Reflections on My Years As a Mentor- Or What The Girls Taught Me

For 2 years, I served as a youth mentor and teacher’s assistant in West Oakland through YWCA Berkeley/Oakland. The first time I mentored a 13-year old girl who had aspirations of attending college with her best friend and becoming a doctor. She wasn’t much of a talker, really. It took a few months for her to confide in me about her parents’ divorce and how she bore the responsibility as an older sister to her brother.

My second year mentoring was with TechGYRLS through YWCA Berkeley. I served the dual function as a teacher’s assistant and a youth mentor for a program focusing on computer literacy, math, science and technology education for girls. The program was founded when research came out indicating the the math/science gender gap (favoring boys) begins between the ages of 8 and 9. We worked at an elementary in West Oakland, in the middle of an industrial area populated by people of color- particularly Latinos and African-Americans.

The girls ranged from age 8 to age 12, from grades 3 to 5. The group was composed of twenty girls- all deemed at-risk- most of whom were Black and Latina. They were beautiful, brilliant and vibrant girls. I appreciated the diversity of the group. Some were immigrants, some were second-generation Americans and some where descendants of enslaved Africans. Nontheless, they were all distinct personalities. There were the archetypical QueenBees and QuietGirls.

The most devastating conversations I had were with both archetypes. The quiet, soft-spoken girl, (I’ll call her Yesenia) had an unassuming presence. See, when you’re working in a classroom setting, the loud students get the most attention. The other mentors and I made the error of overlooking Yesenia because she was well-behaved and quiet. One day, she broke down crying, confessing that her brother had been murdered in apparent gang violence. We stopped the lesson and sat on the rug in a circle and comforted one another. The stories that the girls shared were heartbreaking. Most girls had parents whose jobs did not offer benefits or pay well, so they did not have health insurance. Rather than go to the doctor for that prolonged flu, most of the girls just quietly bore their illnesses and attended school against district recommendations. This was compounded by the fact that most of their diets were not conducive to robust immune systems. (in fact, some 90% of the school’s student body was on the Free Lunch Program.) Also, consider that the area has 53 liquor stores and ZERO grocery stores- making a diet of fresh food a rather arduous task.

Here are some stats about the school at which I volunteered:

  • 90% of the students at this elementary school are eligible for the Free Lunch program.
  • Nearly 60% are designated English learners (most of whom are Mexican-American, children of migrant workers (whether  their parents are documented or not is not mentioned in the reports).
  • 48% of the parents of these students are not high school graduates, 35% are high school graduates, 2% are college graduates, and 3% completed post-graduate degrees.

And some stats about the area: (copied from my previous blog post “Why Do You Talk About Race So Much?“)

  • the median household income in this zip code is $29,181, significantly lower than the U.S. average ($56,604)
  • The average home value in this zip code is around $129,700, significantly lower than housing values in the Bay Area (which tend to be closer to the millions)
  • Close to 60% of residents in this area are renters, and just over 40% are home-owners.
  • there are 53 liquor stores and 0 grocery stores in West Oakland.  (compare this to the more affluent Claremont neighborhood where there are 6 grocery stores in the proximity of 3 blocks.)

With the picture that these statistics draw, we can more easily envision what these girls faced. The area had a visible gang presence and drug trafficking in the neighborhoods was no secret. On election day, we wrote emails to President Obama and one of the girls wrote about walking past a drug dealer and witnessing the sale and purchase of crack cocaine outside of her front door. So, she asked the President to take the drugs away and make her neighborhood safer.

My heart broke.

I don’t mean to paint these girls as victims. Rather, I hope to represent them as victors and survivors in adverse environments. Other girls had stories about domestic violence, gang violence and other forms of dysfunction inside and outside of their homes.

One of the most beautiful moments I shared was with (let’s call her Raquel). She was 12 years old in 5th grade. She’d been held back because of her poor grades (which I suspect were due to a learning disorder). She was self-conscious because she was the tallest and she had entered puberty- by contrast, none of the girls in the class had entered puberty. One day, she was moping in the back of the class, refusing to do her work. I took her on a short talk around the building, while edifying her and affirming her worth. She was a beautiful girl inside and out. Her smile was radiant. I adored her character- full of tenacity and untapped potential. She seemed to me, a person accustomed to fighting for her place. And here she was, silently sulking while I played in her hair. I remember seeing her try to suppress her smile as I pointed out how her eyes twinkled. Finally, she couldn’t stop beaming and she was back to her extroverted, bouncy self.

What I learned was this: as children, what we need most is to be loved, nurtured and affirmed. We have to think of children as PEOPLE- not “little” people, but people at an earlier stage in cognitive/social development. This was further re-inforced when I taught Sunday School at my church for 6-8 year olds. My first lesson was too simple for them. So I had to improvise.

All in all- mentoring girls in my community was a lesson in humility and the resilience of the human spirit. Most of all, it was a lesson in love. I will never forget the feeling of their arms around my waist and their voices. I will never forget how I cried when I said goodbye.

Those girls showed me how simple love and vulnerability is.

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