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Story 1

Meet Matt, he is our “Typical” mentor.  Matt will tell you about it in his own words. 

Hi I’m Matt.  When I heard a radio ad stating that NY needed male mentors, I called MPNY and asked them if they could refer me to suitable programs. Believe in Youth was one that really interested me.  Yesterday they called and asked to schedule an interview. 

  I was a little anxious when I showed up for my interview

but I think it went really well.  They invited me to the next volunteer training, and then they explained that I would need to have a fingerprint background check before they could consider matching me to a mentee. 

I am glad to learn that they take the safety of their youth so seriously.I was so happy when Toby, the Mentoring Coordinator, called and told me I had been accepted as a mentor

and asked if I had time on Saturday to meet a prospective mentee?  Toby explained that Nathaniel lived in the Bronx with his grandmother.

  Ive lived in New York for 9 years and I have never stepped foot in the Bronx except to go to a Yankees game; I guess this will be a new experience.

And that brings me to today. I finally met Nathaniel, he is 11 years old and very quiet, but he seems nice and I think we will get along.  He says he is up for new adventures and that’s what I plan on delivering.

 

Story 2

Nathaniel and I went on our first outing today. 

 

Based on what we had talked about at our initial introduction, I created two separate plans for the day and gave Nathaniel a choice.  We could either rent bikes and ride in Central Park and then have lunch at the Central Park Zoo or maybe kayak on the Hudson River.

 

It did not occur to me that he might not have had any experience with water sports (I guess that is not a very city kid activity). 

 

Anyway, he confided in me that he didn’t know what “kayaking” was but he liked to ride a bike so biking in the Park it was.

 I made a mental note to revisit the kayaking idea in the future, after we know each other better and I feel more confident about pushing his comfort zone a little. 

While we rode the subway down to 65th Street, we took turns asking each other questions from a “getting to know you” game that Toby, the mentoring supervisor, shared with me.   I learned that Nathaniel’s favorite color is RED, his favorite food is a HAMBURGER (no surprise there) and his favorite subject in school was SOCIAL STUDIES.  He learned that I will eat JUST ABOUT ANYTHING if I am hungry and I didn’t like elementary school very much when I was his age.

There was a line when we got to the bike shop; more opportunity to get to know each other but Nathaniel didn’t have much to say,

I took my cue from him and stayed quiet.

 

We got to the Park and spent two hours riding from one end to the other and back.  He wasn’t at all familiar with Central Park, which just blows my mind.  He has lived in New York City for 11 years and he didn’t even know exactly where the Park was.

 

 I have to keep reminding myself not to judge someone else’s lack of experience, especially an eleven year old.

 

After the bike ride we took a short stroll over to the Zoo.  Nathaniel wanted to jump right into visiting all the animals but I was starving and I thought it might be better if we both had lunch.  The café at the Zoo is cafeteria style which I thought he would be familiar with but he was very hesitant about what to choose.  I tried to help him without being patronizing (again 

I had to remind myself to try to make him feel comfortable without doing everything for him; I remembered how much I hated that when I was his age).

The rest of the afternoon was a breeze; he was totally enthralled with the animals at the Zoo.  I tried to get him to join me in coming up with names for some of the animals but he didn’t want to play along. Oh well, I guess I am not going to hit every single one out of the park.

 I started to get a little self-conscious, so I tried to suppress my enthusiasm (I didn’t want to look like more of a kid than Nathaniel).

 

Getting back to his grandmother’s was a piece of cake.  We checked calendars and made a tentative date for two weeks; I guess that means he wants to spend more time with me. Yea! 

When I was walking back to catch the subway home my friend Cleve called me to ask how the day had gone. That’s when it hit me: I was so busy worrying if he was having a good time with me

I hadn’t realized what a good time I had had with him.

 

Story 3

This week Nathaniel and I went to the Liberty Science Center.    

It turned out to be quite a big adventure for Nathaniel.  It started with a long subway ride down to the Ferry landing at Battery Park City. 

 

It never occurred to me that Nathaniel might be anxious about boat travel.

 

I got the idea when we were standing on the dock waiting for the boat to arrive.  As boats were pushing away from dock, where we were standing it was rocking up and down.  I looked at Nathaniel and saw that he was very concerned; he had grabbed a handrail for safety.  My first instinct was to reassure him and say “there is nothing to be afraid of the dock is completely safe”

 

I thought about how that might sound to a landlubber like Nathaniel.

 

Instead I decided it might be better for him if I joined him and held onto the railing just like he was doing (but without the look of fear on my face).  I said “Yeah it can get a little rocky sometimes but they told me the dock has never drifted away from the shore”. No laugh, maybe it was too early for jokes?  Just then our ferry arrived and I realized I had to do something effective and fast.  I said, “Would it be okay if I hold onto you while we board the ferry, so we can keep each other steady?”  Nathaniel said yes and grabbed my arm.  He has a fierce grip! 

Nathaniel was in charge of the tickets, so as we boarded the boat he very purposefully shoved them at the ferryman.  Then came the really big decision; riding inside the cabin or outside on the deck.  It was a beautiful day and everyone was staying on the deck to enjoy the breeze and the great views.  I told Nathaniel he shouldn’t miss the views up and down the river.  I really love standing outside on days like that but I saw that Nathaniel was still anxious, so I asked him which he preferred. I figured we had to ride back later, so there would be another chance.  In the cabin, we went right up next to a nice safe window. 

 

When we were stepping off the boat I said to him “Hey now you have something to add to your list of accomplishments.”  Toby, my supervisor, keeps stressing how important it is to point out strengths and accomplishments to our mentees.

 

Story 4 

Inside the Liberty Science Center.

The afternoon at the science center was exceptional.  Nathaniel is a bit of a biology “geek”; he went nuts for the glass walls filled with live river fish.  Then it was time for the IMAX film about dinosaurs.  I thought this was going to blow him away but there was no reaction at all.  He just wanted to make sure we sat in the middle so we could see everything.  I tend to startle easily so I was doing a lot of flinching and wriggling but Nathaniel just sat there like a scientist observing every moment of the experience. When we exited he smiled at me and said (with a giggle) “You were scared.”  I said “No I wasn’t, only when the dinosaurs almost stepped on my head”.  Finally a full out laugh, this made me feel accomplished.

When we boarded the ferry for the ride back to Manhattan, a completely different Nathaniel walked on with me.  This Nathaniel was much more animated and eager.  I took my opening and asked, “Since we survived the trip over and the Ice Age do you think it might be safe enough to ride upstairs on the deck?”  Alas, this was still not the time; Nathaniel headed straight to the first seat in the bow and pressed his face to the window.

 

I have to admit I was deflated but it didn’t take me long to start counting the gains and let go of anything else.  Progress happens in inches as well as miles so I shouldn’t expect so much that I lose sight of the accomplishments.

 

It feels like this shouldn’t be so much fun but MAN was this a good day! 

 

Story 5

Let me start by explaining that Xmas is a big deal in my family; lights all over the house, a fresh cut tree covered with generations of ornaments, pounds of colorful and delicious homemade cookies and well, you get the picture.  My school vacations were always spent ice skating and sleigh riding.   You might think it was a bit too “Norman Rockwell” but this is why the holiday season holds so much joy for me. 

