Recently, at one of my boys leadership meetings I had a very interesting conversation with my peer mentors. It revolved around what I believe to be a good problem. They were extremely frustrated with the progress of their mentees. They stated that their mentees did not listen and misbehaved in class despite the advice they would give them. Though some mentees have demonstrated success with their last progress report many were still struggling.
The reason why this is a good problem was the fact that my peer mentors cared enough to be frustrated. You see I have been developing my peer mentorship program for four years now and its evolution has been dramatic. I went from convincing my students that it is important to care, to caring so much it starts to affect them. Some were so upset they questioned their own ability. One said “Maybe I am the one that is doing something wrong.” While another stated “I should just give up.” Throwing his hands up in frustration. I appreciated their investment and informed them that they must give their mentees some space and time to improve. They did not develop these bad habits in one month and it will take some time to show them the way. I even went as far as to say that a few may not change until years from now while others may just continue down the wrong path. I told them that they are simply there to provide guidance not to save anyone. It all revolves around the power of choice.
I decided to share a story of how I came to work with students. I went on to say that it all started with my failed relationship with my brother. I am forty-one and he is forty years old and at this point in time he has spent more of his adult life imprisoned in some way than free. He is currently incarcerated and for many years I blamed myself. He chose to lead a life that would take him down the road of violence, drugs and gangs and I could do nothing about it.
In high school, on the way home from football practice I would occasionally run into my brother on the street corner, doing his thing . With his new sneakers, clothes, gold chains, and rings, he finally got the respect he craved. I, on the other hand, had one pair of worn sneakers, maybe two pairs of pants, and a few T-shirts. He would call me over and offer me a few hundred dollars to go buy myself some new sneakers. I simply would look at him and tell him I could not take it. I did not want him to think I was okay with what he was doing. He was angry with me, but deep down inside, he knew I was right. I would constantly try to get him to go back to school. He was just as determined to stay out of school as much as I wanted to stay in school.
Sometime in the beginning of August, my brother, got into a shoot out with another posse of kids and was shot once through his abdomen. He ended up in Coney Island hospital spending three days in a coma. Seeing my brother lying there with all these tubes inserted into his body with his eyes closed, motionless, not knowing if it could possibly be his last day, made me ask myself, Did I do enough? I always blamed myself for his failure and his shortcomings. I always felt I could have done more. It wasn’t until I was married and became a father that I realized that his failure was his to own. The same as your success is yours to own, you must take the same credit for your failures.
But if only he had a little more guidance, a nudge here or there, a few more words of encouragement. It became my mission to work with young people to help show them the way, not save them! Help them understand that there are choices that can be made today that will make the difference for the rest of their lives. Throughout my career in education, the influence young people have on each other is undeniable. Peer pressure is evident in all aspects of adolescent life; positive and negative, it is a powerful force that can make or break you. In the end we become the sum of our choices.
My peer mentors looked at me with what seemed to be a different level of understanding. It was amazing seeing a group of adolescents invest so much emotion for others that a month ago they did not even know. These are the moments that give me hope and keep me going.