In the wake of Dajae Coleman’s shooting death, there has been a call for greater mentorship. Some people will wonder how they can help. Here is one story about a mentor and his mentee, what the commitment entails and how to get involved.
On our first day together, my new mentee (then 11 and going into sixth grade at Haven Middle School) informed me he was going to be seven feet tall.
“Oh, really, how do you know that?” I inquired, as we threaded our way through traffic on our way to a White Sox game.
“Because my dad is seven feet tall.”
Well, I found out his dad was not seven feet tall, though he was a big man. Unfortunately he was not big enough to spend much time with Jermaine (not his real name, to protect the family’s privacy). Dad lived in Chicago somewhere and made an appearance in Jermaine’s life maybe once every two years, usually bearing toys and a fistful of cash. Jermaine’s mom was incapacitated. Jermaine was living with his grandma, who was also raising his sister and cousin. This, even though she was in her 70s, still worked and had already raised 10 children.
I learned something else about Jermaine on that outing. He was colorblind. I was nattering on about all the great African American jazz musicians – Coltrane, Bird, Armstrong, Miles – when Jermaine interrupted me. “I don’t think about color,” he said. “Color means nothing to me.”
This was a surprise. Jermaine is African American and Evanston, while more integrated than a lot of places, is like the rest of America: Race still matters. So do a lot of other things, but color stands out. Martin Luther King’s hope that his children would one day live in a country “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has not yet come to pass, though we are closer than ever before.
So I said something, which, non-observant as I am, surprised me. “Well, I’m proud to be Jewish. Look at all the great Jews: Einstein, Freud, Sandy Koufax…”
“Einstein was Jewish?” Jermaine asked, incredulous.
I was pleased to say yes.
Thus began our long, sweet journey together. That was in 2006; we celebrated our sixth anniversary this past August, as we usually do, by going out to eat.
Altogether we have spent more than 500 hours together. A while back, for fun, we drew up a list of the things we’ve done. Among the highlights were riding up front in a freight train, skiing (downhill and cross-country), visiting the Botanic Garden and the DuSable Museum, seeing the Bears, Bulls, Sox, Cubs and Wildcats, taking saxophone lessons, walking around Hyde Park, going to the symphony and studying for tests and the ACT exams. His favorite activities were participating in our family seders, going horseback riding in Lake County and visiting the auto show and Navy Pier. In most cases a meal was involved – he loves to eat!
I’ve gotten close with his wonderful grandmother and enjoy his two sisters. His little sister is cute as a button and a ringer for their mom.
Once, on the third or fourth anniversary of our relationship, I asked him what it meant to him personally. Without a pause, he took out a pad of paper and wrote down four things: Trust, Honesty, Respect, Bonding.
That is not to say he has always abided by these qualities. Like any adolescent, he has occasionally lapsed. I don’t doubt that I have been “played” for Mr. Nice Guy, asked to dole out money or presents. There are strict rules about this in our program, which I would sometimes overlook. Nevertheless, the long arc of our mentorship has been upward.
People say to me, what a wonderful thing you’ve done. Of course it’s true: embarrassing to hear but impossible to deny. It always sounds funny to me though, and I am quick to explain that I have gained a lot more than he has: a different perspective, an entrée to people and places I wouldn’t have known, and a great friend.
When Jermaine told me he was going to be seven feet tall, I chuckled to myself: The things kids say! Turns out Jermaine’s not that tall, though he’s grown a lot taller than me. And I am a lot bigger than I was, too, thanks to him.
You don’t need a lot of time or training to do this. The McGaw YMCA’s Project SOAR needs mentors and so do Evanston children, both boys and girls. If you are looking for a way to help them grow, help yourself grow and do the right thing – for our community and for yourself – call Sue Sowle at the Y. You won’t regret it.