Years ago, increasingly aware of the difficult situations many of our District youth confront, I sought out a way to become involved as a teen mentor I eventually landed in a dimly lit church basement at a DC Family Youth Initiative event in 2009, and was warmly greeted by the amazing Susan Punnett.
We were quite a diverse, motley bunch (still are!): a divorced man in his 50’s with a sincere desire for a son, gay and lesbian couples of all ages, a number of single women in their 30’s and 40’s looking to foster and adopt. And around all of us, often running, a group of incredibly energetic and endearing teenagers.
It was months later, in the pool on a hot July day, that I met Robert, age 15, struggling to stay afloat in the deep end of both water and youth. We soon matched as mentor/mentee.
In our six years together Robert bounced from 4 different foster placements, changed high schools, and rode the usual peaks and valleys of the adolescent coaster. Truthfully I've felt myself to be a pretty average mentor, no saint. There were missed opportunities, frustrations. These are the teenage years. But it turns out that just being there, a stable caring presence, believing in him and conveying it, is much of the work, at least the most important part.
And the sweet stuff is sweet. I once played coach for his audition monologue (A Raisin in the Sun), feeling the pure soul come charging through his words, knowing he would be one of the 10% accepted to a DC high school for the performing arts.
Another time we hiked through the woods together I listened to him describe how, despite his two brothers in jail, a decade of foster homes, his loving mother a reforming substance abuser, he would rise, be the exception, in wonder and awe: how can such conviction and hope seed itself in such adversity?
While inspired, I found it impossible not to savor the uniquely awkward, novel situations I was pushed into. Driving back from a teen sex-ed session with Robert and a few other boys to their foster home, I fielded all the unasked questions in class. Everything you can imagine. And somehow I knew that however awkward, I was in the right place.
The ‘equal worth of every child’ is perhaps the most facile of phrases that holds within a fundamentally radical principle. For it forces the question of whether we might truly hold another as our own. I suppose I started my time with Robert asking this question intellectually, and found my answer not long after. We were once reminiscing about how much he had grown, laughing together about a question he asked about chocolate milk years ago (‘no, it usually doesn’t come from the brown cows!’). We later turned to each other, hugging. ‘Love you, man’.
From school dance performances to high school graduation, our college visit together, and now with his first college year completed, it’s been predictable, humid eyes, every time. Over the past years I started asking more questions of myself: were Robert my own son, could my heart could swell any more with pride and love? Have I done anything more meaningful?