by Kali’ P. Rourke
She looked down and protectively wrapped her arms around herself. Then she looked straight at me with big, brown eyes.
I introduced myself and asked if she would like to find a place to sit. We were in the library of her middle school, and there were long tables with incredibly uncomfortable little plastic chairs grouped around them.
The smell of books, children and an occasional whiff of whatever the cafeteria was serving that day filled the air. I let her lead the way to a table near the back of the room and she sat with her back to the bookshelves. I took a chair across from her and so began our first mentoring session.
I tried active listening, the way I had read mentoring should be done…but that assumed that the other person was talking. Rachel wasn’t saying much at all, and I found myself floundering, just asking one leading question after another with little response.
I tried telling her about myself, seeking in vain to find some common ground we could tread. I was thanking God that I was an extrovert, so this was not the root canal experience it might be for some people, but I also felt that Rachel tested the outer limits of my social skills.
Finally, something I said clicked. I saw it slot into place just from the look in her eyes, and like an anxious angler, I cautiously tugged on the bait line to see how far she would advance.
“So you like art?” I asked, leaning forward slightly. “Who is your favorite artist?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “But I really like pictures of oceans.”
“I think I might want to be a marine biologist some day.”
“Really, “I asked, “What do you have to do to become a marine biologist?”
“Um…go to college, I guess.” The corners of her lips drooped in a defeated curve and I realized this was something she hadn’t thought through at all. It was as much a child’s dream as wanting to be a ballerina or an astronaut and she had no idea that it might be within her grasp.
I suggested that we get a book about marine biologists, preferably with lots of pictures, and we set off to the check out desk to find the first of many marine biology books that we would bond over in the coming months.
In time, I would share in the grimy truth of Rachel’s home life, her incredible challenges and mourn her ultimate decision to fail that year of school and to terminate our mentoring relationship.
I learned far more from her than she learned from me, but she inspired me to help create a much better program than the one I had joined. I think of Rachel often, and her face is the one before me when I give speeches and presentations about mentoring and the difference it can make in young people’s lives.
“Blessings always, sweet Rachel.”
Kali’ P. Rourke is an avid volunteer in Austin, Texas and leads the board of the Seedling Foundation, which mentors children with incarcerated parents through a site based program called “Seedling’s Promise.” Seedling Foundation partners with the Austin Independent School District in positively affecting thousands of school children each year. Learn more at http://www.seedlingfoundation.net/images/stories/seedlingvideoicon.jpg and