                  I wanted to bring my experience of the holidays to Nathaniel. 

When I told him this, he said he did not know how to skate.  Well he has the perfect mentor because I have taught many people how to ice skate and there is nothing I would like better than to teach him.

                That’s when I got an idea that would make his holidays the best.

I made plans to take Nathaniel out before the holidays but I didn’t explain exactly what, just that we would have a chance to go skating.  He was excited.  The day before our date I scoped out the skating rink at Rockefeller Center and the stretch of Fifth Avenue between 59th Street and 42nd Street.

            I knew it was important to organize our adventure so we could maximize the experience.  

While we were traveling downtown Nathaniel expressed great excitement at learning how to skate: he said he had seen the Winter Olympics on television and he thought it looked hotter than rollerblading.  We arrived at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue right across from the Plaza Hotel where the holiday decorations are over the top!  I insisted we walk in and see their tree.  Well, Nathaniel was speechless, literally.  When I asked him, rhetorically, was this the biggest, fanciest tree he had ever seen he just stood in the lobby starring around blank faced. 

So we headed down the avenue toward Rockefeller Center.  I purposely crossed the street so that Nathaniel and I could go inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  I was surprised when Nathaniel said he really didn’t want to go inside.  I said “Come on Buddy, we are right here and this is a great experience”.  He reluctantly agreed but once again he stood there silent, no reaction.  I wondered if he was afraid or intimidated in some way.

           I made certain that Nathaniel was never more than one step in front of me where I could reach out and hold his shoulder.  I didn’t want to lose him in the crowd and I had a feeling that holding his shoulder might make him feel safer.

Next stop was to get on line to look at the dazzling windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. They are truly amazing; if you have never seen them the extent of extravagance and opulence can blow your mind.  I wasn’t sure how Nathaniel would react to the store displays.

          I was starting to think he didn’t care about any of this holiday stuff.

As we made our way down the line and peered into each window I asked him “Well Buddy what do you think?  Isn’t this amazing?”  Nathaniel just shrugged his shoulders.  At one window he pointed at a dress entirely covered with jewels and said “That’s gotta hurt her butt!”  Wow, finally some animation.  I was so relieved but it didn’t last long, his hands went back into his pockets and he continued to shuffle along the line.  When we reached the end I decided that a change to a physical activity was very much needed so I said “I guess it’s time to try on some ice skates”.  Nathaniel’s face lit up (the effect I was going for). 

I will tell you the rest in my next story.

 

Story 6

I directed Nathaniel across the street to Rockefeller Center.  We made our way, with difficulty, through the crowds and toward the skating rink.  At last it was our turn to rent skates.  I had a little trouble getting Nathaniel to believe that his shoes would be given back to him when we returned our skates – he did not want to give them up until I pointed to all the other shoes that the clerks were watching, along with back packs scarves, hats etc…

“Okay Buddy, let’s hit the ice” I said, and off we went, slowly wobbling to the edge where he could hold on.  First lesson was to hold my hands while I skate backwards and he practices sliding one foot forward and then the other.  “Keep shifting your weight from one leg to the other as you slide,” I told him.  But Nathaniel kept gliding over to the wall for support.  I know this is not the way to learn to skate, but I also did not want to correct him too often.  We were finally doing something that appeared to interest him and I hoped he could find a sense of accomplishment in it.  Undaunted we pressed on with me on one side and the wall holding him up on the other.  “Just keep practicing shifting your weight back and forth and your legs will slide naturally” I explained.  I could see that skating was harder than Nathaniel had originally thought and he was getting frustrated. 

What words do I invest in so that they will have the most value for Nathaniel right now?

“Practice makes perfect Buddy” I can’t believe I said something so lame.  Then I remembered something they told us in mentor training.  Toby said that we always have our own childhood learning experiences to reflect on, so I tried to remember how I felt when I was first learning how to skate and that’s when it hit me.  I said to Nathaniel “It took me a month before I felt safe skating alone and I was so wobbly I looked like a pelican on skis.  You are doing way better than I did when I was your age”.  That seemed to lift his spirits and he let me take both his hands and once again I was skating backwards and pulling him as he practiced skating forwards. 

Maybe it would be a good idea if sometime soon I picked an activity where we are both novices, that way I could show the value of practicing and learning from your mistakes.

Afterwards I insisted that we had earned a couple of hot cocoas to go with our lunch.  While we ate, I fed him some more positive reinforcement without getting too stupid about it. I reminded him about other things he did well like bike riding and the practice that takes before anyone can solo. 

When I was growing up I had an uncle who always reminded me of the things I did well as a result of practicing. He is one of my role models for being a better mentor.

On my way home I ran the day over in my mind, what seemed to work and what didn’t.  I was confused by Nathaniel’s reluctance to embrace the holiday spirit. On the other hand, I think I picked up quickly on how to help him start to learn how to skate.

Avoid any criticism and don’t give up, build on Nathaniel’s strengths. 

On Monday I called Toby, my mentor supervisor and reviewed the outing with her. I had questions about Nathaniel’s apparent lack of joy amidst all the midtown holiday excitement.   Toby had some good thoughts about Nathaniel’s behavior.  She said many children from outer borough neighborhoods, like his, have little or no experience with the size and scale of midtown Manhattan, the tall buildings, the holiday crowds and total excess of noise and lights might have been intimidating to an eleven-year-old.  Also she suggested that the simplicity of his daily life might have made him feel uncomfortable with such ostentation.  She also asked me to think about how much I had expected to get from the outing and

…if my expectations might have been out of sync with Nathaniel’s capacity to appreciate.  

 

Lastly she asked if I had asked him if going inside a Catholic church was okay for him (if I remember correctly Nathaniel’s grandmother is a Jehovah’s Witness).  Another “ah-ha!” moment for me; it never occurred to me that he might feel uncomfortable in another church, but I can ask him about this the next time I see him.  As for the skating lesson, Toby was very impressed with my efforts and suggested I continue, as those kinds of activities can be very bonding and trust building. 

Forgive the cliché but I think this week was a win-win for everybody, we both learned new things about each other as well as ourselves.

 

Happy New Year to all my mentoring friends

Story 7

Midwinter Meltdown  

 
I was not at all prepared for what happened last Saturday.  To be fair, most of our outing was fun with Nathaniel in a very upbeat mood.  The day started when I picked up my mentee.  It was cold and his grandmother had him wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy headed for the North Pole.  Poor kid, he could hardly move but he didn’t complain.  When we got on the train for Manhattan, we loosened some of the wrappings and he seemed relieved.

 
Our plan was to tour the New York Public Library, stroll through Bryant Park and over to Times Square for lunch.  Nathaniel has a $35 gift certificate from Toys-R-Us left over from Xmas and so we planned to swing by later on so he could spend it.

