I Got It: Mentoring Isn't For The Mentor

From the first moment I heard about Pipeline NAU, a mentoring program matching Northern Arizona University professors with low-income middle-school students, I knew I wanted to be a mentor.

The students who complete the five-year program with a B average receive a full scholarship to NAU. I remembered what a financial struggle it was for me to get my B.A. But more than that, I remembered what I was like in the eighth grade--a shabbily dressed little mess from the stereotypically broken, impoverished and chaotic home. I skipped more school than I attended; my grades were a train wreck, and I wasn't exactly on the slumber-party A-list.

Still, I managed to scratch my way through three college degrees and eventually became an English professor. But I really could've used a mentor--someone to turn to for advice, someone to provide a glimpse into a world of educated people doing interesting things.

I hoped I could be that person for someone else, and so I enthusiastically threw myself into the six-month mentor-training program. I endured an FBI background check, an interview in which I was asked about my sex life and whether I had a history of substance abuse and a variety of "group bonding" activities with the other potential mentors and mentees. Through all of these indignities, I comforted myself with elaborate fantasies of me and my grateful, compliant protegé.

I'd expose her to literature, classical music and ballet, and she'd soak it all in like an underwatered houseplant. She'd emulate my look, my style, my sensibilities. We'd shop together. I'd confess my adolescent disasters, inspiring her to make better choices. I was going to be the best mentor ever.

But when I was matched with Risa, I was terrified. I'd noticed Risa often during the summer group activities. It's impossible not to notice Risa. She's a flat-out gorgeous teen, Tyra Banks beautiful. And she's funny and popular and the queen of her school. And I, a socially inept peasant, clearly had nothing to offer her.

Although we have a few things in common--we both come from single-mother households, ditched flute-playing for sports and have the same twisted sense of humor--our first several meetings were strained. I was afraid we weren't going to be a very good match.

Risa hated to read. Risa hated classical music. Risa hated the ballet. Risa never had any homework I could help her with. The only thing Risa seemed to care about was talking to her friends on the phone. I was not her friend. She wouldn't return my calls.

After three months, I was ready to give up. Spending two hours a week with someone who obviously didn't like me wasn't what I had in mind. I already had classes full of college students who serve that purpose.

I was sobbing daily, thinking of the big, fat "L" for loser burning itself into my forehead when I had this simple thought: mentoring isn't for the mentor. I signed up to do a job. A child was depending on me, whether she realized it or not. Whether I liked it or not.

So I dragged Risa to "The Nutcracker." I forced her to have afternoon tea with me. I tricked her into a Shakespeare lesson by taking her to see "Ten Things I Hate About You." And I suspected she was starting to like these things, but I couldn't tell for sure. Risa didn't say much.

I asked Risa about her career goals, and she told me she wants to be a pediatric nurse because she "loves babies." I heard the unintended teen-pregnancy siren shrieking, so I set up a job shadow with a local pediatrician.

I dropped Risa off at the doctor's office, and when I picked her up a few hours later, she was bouncing her legs up and down and clapping her exquisite hands and saying again and again, "That was so cool! I am so excited!" And she rattled off a litany of factoids about strep cultures, influenza viruses and the relationship between dairy products and mucus.

I'd never seen this version of Risa before, and I thought, "This is it--my big mentoring moment." I didn't want to blow it so I tried to stay calm and keep listening, but I couldn't help saying, "So, Risa, do you think you might want to be a doctor?" And she said "yeah" in the way kids do, with a question mark at the end of the word.

I looked over at Risa's beautiful face. I wanted to hit the brakes, pull the car over, stare at her and expand time because I knew nothing before or since in my shaky career as a mentor would ever come close to this moment.

Risa's world had just opened up, had become huge and complicated and full of possibilities, and I was there to see it happen.