappointment in their life.
On paper, mentoring sounds like an easy decision. Of course you sacrifice a few hours a week and invest in a child; how could you not? But in reality? It’s hard, not instantly rewarding and a lot of the times, awkward. But tomorrow, when I go over with my crayons and paper, I’m going to enjoy my hour with my kid, not because it makes me feel good about myself, but because when she smiles and experiences love, I know that I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes you have to just accept that it’s not all about you, and commit to things even when they’re hard. The great thing is that often, it’s those very same things that provide you with the real, lasting joy and fulfillment you were searching for in the first place.