 
I like the fact that we have adopted little rituals


…like stopping first for a bagel at the start of the day.  Nathaniel always gets cocoa and I get my coffee. The fun part is how we experiment with different bagels and cream cheese flavors.  It started with me making a game of asking, “What do you think cream cheese with walnuts and raisons on pumpernickel tastes like?”  Every time we get together I order something new and we share it and offer up opinions like food critics; Nathaniel got into this very quickly and now it has become our thing.  


Then it was on to the main branch of the New York Public Library.  Nathaniel is very good about keeping his voice down, so when I said we need to whisper while we’re in here, he was very cooperative. He was wide eyed with amazement inside the library.  It is gratifying to see him interested in something other than sports or games.  We walked all over the first two floors and I explained to him the difference between a lending library (like at school) and a reference library.  I said “It’s like the difference between eat-in and take-out food and he got that.


    I often forget that Nathaniel is only 11 and may need breaks between activities.


From the Library we walked through Bryant Park and past the pop up ice skating rink.  Nathaniel wanted to go skating again but there wasn’t time in our schedule so I told him we could put it on the list for another outing soon. I could tell he was very disappointed but the lines were very long and we would have been there all day if we had stayed.  Anyway, I had made plans to take him to Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square and so off we went.


Sometimes when we are just walking somewhere, the silence can make me uncomfortable and I find myself trying to hold up both sides of the conversation.


About 15 minutes later we arrived at Broadway and 51st Street and Ellen’s Stardust Diner, I like to bring friends from out of town there because it’s this kind of zany blast from the past diner.  I thought the variety of food and the singing wait-staff would be fun for Nathaniel.  It was very crowded when we arrived and I could see that Nathaniel was anxious.


Once again my instincts told me to keep Nathaniel close and I placed a hand securely on his shoulder to let him know he was safe.  I said, “It’s crowded on Saturdays but we’ll be seated soon,” and we were.


I knew the menu would be confusing so I made a point of pointing out different things on the menu that I thought he might like.  We played a game I used to play with my nephews where I asked “What do you think is the most delicious thing on the menu?  What do you think is the grossest sounding thing on the menu?”  This is a way to get him interested in reading over the menu and it seemed to work.

 
Well, we had a good meal, Nathaniel enjoyed his food and we shared a seriously chocolate cake.  Now down to Toys R Us to spend his gift certificate.  Of course, Times Square anytime is crazy with crowds of tourists but Nathaniel stayed close and I kept pointing to our goal every few yards.  Inside the store was just as crazy; a giant indoor Ferris wheel and floors of every toy imaginable. I asked the guard where we could find toys for an 11 year-old boy and I directed Nathaniel by saying, “let’s go right to where your kind of stuff is.”  


When we got there I thought it only fair to be less directive and let him wander around (as long as I followed).


I needed to keep reminding him that whatever he picked out had to add up to $35 including the tax, “So if you pick something for $25 you still have $10 including tax or if you find something you like for $15 than you have $20 for something else but the tax was going to be almost 3 dollars so you really only have around $32 to spend.”  Even I thought it sounded confusing and I could see him getting frustrated trying to do the math so I offered to keep track with the calculator on my phone.  An hour later and Nathaniel still couldn’t decide what he wanted.  He had played with about a dozen different transformers and Gameboys but he kept vacillating like he was buying a new car.

 
I never get really impatient with Nathaniel but I have to admit, he was really wearing my patience down to a thread.

 
Finally I said, “Nathaniel, it is getting late and your Grandmother is expecting us, maybe we should do this another day”.  That is when the meltdown started, first with whining about not getting exactly what he wanted then he started saying that I wasn’t being fair; ouch, that felt like an arrow in the chest.  Before I knew it, he was flailing his arms and pounding his fists on the display, screaming “It’s my money and I want to buy something today!”  After that I had trouble understanding anything he was saying; he just kept screaming and flailing until he flung himself to the floor kicking and howling.  BAM! His foot went into a display and over it went.

 
For a moment I was frozen with panic, I have never seen a child act this way in public before.

   
I guess it was apparent I didn’t have a clue because right then a sales clerk came over and asked if I needed any assistance.  He helped me carry Nathaniel to a quieter corner.  It was then that I remembered seeing my sister Cassie manage my nephews whenever they got tired and cranky and started to scream. 

 
In the calmest voice I could muster I said, “Nathaniel, I want to understand everything you are trying to say but I can’t hear you when you are screaming.  I know you are upset but if you try to calm yourself and bring your voice down I will be able to hear what you are saying, because I want to understand how you feel.”


Geez, it was like I was channeling Cassie, but it must have been the right thing to say because he started to calm himself a little.  Now he was hyperventilating slightly, so I just keep encouraging him to take deep breaths and reassuring him it was all alright.  Somehow, in his daze, I managed to walk him to the elevator and outside.  “Deep breaths buddy, no one is going to get mad at you”  Once he could hear me I said what my sister would have said; I put some words to his feelings and told him I understood he felt frustrated and that it was a lot for anyone to take in at one time.  He seemed to be listening because he nodded.  Then I suggested that we should try doing this again at the beginning of the day when we both have more energy.

 
Toby, my supervisor has told me that when you turn a child’s feelings or behaviors into something experienced by everyone, you avoid sounding like a disciplinarian and more like a friend who cares.


I am not going to sugar coat it; I was worn out when I got home.  On Monday, I called Toby and talked over everything.  She thinks I handled an extremely difficult situation very well.  But she agreed that the lesson learned was not overwhelm Nathaniel with choices after he has spent a day being jostled and he is tired and worn down.

 

Story 8

Matt and Nat More Skating Lessons

What a great day I had.  Last Saturday I took Nathaniel out to go ice skating, at his request. Nathaniel has wanted to go again ever since his first skating lesson during his holiday school breaks.  So I checked out Lasker Rink in the north end of Central Park, I had heard from another mentor in the program that it was less crowded and less expensive.  He (Nathaniel) was really excited.  Well, when we got there everything checked out okay, rink time and skate rentals were very reasonable and the rink was much less crowded than Rock Center, Bryant Park or Wolman Rink. 

 

Other mentors are turning out to be a great resource for activity ideas as well as a good support.

 

We started off great, Nathaniel was psyched and I was psyched.  When we hit the ice he was wobbly but I could tell he was determined to improve.  We practiced as we did before, with me skating backwards so he could hold on to my hands.  With a little encouragement from me he seemed to find his center of gravity after a few turns around the rink.  I was amazed and even better, he looked so proud of himself.  He was standing straight up gliding slowly but steadily forward and hardly touching my hands.  

 

I thought to myself, how do I express what he is accomplishing in a way that will have significant meaning for him in other things not just this?  

 

I smiled and said “Nathaniel, buddy, I’m impressed with how quickly you’re learning and I think you can be a very good skater.”  He smiled back at me and let go of my hands. He wasn’t moving fast or very smoothly but he was standing on his own and powering himself forward, a little faster and further with each push. With his permission, I took some pictures so we could show his grandmother what he had accomplished.  He put on a big smile and skated towards me.  “Perfect” I shouted. With that he started pushing himself faster and smoother, he really looked coordinated.  I skated behind just in case but I didn’t want to interfere with his feeling of freedom.  He nearly made one complete turn around the rink before someone rushed past him and through him off balance.  Unfortunately I wasn’t close enough to catch him and he went down on his can, kaboom.  I skated right up alongside of Nathaniel.  I tried to gage how he was feeling based on his facial expression but surprised is all you could call it.  I asked “Are you okay buddy?  And then with a smile I said “I guess it was only a matter of time before you christened the ice with your butt, everyone does it.  I can’t believe you went this long without falling down.” 

