Friday, February 22, 2013

Tall tales

Derriontae (a.k.a. “Jim Bob”) is the longest-tenured teen currently in the Coaching for Success program. He’s been matched in a committed partnership with Kim since 2010.

Near the end of last Tuesday’s tutoring session, he and I got a chance to shoot the breeze for a little while. I think Jim Bob was born with the used-car-salesman gene—you know, the innate ability to sell just about anything to just about anyone. I suspect that the right motivation could prompt most anyone to muster a sales pitch and the persistence to stay after someone until he or she has gotten the desired answer. But Jim Bob has that elusive quality that enables him to do so in a thoroughly likeable way. He can pester you and you’ll want to thank him for it.

In the span of about 15 minutes, he told me that a buddy of his—a fellow teenager, from the sound of it—had recently climbed Mt. Everest, and that his great-grandfather had been a good friend of Adolf Hitler. He was utterly unfazed by my lighthearted attempts at fact-checking his claims. (Jim Bob is an African-American. Was it likely his forebear would have been a chum of one of history’s most notorious proponents of “racial purity”? Well, to hear Jim Bob tell it, his great-granddad was a white German. And that mountain-climbing friend? He’s apparently rich, which explains why the challenges of even getting to the base of Everest were no big deal.)

When he perceived my continued incredulity at his tall tales, Jim Bob pulled out all the stops: “No, I mean for real for real,” he told me. I didn’t have an answer for the squaring of his claims, so we let them go.

I wish some of the other things Jim Bob and those close to him have shared with me were tall tales. Like the one about his getting jumped by five other boys for committing the transgression of being in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time—nevermind that he was there to visit his grandmother. Or the ones about broad-daylight street corner transactions just a block or two from his home and fistfights over careless missteps on new shoes.

Jim Bob’s is not a simple story.

I asked him whether he thought he could talk his way out of just about anything. He told me that he knows he can’t. Then he gave some supporting evidence. He said “Miss Kim doesn’t let me get away with that kind of stuff.” Then, as he glanced around the room, he remarked at the fact that Dottie and Clara and Gordon don’t, either. “And yet you’re here almost every week,” I said. “Why is that?” It’s a question Dottie’s asked him before. The answer? “I keep coming because I love y’all.”

Not a simple story, but a compelling one. The narrative of Jim Bob’s life is still being written. I can’t tell you how it ends, but I like the way it’s trending.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I’ll never forget my first car—a light blue 1980 four-door Pontiac Phoenix hatchback. It was a battle-tested veteran by the time I inherited it. Following a low-speed run-in with a utility pole early in its life, it forever thereafter sported a not-so-subtle dent extending from the left-front fender almost to the trailing edge of the driver’s door.

That car gave me some of the best leg workouts of my life, as it lacked power brakes and thus couldn’t be stopped without an enthusiastic stomp to the floor. And boy, did it ever have a touchy accelerator! Mash the pedal two-thirds of the way down and…nothing. Take it just past that point with anything less than a surgeon’s finesse, and I’d elicit disapproving stares and head shakes from adults convinced I was just another teenaged boy in a beater driving like I was going out for the Indy 500. Maybe they weren’t too far off base….

LaMontae, the lone senior among our current group of teens, recently told me he got his first car—a Cadillac born in the same decade as he was. LaMontae’s a pretty low-key guy, so he doesn’t wear the pride of ownership on his sleeve the way a lot of teenaged boys do. But you can see it if you look. And I suspect it’ll be a lot more noticeable once he gets his ride fixed up the way he wants.

LaMontae and his mentor, Gordon, went to the local Pull-A-Part recently, searching for a few replacement odds and ends. They drove Gordon’s car, as LaMontae’s is in need of a new battery. The shopping list that day included a front seat (to eliminate the need for an ingenious exercise ball-prop that keeps the seat from permanently reclining) and a gas cap. They priced the seat and bought the cap.

Once they got to LaMontae’s home and attached the new part, they jumped his car. It came to life and they were able to give it a once-over. The power trunk release worked, so they popped the lid and looked inside—only to discover the hideout of the car’s original gas cap!

