A beautiful thing about friendship is that we are presented with opportunities for learning from and teaching our friends. A former coworker, *Mindy, presented me with a learning opportunity that changed my life in a big way.
One afternoon, a dozen years ago, Mindy met me downtown for coffee because she wanted to ask a big favor of me. She prefaced the request by saying I should not feel pressured to give her an answer right away.
Mindy went on to explain that her eleven-year-old son, *Nick looked up to me as a sort of father figure. Since Mindy is a single mom raising a boy, she had been worrying that Nick didn’t have an adult male in his life who could help him learn how to grow up to be a man.
Mindy was aware of the research that showed boys without a father figure have a high risk of growing into men with serious emotional problems, behavioral issues, and dysfunctional relationships with their significant others and their own kids. Not only did she understand the research, she had seen examples of these problems in her own family and her friends’ children.
Mindy went on to say that she had looked into a mentoring program that was affiliated with the public school system, but it didn’t seem like a good fit for her needs and that Nick wanted nothing to do with the program. She said that Nick came up with the idea to ask me if I could help him with homework and be somebody he can trust for his “boy questions”. If, after careful thought, this was something I was willing to do, she would tell her son to ask me, himself, in person.
The next couple of days I mulled her request around in my mind. I already knew Nick well because he was usually present whenever Mindy and I got together to visit, or hang out. He was a sweet kid and didn’t have any behavioral problems. He had never been in any serious trouble, only the typical mischief boys get into as they grow up. He was polite, thoughtful, and funny. Mindy had done a great job parenting Nick.
The problem was, that I had decided long ago that parenting a child or children was not something I wanted to do. I also believed I was unqualified to parent a kid. On the other hand, I liked Mindy as a long-term friend and trusted her judgment about matters of importance. I liked Nick and felt honored that he wanted me to be more of a part of his life. After carefully weighing the pros and cons, I decided to accept Mindy’s request.
The next day I was at Mindy’s apartment for the usual chit-chat session. Nick shyly approached and asked if I wanted to be his mentor. I said, “Yes, let’s shake hands and work together.” The look of joy on Nick’s face is something I’ll always remember.
Although I would not be a surrogate father, I understood that my relationship with Nick and his mother would change in profound ways. I knew that I wanted to be a positive influence for Nick. I also understood that this would present a major shift in my own life. It would require some level of growth for me, too.
The next stage was helping Nick develop good study habits. We agreed on a time in late afternoons he would complete his homework and prepare for quizzes and tests. It was a time when I would be available to help and coach him with his most difficult classwork. Sometimes Mindy wanted me to pay special attention to particular non-school issues that cropped up in Nick’s everyday life. These were opportunities for heart to heart talks.
The best part of mentoring for both of us, was sharing in fun activities together. Nick and I are both baseball fans, but favor different teams. We discussed baseball a lot. On pleasant weather days, some of our together times were spent playing catch or attending town-team games. It was during these times that Nick felt most comfortable asking difficult questions and confiding about problems he was uncomfortable about asking his mom’s advice. Those were the times where the rubber met the road.
When Nick grew older, he played short-stop on the town’s American Legion Midget team. I was able to attend most of his team’s home games and a few of the away games. As he got older, Nick was a catcher on the Legion’s Junior team. Again, I attended most of the home games and saw a few away contests.
All things considered, I think those years of mentoring Nick were successful. Even though my role was to only fill in the gaps, the relationship between us grew into something much more profound than I could have ever imagined. After Nick graduated from Norfolk (Nebraska) High School, he moved to Sioux City, Iowa and attended the technical training school there. Today he is the assistant manager of an auto parts store in Sioux City.
Whenever I’m in Sioux City or he is in Norfolk, we get together for lunch or coffee and relate as equals and friends. Actually, it seems more like we are members of the same family.
(*Out of respect for their privacy, Mindy and Nick are not their actual names.)
The Blue Jay of Happiness says this writer was fortunate to be the first-born child of the family. This gave me the opportunity to develop nurturing and empathic skills to be a real big brother to my younger siblings.