            I guess a light attitude really does help to soften the blow.

 

I said “The good news is it wasn’t your fault.  You are doing great.”  He seemed to respond to this when he got up and, after brushing himself off, he began again.  This time we were skating alongside each other and it was nice.  I made sure to stay in pace with Nathaniel.  Well we went around a few more times and then decided we had enough for the day. 

I asked Nathaniel where he wanted to eat.  I said “I picked the restaurant last time, you decide this today.”  We walked a few blocks towards Lexington Avenue and Nathaniel shouted “Hey, there’s a Popeye’s, let’s eat there.”  Fine with me Buddy, it’s your pick.

 

            What a great day.

 

Story 9

 Jousting with Nathaniel

While the weather remains so cold and dreary, indoor mentoring adventures are best. Nathaniel wasn’t very enthusiastic when I told him we were going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I said, “Buddy, it is freezing outside and you’ve already been to the museum with all the dinosaurs, but I tell you what, you do this with me and lunch is your choice, whatever food you want to eat, “Deal?” When we arrived, Nathaniel thought the building looked like Buckingham Palace. He is a pretty smart kid, but I had no idea he would know what Buckingham Palace was, let alone looked like. So I asked him, “Oh yeah, how?” Nathaniel answered “It’s long on both side and the roof is flat, like where the Queen lives.”


“Nathaniel, you continue to amaze me with your observations, I hope you know that that is a special quality”


I think Nathaniel was overwhelmed by the sized of the main hall, so I stayed close with a hand on his shoulder. After checking our coats, paying admission fees and looking at the museum map, I directed Nathaniel to the Hall of Arms and Armor. Other mentors have told me the Arms and Armor and Egyptian collections are good places to get mentees initiated to the museum. I have to admit, I had only been there once before, when someone dragged me to an exhibit; I don’t know much about the place.


This is one experience where Nathaniel and I are kind of starting off on even ground. I think that could be a good thing.


The first exhibit we came to was a showcase of Japanese Samurai masks. Nathaniel stared at them as if he recognized the expressions on the faces. I asked him what they looked like to him and he said Samurai Anime. I said, you mean Japanese cartoons? And he said, “yeah.” There he goes again, with his keen sense of observation. I told him that that was a very smart observation and that I bet there was more cool Samurai stuff further in the exhibit. This got his attention and he eagerly moved ahead. I was right, there was an entire room of Samurai armor and Nathaniel was transfixed. I didn’t bother reading the descriptions; I was eleven years old once myself and I knew it would be too much information for him.


We both liked the horses with armor in the main exhibit hall. He had no idea horses were dressed for battle. I guess he hasn’t read any knights of the round table stories (gift idea).


After the armor I asked him if he had ever been in an Egyptian temple like Indian Jones. This must have been a bad choice of references because it caused me to go into a five minute explanation of who Indiana Jones was (geez!)


I need to remember to keep my references contemporary so they are more readily understandable by a young person.


I will catch you up on what happen in Egypt next time.

 

Story 10

 Nathaniel and the Temple of Dendur

Looking at Egyptian artifacts was a whole other experience. Nathaniel was tentative, as we approached a section of a pyramid with a passageway in, so you can see the hieroglyphics up close. Being an older brother, my instincts are often to make things like this scarier for the person I am with, you know, “oooh spooky Egyptian Mummy” and “don’t get trapped in Pharaoh’s tomb”. I resisted those instincts; I did not think it would be fun for Nathaniel.


He needs to feel safer with me before I can kid around with him, and that takes time.


So I inched my way into the narrow passage and made some noises like “wow” and “holy cow”. This seemed to get Nathaniel more intrigued and I saw his head bend around the corner. I said, “Hey buddy, this writing is over 3000 years old, this is amazing.” He slid in a little further, his eyes bugged out, both in amazement as well as fear. After a minute I suggested we move out so other people could get in.

Nathaniel appeared relieved.

From that point on I thought it would be good to let Nathaniel set the pace, so I just wandered and kept an eye on him.


I would steer him in and out of rooms if it looked like he was getting bored. I knew there was a room entirely devoted to one free standing temple and I didn’t want us to deplete all our energy before we got to it. As we approached the Temple of Dendur Nathaniel got very quiet. I don’t know if you have ever seen this Egyptian temple at the Museum but it is very special. It is set aside in its own large room with light pouring in from a glass wall; in front there is a pool of water (like the Nile River) and two sphinxes guarding the temple which sits on an elevated plaza at the far end of the room.


I searched for an easily identifiable reference that an average 11 year old might relate to.


I asked Nathaniel if he knew the story of Moses from the Bible. “You know how Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses in the bull rush on the river bank and brought him home to grow up in Pharaoh’s palace as his son?” “Well”, I said, “this is kind of like that place.” His eyes widened and I could see that he got it right away. He started telling me more parts of the Moses’ story as we explored around the temple.

It felt really good to make a connection for him and with him.
I

“Okay buddy, lunch is your pick, remember?” We headed back to the great hall to get our coats. “I pick pizza”, Nathaniel shouted, “Whatever you say, buddy.”

 

Story 11

Guess Who’s Frustrated

Last Sunday I flashed back to 5th grade, not the best of times.  Nathaniel has been falling behind in school, so I visited him at his apartment to help with some of his math and English homework.

 

When I arrived, Nathaniel was in his room.  For safety sake, I made sure to leave the door open so his Grandmother could see and hear us. I saw he was busy playing a computer game; he didn’t even look up when I said hello. 

 

I have to admit I was a little hurt, (that was the first time he has ever ignored me).

 

I said, “Whatcha do’in buddy?”  Without looking up he said, “League of Legends and I am about to kill this obnoxious serpent who is really pissing me off”. 

 

If I wanted his attention for home work, I thought it was best to start by meeting him where he was at.

 

I knelt down facing his computer and started watching the screen.  Nathaniel continued to stare straight ahead, never even looking over his shoulder to make eye contact with me.  But I get it, he was absorbed in the “fight” and wanted to finish.  I gave it another few minutes, then I said, “Hey Nathaniel, you are really good at this, by the way, where are your school books?”  “On the desk” he muttered. “Well, we better get to them soon that is why I came here today.”    

 

I got nothing, no response.

 

Moments like this are real challenges for me because I’ve been told that a mentor is not a disciplinarian, a school teacher or a parent…

 

…but, I’m here to help him with school work.  Do I make a deal with him, like I do when we are choosing restaurants?  “If you spend 1 hour doing your homework you can spend half an hour playing more League of Legends.”  No there had to be a better way. I tried to imagine what he might be thinking/feeling at the moment.    

 

If schoolwork is really frustrating for him, he might avoid doing it whenever possible.  Nobody likes being frustrated.

