I'm not entirely comfortable around kids. I'm even less comfortable around education. "Then why in the world," a reasonable person might ask, "would you volunteer to be a mentor?"
"Well," I'd inform this reasonable person with the impertinence I could do without, "I feel obliged to clue in some little pisher on a few items he won't find in his schoolbooks, but that're no less essential to a happy life than retaining the knowledge of the major exports of Peru. Specifically: 1) Work hard in school and people will expect you to work hard the rest of your goddamned life. 2) There's no such thing as a small pimple. 3) If you don't make a bowling pin lamp in Shop class, you'll never stop kicking yourself in the ass. 4) You might think you have friends but when the chips are down and you ask a bud to sell his car and give you the money to score a pound of bomb weed to deal so you'll have enough cash to split for California, you'll find the word "friend" is a hollow, meaningless sham.
The application the school had me fill out asked a lot of personal questions. Questions I wasn't altogether willing to answer. Like, "Name?" and "Zip Code?" So I fudged my answers. And I guess I did a pretty good job, because the next week, when I interviewed with Ms. Kugel, head of the mentoring program, the first thing out of her mouth was, "You know, you just look like someone named Dr. Zoltan of the Jungle."
The rest of the interview went just as swimmingly. Toward the end, she told me I was exactly the kind of candidate her desperately-short-of-resources/desperately-short-of-mentors mentor program needed: no history of sexual predation, the kind of free time successful people didn't have to give and a pulse.
Not long after this, I got my assignment, my protégé: one Derek Spivey. Frankly, looking over the profile Ms. Kugel had sent me, I was rather disappointed. First, Derek was 13 years old. I'd really wanted a younger student first grade, tops so I could make an immediate and immense life impact. It seemed to me that having a significant influence on a teen-ager would require powerful psychotropics and a Vietcong tiger cage, one of which wasn't in my monthly budget. Strike two, he was white; I was hoping for an African-American kid, because I felt he'd go better with my wardrobe's color scheme. Finally, rather than Derek's father being a family-deserting deadbeat, the damn guy was just dead, deceased, meaning the boy probably had "grief issues" or, as I thought of them, "sissy-crying-baby bullshit." Plus, I'd felt confident about how I'd stack up next to a highly resented, good-for-nothing absentee parent, but next to a mourned Daddykins? I was screwed. Screwed by some whimpering white bookworm with a hole in his life. Fuck me.
All that being said, after long reflection, I decided to take Derek on. What can I say? I'm all about people.
I called Derek's house and got his Mom. I explained who I was and asked to speak with the boy. She said he was busy doing homework (here's a kid screaming for Life Lesson No. 1, I told myself), but she'd go get him.
He sounded like a nice enough kid. Bright. A little shy. We talked for a bit and arranged to meet the next day at his school, after last bell. When he asked how he'd recognize me, I told him, "I'll be the guy who looks like he'd go well with dark brown."
A mentor, it turns out, has three basic responsibilities: setting an overall example for the child, offering support and guidance and helping with schoolwork. In the first two areas, I was exemplary, equal parts Oprah and Lassie; the last item, however, proved thorny. Derek needed help in English and math. And though I'd been truthful on the application when I said these were my "strong subjects," there had been no room to explain that my area of expertise was English Literaturacy. I was also shocked to learn that Derek's school used the word "math" as a colloquialism for "mathematics" not "Jerry 'The Beaver' Mathers."
Once Derek found I couldn't help with the educational stuff, he got upset. So upset, in fact, he went to Ms. Kugel and insisted on a different mentor. She complied. To his credit though, he had the guts to "fire" me personally.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Zoltan of the Jungle," he said, polite to the end, "I need a smart mentor."
I was hurt. But I understood. That's why, when I paid the school bully 20 bucks to beat Derek up, I told him to lay off his face. ©