In my upcoming book, Your Turn: Ways to Celebrate Life Through Storytelling, I write about the privilege of being mentored by adults who guided me through adverse life moments when I was a youngster, teenager and later as an adult. Because I am lucky to have benefited from the sage counsel of others, I have made it one of my life’s missions to give back to others in my professional role as a teacher, school principal, and superintendent.
Throughout my career in public education, I was often in touch with people of all ages. But it was teenagers whom I identified and empathized with the most. Teenagers are in a peculiar-and highly vulnerable – stage of life; they’re not old enough for adult responsibilities but they certainly are expected to maintain more maturity than elementary-age children. My teenage students were strikingly curious, often rambunctious, focused on fairness and saddled with the trials of constant uncertainty and confusion.
I learned over five decades of working in academia that despite coming from diverse socioeconomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds most teenagers tend to struggle with similar issues: a need for acceptance, a desire for respect and a struggle to satisfy an insatiable curiosity about the world and all it has to offer.
I’ve never forgotten one female student at East Topeka Junior High school whom I mentored. Fifteen-year-old Felicia constantly arrived late to my first period class. School policy dictated that students who arrived late three times needed to be sent to the principal’s office as punishment. I knew that if Felicia was sent to the office, she would be required to stay after school for an hour of detention.
When I asked Felicia why she was late, her initial response was an insolent, defiant shrug. Instead of sending her to the office, I asked her to get her lunch tray from the cafeteria and meet me in my classroom. As we sat down to eat, I explained to her, once again, the seriousness of her offense.
At first, she remained defensive, withdrawn, and sullen. Felicia finally broke down with a tearful, angry, rejoinder, “I have a baby. My mom can’t get him to the sitter before school, so it’s up to me to bathe and dress him and walk him to the sitter before I come to school. I just can’t get here on time even if I want to. My baby comes first.”
My better angels took charge, and I decided to work something out. “If you come in for lunch every day to make up the time you miss in the morning, we’ll eat together, and I’ll catch you up on what you missed. In return, I expect you to turn in all your work and do your best. Do we have an agreement?” I asked. She nodded, gratitude shining in her eyes.
I admired Felicia and could see she was smart enough to learn the lessons she had missed. Despite daunting obstacles, she proved able to do her best to juggle all of life’s responsibilities, even at her tender age. After several weeks of lunches together, Felicia began smiling routinely and her performance in school improved!
When she graduated from eighth grade, she stopped by my room to say good-bye. I told her how proud I was of her. She hugged and thanked me, clearly excited about going to high school. As Felicia walked away, I thought, if only you knew what a gift you’ve been to me by allowing me to give you a second chance and give back. I often wonder what direction her life has taken in the ensuing years.
I recall my own experience as an unwed teenage mother. I was fortunate enough to find help through a church that offered me a place to live when I made the difficult decision to give my baby girl up for adoption.
Mentors are often the unsung heroes of our lives. They enable us to carry on and stay the course, even through life’s most challenging moments. A little encouragement and understanding can radically change the trajectory of someone’s path for years to come.
Who have been the most important mentors in your life? And when is a time you have been a mentor to someone else?
© Tyra Manning 2019