 

“Hey Nathaniel, I could really use some help here with your books.  There must be a spot where you can pause the game.  Can you help me out?”  A miracle, he stopped playing and turned around to face me.  I reiterated “Man you are really fierce with that.”  He smiled.  I asked him to show me what he was currently studying in his math book.  His smile turned to a look of worry.  “I want a better understanding of what it is that is hard so I can work on it with you.”  He explained to me that he was behind most of his class.  I said “That’s okay buddy, I can help if you show me how far you’ve gotten and where your teacher wants you to be” 

 

I realized the issue was not getting all the work done but more importantly getting him to feel less ashamed and afraid of doing it.  We did a lot of math in that 2 hours,  including writing a short list of questions for him to ask his teacher, and we still got to do something fun afterwards.  I am happy to say he seems less worried and I am less frustrated.

 

Story 12

Educational and Delicious

 

It’s been six months since I became Nathaniel’s mentor and I thought we should celebrate.  I wanted Nathaniel to have a say, but his experience is very limited and he is generally at a loss for any ideas that don’t involve ice skating or bike riding so…

  

… I thought I should do the research and then run it by him for his input. 

  

Toby and some of the mentors at Believe in Youth have been helpful with activity ideas in the past.  But I thought, this time, I would do a search on my own.  That’s when I found the NYC walking tour of all NYC walking tours!!!  I called Nathaniel to see what he thought of the idea.  I asked him, “Hey buddy, what would you say to a walking tour of downtown Manhattan this Saturday?”  “Uh, just walking downtown? Uh, I guess”.  Not a very enthusiastic response, so I added, “What if it was a PIZZA walking tour?”  “WHAT?” he responded.  So I explained that we could take an organized walking tour of the best pizza in NYC and maybe learn a little about the history of downtown at the same time.  

 

I know I probably shouldn’t set Nathaniel up like that but it is just a little tease and I get so much joy when I hear his excitement over anything.  It is a small devilish indulgence but I don’t think our supervisor, Toby, would mind.

  

Saturday came and we headed down to Little Italy where the tour begins.  But before we could do anything we had to share our breakfast ritual.  It took some hoofing but we found a bagel shop not too far from Mulberry Street.

I have to say the tour guide Scott was definitely an expert on pizza, the history of Italian immigrants in New York and development of Soho and Greenwich Village.  I thought Nathaniel was going to yelp when we got our first of three different slices of pizza, and was it good!  We covered a lot of blocks on this tour but Nathaniel never complained.  I think the smell of pizza was leading him on.

 

I really enjoy activities where I don’t know any more than Nathaniel does.  I like sharing the new experience and seeing it from his young eyes and I think it is good for him to see how someone else goes about learning new things. 

  

The tour lasted two hours and when it was finished we found ourselves in Greenwich Village and in need of a refreshing drink.  While we sat and had our sodas, I asked Nathaniel what new information he found the most interesting from the tour.  He said, “So pizza used to be sold from carts on the street like hot dogs or pretzels are, and I didn’t know they were different types of pizza from different parts of Italy.”  Wow, he was really listening, I was impressed and I told him so.  Then I asked him, “What do you think about the fact that we have been matched together for six months?”  I thought I saw a slight look of concern in his face when he said, “Okay, it’s good, I mean sometimes it is hard but I still like us doing stuff together. Is this our last trip?”  I said, “No buddy, I sure don’t want it to be: I just wanted to check in and make sure we were good. Why would you ask that?”  Nathaniel explained that he thought when people ask him how things are there is usually something wrong.  I reassured him that it was all good. 

 

What I didn’t tell him was how much pride I felt at how well I thought we were doing.  When I tried to imagine what mentoring would be like, I never imagined it would be this gratifying. 

 

“Thank you, Nathaniel, for all the time we share together, I am having a great time.”

 

 

Story 13

Matt and Nat take a Right Turn

 

The NY Botanical gardens was the site of Nathaniel’s and my latest adventure. But traveling east to west in the Bronx was half the adventure (if you live in the South Bronx and you want to go to the Gardens or the Zoo you have to travel even further south to go west and north, don’t ask)

I try to avoid wasting time getting lost on outings so I plan the travel ahead of time using my Hop Stop app and the navigator on my phone.

I picked Nathaniel up early on Saturday so we could spend as much time as we wanted in the gardens. They have a lot of cool activities for kids on weekends and I didn’t want him to miss out, so off we went. Sometimes we read together from a magazine or a newspaper I bring along.

This time I took an idea from another mentor and I bought a small book of “Mad Libs”.

Surprisingly, Nathaniel had never heard of these. (Mad Libs, for anyone who didn’t experience them growing up, are pads with short stories missing many of the nouns, verbs adverbs and adjective. One person asks for suggestions for the missing words without revealing the story. When the blank space are completed, you read the story, start to finish, including all the now funny words that have been added). It didn’t take long for him to get the hang of it though and not much longer for him to start getting kind of gross with his “fill in” responses. I tried to contain some of the silliness but he was really getting off on this word game so I asked that we pass it back and forth so each of us got a chance. This seemed to quiet things down a tad.

We arrived at the NY Botanical Gardens and headed straight for the café just past the entrance for our ritual bagels. I showed Nathaniel the map of the gardens and the list of weekend activities. He was fairly noncommittal at this point so I made some suggestions, “How about we start with the Orchid Show and then stroll over to the Howell Family Garden where we can either make a terrarium or we can learn how to cook some freshly grown food?” “Or we can just walk around and see what catches our eyes”, I said. Nathaniel responded with a characteristic shrug and his grunt “i don't know”.

I do a great deal of the activity planning, with Nathaniel’s input of course, but I’ve been told that he has to feel like he is a partner or the mentoring will lose a great deal of its effect. While I sipped my coffee I thought hard about how to engage him in the process, not just the outcome.

I said, “I have an idea, how about today you are the navigator?” “The what?’ he said.”You take the map and you decide where we go and how we will get there, how does that sound?” Before he could doubt himself, I added, “I think you would be a great navigator.” Well, I think that cinched it for him because off we went with Nathaniel very proudly leading the way.

We saw what seemed like miles of brilliant, blooming cherry trees, lots of other early spring flowers and some awesome landscapes. Whenever Nathaniel was in doubt, I explained to him that all the roads would come back to the beginning no matter which way we went and it was just a matter of choice. My uncle used to say, “Every left turn has a right turn that changes it”, and that’s what I told Nathaniel.

I think this map idea is something we should use on future adventures, Nathaniel seemed to have a genuine sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

 

Story 14

Matt Gains a Sense of Accomplishment

 

I have come to realize that not every outing has to be an adventure to be valuable. This is what I came to realize during my six month review with Toby at Believe in Youth Mentoring.

After six months all mentors at Believe in Youth are evaluated and last week was my turn. Toby asked me a lot of questions about Nathaniel like, was he on time for dates, did he participate in the decision making, and does he seem engaged in whatever activity we are doing. I was very happy to report “yes” to all these questions.


Nathaniel appears to be completely committed to mentoring and he is never difficult to be with. As for how much he appreciates what we do together, I didn’t feel I could speak to that point.

