Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Conditions of Mentoring: Drawing on Our Scars to Guide Youth

Only during the most recent moments of our history as a social animal have we emerged from a tribal lifestyle. If you could trace a direct line of your ancestors down through your mother's mother's mother all the way back to the first fire-makers who created warmth with sticks, 99% of those ancestors would be hunter-gatherers who lived in nomadic tribes. Agriculture and sedentary living is a very recent adaptation along this ancestral timeline stretching back to the first fire-makers. Movies like Avatar are popular not because we romanticize tribal peoples, but because just yesterday we came from tribes. In spite of New Age myths about drum circles and sweat lodges, contemporary natives do not have a monopoly on the ways of the ancients. Such wisdom is coursing through the veins of every living human, only waiting to be brought to life again.

Mentoring our youth is a powerful mechanism to awaken this kind of intuitive knowledge in adults. Mentoring is not just an ancient practice, but a necessary ingredient in young people's healthy transition to adulthood. Embracing the role of elder is deeply embedded in our bones. In the absence of authentic elders, many youth look to their peers for guidance and initiatory ordeals at the age of transition. Unfortunately, adolescents have never been qualified to lead one another into adulthood. There is no such thing as an authentic peer elder. Youth, however savvy and street-smart they may be, lack the seasoning, context, and sense-making which only age can give to one's life experience. But understandably, when youth look at many adults in our world, they don't see elders. Rather, they see aged adolescents who are neither savvy nor street-smart. The infantilism and tantrums of the adult world hide the inherent capacity for wise eldership that lays dormant, and youth know better than to apprentice themselves to that kind of hogwash.

When an early adolescent is in a close relationship with a caring adult mentor, many seemingly mundane activities can be framed by the elder as challenges. I have looked many a 12-year-old in the eye in my 6th-grade classroom, and, speaking one-to-one in serious and solemn tones, guided them to buckle down on a difficult writing assignment, persuaded them to speak truthfully to a friend about a problem, or, with intensity and passion, compelled them to see aspects of themselves which were less-than-admirable. In fact, this attention and awareness to the more subtle needs of children consumes the bulk of my work as a teacher. I am very willing to stop everything and sit in a circle with my class, or put someone in charge while I meet face-to-face with a student. I follow-up these meetings consistently, sometimes daily or hourly, and the students understand they are being watched, protected, guided, and believed in by me. When a challenge has been met, an obstacle confronted, or a fear overcome, I acknowledge this to the students directly, sometimes with just a smile or a nod. Other times I may write the student a note or put my hand on their shoulder. I allow my appreciation to be visible, and I communicate my recognition of their achievement. In this kind of mentoring, I trust my instincts. I push as far as a student seems ready to go, then I step back for a time. I return, inquire, and either push again or step back again. I watch and reflect. I may say, "Misha, when you speak like that to another student, I am so surprised. That is not who you are in my eyes. So now you will have to figure out how you are going to solve this serious problem you've created. Tomorrow morning, before you take your seat, come to me and tell me what you've decided. Do you understand what I expect of you?" When the child has met my challenge, I demonstrate to them that I have elevated my view of that child. I quite literally think more highly of them, and I see to it that this new respect shows.

The early adolescent is fed by this kind of intense interaction. This relationship of mentor-mentee, of elder-initiate requires a great deal of concern and attention by me. It is not peripheral to my role as teacher, but central. I can see that children mature in this kind of relationship. They feel their own growth and they become more focused and centered in everything else they do. Study habits change, personal accountability improves, maturity emerges. The impetus is rarely an academic challenge. It is usually a personal or interpersonal one. Just as infants look for the limits of physical space, and young children push emotional boundaries, adolescents are trying to locate and test the moral and ethical boundaries of self and culture. They need the guidance of mature elders to navigate this challenging path and to make sense of it all.

Holding high expectations for personal growth and then insisting that the necessary work be done is a powerful antidote for a culture awash in superficiality. In my 49 years I have traveled and studied a good deal. I have worked many jobs. My past experiences play an important part in giving me the force, power, and credibility of a mentor or elder. I have volunteered. I have fought passionately for things I believed in. I have worked to alleviate suffering. I have seen death and misery, hardship and pain in my work and travels. Among the experiences that have framed me include work in an emergency shelter for runaway youth outside of Boston, human rights work in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, health education in a squatter settlement of dump recyclers in peri-urban Mexico, travels in Nicaragua after the fall of Somoza filming a documentary about the impact of the U.S.-funded contra war on civilians, travels in the Amazon jungle among indigenous Shipibo Indians, and seven years as a public school teacher in an area where gang violence had impacted the families of many of my students. These life experiences are present in me not just as memories but as guiding lessons. They inform my choices and actions, especially as a teacher. When I talk seriously with students, when I propose personal challenges to them, I realize that every ounce of me and my past comes into play in these interactions. I do no flinch, but rather bear down with the intensity of my years and my experiences. This is the power of an elder. I am a man with wounds and scars, conviction and intensity. I believe that for my students, our relationship gives them something both mysterious and ancient. They take me seriously because I take them seriously. This is life or death for me. When a student is careless in his dealings, when he does not believe in himself, when he flaunts naivety, when he harms another, I see the world before me. I see every petty dictator, every hungry child, every selfish corporation, every random gang killing, every inch of injustice. I see the rampant greed and selfishness of our world taking hold of this child. I know that I cannot simply shake them into a sober accounting of self, but rather must look them in the eye through the trust we have built, gaze at them with the intensity of my years and the lessons of my life, and speak from my heart. I can ask them to push themselves, to do this for us, for our world. I don't need to talk about my life, I just have to own the power of my years. They want to be their best selves. I live on this conviction. And I have been successful in this way among the students I worked with.

"Everyone grows older, not everyone grows elder. Elder is not a person, it’s a condition of the soul. Elders can tolerate other people’s wounds, because they’ve extracted sanity from their own wounds, from their failures, their pain, their successes, their attempts." -Michael Meade

No adult living on this earth has escaped scars and wounds. It is part of the path of living. Some of us have a better go at making sense of them, integrating their lessons. To effectively mentor young people, to carry enough weight of purpose and conviction to rouse them out of apathy and menial discord, to compel them to a deeper seeking of meaning and to a building of personal ethics in a world of strife, we must embrace the ancient role of elder. There is probably no greater gift we can give our youth, nor ourselves. When our own confusions become our strengths, and we can then awaken some considerate reflection and growth in our youth, the cycle of purpose is fulfilled. We all benefit from this arrangement, cast as fate by watchful ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Paul, this is so well conceived and beautifully written. I am grateful that you are in a position to mentor at least some of the youth of our global tribe. Keep up the good work, bro! See you next week.