When Gordon shared the story of the part-shopping trip, he prefaced it by saying he guessed he and LaMontae hadn’t accomplished much that day. I beg to differ. Inefficient efforts to fix up imperfect cars, and the chance to share a laugh over “Remember the time we…?” stories down the road are the stuff relationships are made of.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Off and running

The last few weeks at YES!Atlanta have seen a flurry of new mentoring matches. As we’ve screened and trained a new crop of mentors, we’ve moved them quickly into committed partnerships with teens, many of whom have been waiting a month or more for the right match to come along.

Our newest pairing is Malik and Joe.

Malik is a relative newcomer, both to Coaching for Success and to the state of Georgia. His mom brought him here from New York. Malik is in the 9th grade and plays on the varsity football team at school. He’s as tall as me, solidly built, and, like most teenage boys I’ve met, not too inclined to talk your ear off—at least not until he gets to know you.

I had my first face-to-face meeting with Joe in January, when he rolled up to the New Mentor Workshop on his motorcycle. Joe exudes cheery confidence. He has a teenage son himself, and seems perfectly seasoned for the work he’s signed on for.

We feel pretty confident Malik and Joe will make a good match. Their Activities & Interests Sheets—tools we use to collect information about what teens and volunteers like to do or are curious about—showed a dozen interests in common. But it doesn’t stop there. As they spent time getting to know one another at their match meeting Tuesday night, one commonality after another surfaced. Each an only child. Both transplants (Joe lived in Jersey). Malik has family in the area where Joe lives….

While Malik and Joe were having their first one-to-one conversation, I stepped outside with Malik’s mom. She expressed her appreciation and her impression that this was going to work out well. She also shared an interesting bit of information about her son. She told me he had taken the time to check out YES!Atlanta for himself online. And that he read this blog and wondered whether maybe someday his story would be featured.

It’s not often I hear that one of our teens reads these blog posts. Parents? Yes. Volunteers? Sure. Friends and supporters of YES!Atlanta? I hope so. But teens? That’s a different story.

So, Malik, this one’s for you—this blog post, but also this opportunity in the form of a mentoring relationship. I haven’t known you long enough to say with certainty, but based on what I’ve heard of your impressive football instincts, I think they can guide you in this situation. It’s just like when you meet the opposing team’s running back in the hole: Grab on tight and don’t let go.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Constant contact

When we make a new match, we’re not surprised if there are a few bumps in the road early on. For many teenagers (and, let’s face it, for some adults), inviting a complete stranger into their life and committing to work toward a close relationship with him or her is kind of unsettling.

Before they’re eligible to be matched with a youth, our volunteers have to complete the New Mentor Workshop. This training gets them to start thinking through ways to deal with the initial resistance they might encounter from their committed partner. Lack of initiative in building the relationship is age-appropriate behavior for a teen, we tell them. You’ll likely have to do most of the heavy lifting at first, we tell them. Be patient, don’t get discouraged if it takes him or her a while to open up, we tell them. Then, once in a while, we pair an adult with a teen like Keyera, and they wonder what on earth we’ve been talking about.

We matched Keyera with Victoria last fall. Their early reports were brimming with enthusiasm about what a great fit they were for each other. We often find that, during a committed partnership’s “honeymoon”—the first month in particular—its members have either a very high opinion of their match or a very low opinion of it. It can take a while for things to even out. Enough time has passed now that the “honeymoon” is over for this match. Victoria and Keyera continue to give us one glowing report after another.

In the four months that they’ve been paired, our regular “How are things going in your committed partnership?” check-ins have occasionally revealed that the two haven’t gotten together in more than a week. In general, such news prompts us to follow up more regularly with a match to ensure that this week’s exception doesn’t turn into next month’s new norm. But Keyera and Victoria have something going for them that helps them bridge any longer-than-usual gaps between their face-to-face meetings: “We talk pretty much every day—on the phone, Facebook, or texting.”

There’s just no substitute for that kind of consistency. What started for both as a commitment to abide by the requirements of the program has quickly turned into something they can’t imagine not doing. “We’ve gotten so close, it’s hard to go too long without seeing her,” Victoria says. “I love my mentor,” Keyera tells me. “She’s like the big sister I’ve always wanted.”

Keyera is the big sister in her household, and it shows in the way she carries herself among her peers. For better or worse, she’s a natural leader—an influencer whose words and actions carry a lot of weight. So what happens when such a leader is surrounded with positive, caring, consistent influences? Great things.