Toby reviewed our match activities over the past half year and asked how effective I thought my communication with Nathaniel was. I said I believed we were communicating well enough but that I really didn’t think I was having any significant impact on him. And he never says anything to me like “thank you” or “I had fun today” so that I really couldn’t judge how effective I was being.

 

I told Toby, I thought that if another mentor showed up one week and did all the same activities that I did he might not notice the difference. Toby stopped me right there.

She explained to me that boys Nathaniel’s age don’t generally express gratitude easily and that I shouldn’t expect it but rather continue to role model good manners and appreciation, for example thanking him for being on time. Then she reminded me that since Nathaniel is always ready to go when I pick him up that alone says he wants to be with you. She also said since Nathaniel has never had a consistent male role model in his life before, he is just now learning how to relate to an adult male on something other than a superficial or formal level and I should give him more time. In addition, Nathaniel’s grandmother has reported that his mood has improved considerably since the first month we started seeing each other; she also told Toby that his grades have improved slightly. All of this is very good news, and new news to me.

I never ask Nathaniel about schoolwork, I think because I am afraid of bringing up a subject that doesn’t make him happy. I don’t think that this is good or bad.

Toby went on to explain that mentors are often too close to see the change in youth so she wasn’t surprised that my perception of the match might be a little cloudy.

 

It’s true, Nathaniel and I talk anywhere. I feel more confident that I can hold his attention with or without all the razzle dazzle of a special event or exciting adventure. These facts alone have to mean something with regards to the value and quality of our mentoring relationship.

 

Toby asked me how mentoring was working out for me, was it what I expected and how long did I think I would continue beyond my one year commitment?

 

Mentoring is not what I expected. I expected it to be much more challenging and a lot less fun. Out of twelve outings there was only one that was truly difficult but even that turned out okay and I learned a lot from the experience. Most important is the fact that I really look forward to seeing Nathaniel and I am happy at the end of a day with him. The way I feel right now, I want to remain his mentor for as long as I can.

 

Story 15

Nathaniel on Broadway

We celebrated Nathaniel’s birthday last weekend; he was 12 years old. Nathaniel has been talking about wanting to see Newsies for a long time, ever since he saw them perform at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Newsies is the Broadway musical based on a popular Disney movie. This was going to be a large expense and so I thought maybe I should clear it with Toby, my program coordinator. It’s a good thing I did contact Toby first, because she was able to steer me to a website where I could get reduced tickets.


Toby generally discourages extravagant spending on mentees but she conceded that this was a special occasion and the activity was for both of us.

Nathaniel has never been to a performance outside of his school’s auditorium so this was going to be a very big deal. I explained to him that because this is a Broadway theater he needed to dress in nice clothes, like he would wear to church. When I picked him up Saturday morning he was ready and waiting and his grandmother looked so pleased because he looked so grown up; “like a young gentleman” she said.

The subway ride downtown was spent reading a synopsis of the story and talking about the boys who used to sell papers from street corners, something Nathaniel was completely unfamiliar with. The matinee starts promptly at 2:00P.M., therefore our bagel ritual turned into lunch so we could make the theater without rushing. Nathaniel and I have been in, or through, Times Square and the theater district several times by now, so I wasn’t at all surprised at how comfortable he felt with the crowds. He did ask me why there were always so many people who didn’t look like they belonged in NYC, standing and starring up at buildings and stuff. He thought it was funny that so many of them had cameras and backpacks and sweatshirts tied around their waists. I said, “That’s very smart of you to notice, I guess it’s a tourist uniform that must be comfortable…wait until the summer, this will be a sea of droopy shorts, saggy tee shirts and flip-flops; I guess everyone wants to feel as comfortable traveling as they do when they are at home.”

Waxing philosophically, if just a little sarcastically, is probably not the best attitude to display in front of Nathaniel. Note to self, being judgmental is not good role modeling.

We made it to the theater with plenty of time to spare. Nathaniel was very quiet and, I think, slightly agog at the ornate detail inside.

A suggestion to other mentors, get to the theater early enough to find the restroom and encourage your mentee to use it before the show begins. I know it sounds like something a mom would do, but it will save you crawling over people’s laps when he tells you he has to go a half hour into the first act.

Nathaniel remained wide-eyed and relatively quiet throughout most of the performance, I did have to nudge him once or twice to applaud after some rousing musical numbers. At one point he leaned over and whispered, “How do they all move so fast and so high? It’s just like Flying Bat in Mortal Kombat.” Comparing the dancing to a video game was a keen observation. Excellent buddy!

Nathaniel got the knack of theater etiquette fairly quickly and carried his program like a treasured object. We used the trip home to compare thoughts on what we liked about the show. I thought it was all fun and I liked the fact that young people organized and changed something for their own good. Nathaniel definitely liked the athletic dancing like in the “King of New York” number. The best part of the day was when Nathaniel told me he had a good time.

 

Story 16 

Matt and Nate, welcome to the library

 

The library was the last place I thought Nathaniel and I would have fun.  I haven’t written for a while, I was away for a family wedding and decided to take some vacation time afterwards, but you don’t want to hear about that.  I called Nathaniel as soon as I got back to schedule a date.  He was surprised to hear from me.  He said that when he received the postcard that said “Greetings from Vermont” he thought that it meant I had moved away.  I asked him, “Buddy why would you think that?” I told you I was going away for two weeks.”  Nathaniel explained that the only other time he received a postcard was when his father went to Texas for work, he sent several postcards addressed to Nathaniel and then stopped writing. Nathaniel hasn’t heard from his dad since he was 7 years old.

 

            I made a point of explaining the difference between going on vacation and going away for work.  I made certain not to say anything that might shed a negative light on Nathaniel’s dad. I simply said “It sounds like that made you sad.”

 

We planned a date to go to Nathaniel’s local library in Morris Park on Saturday.  I thought an introduction to the library might inspire him to spend some time there this summer, while he is out of school. When I picked him up he had a notebook with him, I thought this was very smart of him, he is planning on taking notes so he can come back on his own.  In fact he had brought a list of books his school wanted him to read before September.  Either way, we now had a task. 

When we walked into the library, Nathaniel went straight to the front desk and ask the librarian for a new library card.  It turns out he has been there several times before with his grandmother, but it has been a while and he had lost his card. 

 

            He never said anything to lead me to believe that he was familiar with his local library, not even when I suggested it as an activity.  Once again, I need to keep my assumptions in check.  I jumped to a wrong conclusion before I discussed anything with my mentee.

 

After that I suggested that we learn something about this branch and the programs and activities they have for young people.  It turns out this library has laptops for use and special gaming days called Game On @ Morris Park; needless to say, this got Nathaniel very excited.  They also have free theater classes for kids but Nathaniel didn’t seem interested. 

 

At last it was time to search out the books on Nathaniel’s summer reading list.  I explained that you could look anything up by title or author and he caught on to the computer catalog pretty fast, but I was preaching to the choir.  I was pleased to see that Sounder was one of the books on the list.  I read Sounder (and every other book about dogs) when I was in middle school. 

 

            Then I remembered something Toby had told me about reading a book together, like having your own private book club. 

 

I suggested this to Nathaniel and he jumped at the idea of sharing a book with me.

            It’s a great feeling when your mentee gets so excited about a joint activity.

So here we are, school is out but I have an assignment.  According to Nathaniel I have to read 4 chapters before we meet again.

 

Story 17

Matt and Nate: Believe in Kids Field Day in Central Park

 

Spending the day at a mentor jamboree with Nathaniel. Last Saturday, Believe in Kids had its annual field day and picnic in Central Park.

 

I was excited to share a big group activity with Nathaniel and I was curious to see how he would be with other kids.

 

Before we could join the Believe in Kids group in the park, Nathaniel and I had to share our bagels and talk about Sounder. I had forgotten what a sad story it could be. Nathaniel was fascinated by the idea that people could be illiterate, he really has no reference for life in the south before the Civil Rights Act.

When we arrived at the great lawn in Central Park, Toby had laid out blankets and some sports equipment under a grove of trees next to the lawn. Nathaniel went for the soccer ball just about the time a young girl and her mentor were reaching for the same ball.

 

I was curious to see if Nathaniel would be able to negotiate the use of the ball with the other mentee.

 

She asked Nathaniel if he wanted to play soccer with them. Nathaniel looked back at me for assistance and I said, “It’s alright with me if it is okay with you.”

 

Now was the perfect time to role model introductions.

 

I stuck out my hand to the other mentor and said, “Hi, I’m Matt and this is Nathaniel.” The young girl, now holding the ball, piped right in and said, “I’m Sasha and this is my mentor Michelle.” Michelle shook my hand politely. She said, “If you don’t mind…it might be fun.” Sasha then proceeded to mark out a small playing field on the grass (she is quite a character!) while Nathaniel stood and watched. Michelle and I were told to play goalies. The kids seemed to be a good match for each other, both of them competitive but fair.

By now, more mentors and mentees had arrived and were busy playing various other games. At this point we had scored about 3 points for each side when Sasha suggested that we switch goalies. I looked at Nathaniel and he looked peeved.

I was so happy to have the opportunity to share mentoring time with another pair that it never occurred to me that Nathaniel could see it as, somehow, disloyal.

 

I said, “I think that’s a great idea, mix it up a little.” Sasha’s mentor Michelle switched places with me and we continued to play. I have to say Sasha and I were a fierce combination and before long we had scored 2 to Nathaniel’s 0. At this point, Toby called for everyone to come find a blanket and sit down for lunch. Michelle and Sasha just automatically assumed we would share a blanket, which I had no problem with but I think Nathaniel had other ideas. He stayed standing as the three of us sat down together and he had an annoyed look on his face. I said, “What’s the matter Buddy, I thought you were hungry?” Nathaniel shrugged his shoulders and stared down at the ground. I took the hint and got up and made excuses to Michelle and Sasha.

 

I was a child once myself, and I know that boys often aren’t able to put words to complicated feelings. I told Nathaniel we could sit where ever he wanted.

 

The rest of the afternoon went very easily. Nathaniel seemed to have a good time playing with me and in the larger group games. When I discussed his jealousy with Toby, she explained that this was not at all unusual. Many mentees are good at sharing but don’t want to think their mentors are more interested in another child. Good to know. Nathaniel and me, we are growing together.

 

Story 18 

Michelle is a School-based Mentor

 

How I became a mentor is probably not unusual. I work in New York City. My youngest child (actually a young man) has just gone away to college. It has suddenly become very quiet at home and I find myself with extra free time. I thought about volunteering. A colleague of mine mentioned that she was a mentor, so I asked about it.

She told me about the program where she volunteered in a middle school not too far from our office. The students meet with their mentors after school. Luckily our firm has a flex-time policy that would allow me to take a late lunch and return to work after mentoring. I hoped my supervisor would think this a good idea.


I was a little anxious when I went in to speak to her about it.


She encouraged me to get involved saying “I think you would be a good role model for a young woman and you should be passing on what you have learned to the next generation of professionals.” She explained that I would have to make up the time I used to mentor but, as long as I was diligent about doing that, she approved. It really shouldn’t take me more than a lunch hour anyway so I don’t think it will affect my schedule very much.

My next step was to contact the mentoring program coordinator. He was very friendly and welcoming; still, he explained carefully about the different steps I needed to take, including getting a criminal background check and providing references.

I am glad to learn that they take safety of their youth so seriously. I was so happy when Jack, the mentoring Coordinator, called and told me I had been accepted as a mentor

 

and asked if I had time the following week to meet a prospective mentee? Jack explained that Sasha, was a 13 year old seventh grader who needed a friend.

I am excited and really nervous now! What will we talk about? Will she want to talk to someone like me? Why does she want/need a mentor? I am not young, will she want a mentor like me?

And that brings me to today. I met Sasha who is a quite a young woman. I tried to not do all the talking but instead to find things that she might want to talk about. It was a little hard at first but when we started to talk about Hunger Games, she opened up. We both have our favorite parts of the stories. Maybe this will be easier than I thought. Did I mention she likes sports just like me?

 

Story 19

What will we do next? 

I realized that I had to think about interesting things to do with my new mentee Sasha, and ideas on how to get the conversation started. Because we only meet in her school, that seemed to limit my choices. I started to get nervous again so I did what Jack, my mentor supervisor, had suggested - whenever I had concerns, I called him.


Jack assured me that my fears were normal and that forming a relationship, especially with a middle school student, could take some time. He said to consider showing up without a special action plan but with some things to talk about.


I remembered what Sasha and I had discussed the week before and so I searched online for information about The Hunger Games. I read up on the new sequel that was opening. I also thought Sasha might warm up if she knew more about me so I brought along a picture of my Beagle, Molly. She’s a really good dog but sometimes misbehaves, I thought that might be a good topic to discuss.


Seeing Sasha again made me anxious.


She said hello but didn’t make much of an effort to look up from her lunch when I came in. I thought about all the things that could be going through a 13 year old girl’s mind and decided it would be good if I let her move things along at her pace.


I took my cue from her and remained quiet.


After a brief silence she said, “You came back?” I said, “Yes, of course, I plan to come every week that school is in session. Is that okay with you?”


Jack had explained that teenagers often take a longer time to form relationships with mentors and to not take it personally if things took a while.


It didn’t take her long to finish her lunch. When she stood up to toss her trash away, I said, “Could we, maybe, take a walk around the school?” Sasha shrugged and said, “Okay”.


I had to remind myself not to keep filling in the conversation voids. I tend to chit-chat nervously. I kept my few comments easy, mostly talking about the architecture of the old school building.


I took a chance and initiated more personal conversation. I said, “I have been thinking about you this weekend and I looked up Hunger Games on line”. Sasha looked surprised and a bit confused. “You’ve been thinking about me this week?” she said.


Gee, it never occurred to me that the simple act of thinking about her would receive such a reaction.


I repeated that I had enjoyed meeting her the week before and that I had been looking forward to spending time with her again.


It clearly made an impression on her because she started looking directly at me more when we talked.


We talked about the next Hunger Games movie and suddenly we were both more animated and it felt like a real conversation between friends. When I left I made a point of thanking her and telling her how much fun I had. I am really looking forward to our next meeting.

 

Story 20 

Matt and Nathaniel Meet the Ghouls

 

I hate to admit it but Nate can be braver than me.

 

Nathaniel and I always seem to do well when we enter a project or adventure  where both of us are novices; that’s why I thought he would enjoy going with me to “Dr. Gangrene’s Mansion of Dread”, one of New York’s craziest Halloween haunted houses.  I have to admit that ever since I was a kid Halloween has been one of my favorite holidays and I have always wanted to visit one of those theatrical haunted houses that pop up in New York every October.

 

Being a mentor comes in handy when all of your adult friends are WAY too mature to go with you to a haunted house.

 

 So I picked up a copy of Time Out and read the descriptions of Halloween events in the city. It is a good thing that I checked because several of these events are somewhat salacious and definitely not for anyone under 18.

 

If you go, make certain that the actors do not engage in any personal touching.

 

To begin with Nathaniel had never been to one of these venues either and he was as excited as I was. As luck would have it Saturday turned out to be a damp, dark and dreary day…the mood was ripe for fright. 

 

We spent a long subway ride talking about school.  Midterm reports have come out and Nate is a little disappointed in his grades.  I told him, “On the upside, it is great that you want to do better.  You’ll just have to add more study time to your schedule and ask for help more often.”  Nathaniel has always been reluctant to admit to his teachers when he doesn’t understand something, especially in Math.  In situations like this I try to think of a story from my own childhood that will help but it isn’t always possible and I am certainly not going to make something up. I don’t know if he liked that remark or not because he quickly changed the subject; that’s okay, we can always come back to it later if the mood is right. 

 

Fear does funny things to your head and stomach, so I thought it would be smart to wait until after the haunted house experience to have a full lunch.  We stopped for our requisite bagel and hurried on to “Dr. Gangrene’s Mansion of Dread”.

 

We can’t always avoid accidents but I think it definitely pays for mentors to think ahead.

 

As we headed down 2nd Avenue I realized this was a new neighborhood for Nate.  I could see him looking around at the East Villagers.  Within a block I spotted an old Brownstone with broken shutters and giant cobwebs hanging from the door and windows.  There was a Zombie standing outside taking tickets and pointing in towards the center hall.  As soon as we entered we could hear the deep sounds of moaning and children screaming from all corners of the house.  Corpses with half rotten faces sat up in caskets, large mirrors over mantelpieces lit up from behind to reveal ghostly apparitions and ghoulish heads popped up from behind couches and chairs and spoke to us.  Nathaniel appeared slightly frightened but genuinely amused. I have to admit that, more than once,I jumped a few feet with surprise.  

 

When we were finished we shared a long laugh.  It was my turn to pick the restaurant and I wanted to introduce Nathaniel to something different. We sat down to lunch at one of my favorite places in NYC - Veselka Coffee Shop.Veselka is a famous Ukrainian café that has been around for 60 years. I asked the waiter to explain the menu and then suggested we share a few things so Nathaniel could sample some different dishes.  Nate was very courageous with the food and even finished several dishes.

 

Saturday was a great day.  I learned that we can be silly together and Nathaniel lost his fear of zombies and foreign food.

 

Story 21

Can she make the team?

 

I’ve met with Sasha a few times now. We just chat about movies and sometimes celebrities. Usually, it’s nothing too serious but she seems to like it.

 

Then one day, when I got to school, I saw that Sasha was looking glum and was staring at the floor.

 

I wondered if she were angry at me or maybe didn’t want to meet with me.
Note to self – it’s not always about ME.

 

She looked up quickly and then looked at the floor again. I tried a smile and said, “Hey, it’s good to see you.” She smiled a little smile but didn’t say anything. I asked how she was doing. She shrugged. I asked if something was wrong. She shook her head. Now I wasn’t sure what to do next.

 

I sat down next to her and waited. Sasha usually speaks up after a little while.

 

That’s what happened this time. “I’m going to get on the basketball team,” she said. “That’s great!” I said. “I love basketball and I know you like it, too. But why do you seem sad about it?”

 

Actually, I was a little surprised. She never talks about playing sports or doing exercise. We both like to watch basketball but she’s never talked about playing.

 

It reminds me that I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

 

“My friends told me I have to try out to be on the team. They said I might not make the team!” Sasha confessed. Sasha had thought that just wanting to be on the team was enough to get her a spot. It’s not the same as a game just played afterschool in the park. I decided to see if she wanted to talk about it or to think about a plan.

 

So I asked her just that.

 

Sasha said that she really wanted to play but didn’t know how to get a spot. I asked her if she knew about triangle defense and lay-ups and traveling offenses… She said, “of course!” So I pointed out that she knew a lot about basketball, she just didn’t have a lot of practice at doing those things. I suggested that we could figure out a plan to get practice and some tips in order to get her ready to try out.

 

I told her that I was confident that if she really worked at anything she could be good at it. And that working for something that you want is always worth it.

 

I asked if I could help her as her personal “training coach”. She laughed and said sure but she didn’t think she could pay me. I told her that helping her would be payment enough for me!

 

Story 22

Matt and Nate Clown Around


No Clowning around, mentoring works is what it said on the tee shirts we were given to wear the night we went to see the Big Apple Circus at Lincoln Center. We also received red foam clown noses which Nathaniel was apprehensive about wearing until he saw his mentor make a fool of himself. Sadly there are no pictures of us in red shirts and red noses but we definitely “clowned” around.


One thing I remember from my childhood is that kids appreciate when adults give them permission to be silly.


It hadn’t occurred to me that Nathaniel would have only seen circus acts on television so the evening was another first for him. We started by heading to the refreshments stand and piling up on all the junk food his grandmother usually doesn’t like him to eat; this gave him a smile as big as his new nose. Our seats were terrific, right in the center section where we could see in all directions. I pointed to the ladder leading up to the trapeze under the top of the tent and Nathaniel’s eye’s almost popped off of his face. Later, near the end of the second half Nathaniel sat frozen, in total awe, as he watched the aerialists do double and triple summersaults from trapeze to trapeze. The rest of the evening was filled, like most circuses, with jugglers, horses and dancing dogs, and a clown that among other things played Bosa Nova music on his suit which was rigged-up like a xylophone. Nathaniel and I got a big kick out of this routine and we kept mimicking him on our way home.


As important as it is for Nathaniel to learn from new adventures, I think it is equally important for us to be able to joke around and simply enjoy being together. I know I do and I’m beginning to believe that Nate does as well.


As we were walking up to Nathaniel’s building I placed my arm around his shoulder and gave it a squeeze, nothing big just a little sign to express how I felt and once again Nate surprised me. Before I could release my hold he slid his arm around my back and gave me a tug. When I looked over he had a huge smile on his face.


I know that there are a lot of mentors out there matched to kids they never otherwise would have met and that Nate could just as easily have bonded with another guy and be having the same positive experiences, but I am so glad that the guy turned out to be me.