She is more than I bargained for.
On a freezing January afternoon, we sit across from each other in a North Side school for the first time, the sole occupants in a classroom crowded with sagging, ripped sofas and hardback books decades out of date. My heart pummels my ribcage. I have no idea how to talk to children, let alone moody teens. I am 38 years old, recently married and childless.
“How is your day going?” I ask, as a newly minted mentor assigned to a 13-year-old petite African-American girl, her long hair in a ponytail, wearing a polo shirt and jeans.
What follows in the first 45-minute session is a manic feed of what it’s like to be a teen on Milwaukee’s North Side, which I quickly realize is different than my upbringing in a suburb north of Chicago.
I lean in for the story, the bitter truth. All students at this school have been expelled from Milwaukee Public Schools, are African- American, and live in that shaded area on crime maps that many outsiders won’t drive through at night.
I keep the calm, “no-judgment” face we were taught during orientation. After all, I just want to be a friend, and maybe be the only person in her life who listens without judgment. I hear the horrid details of the past 24 hours. A girl threatened her on the city bus, she says, and when I ask how she’s going to resolve it, she tells me, without skipping a beat: “With my mom’s boyfriend’s gun.” It’s as if she’s telling me what she ate for lunch an hour earlier.
I dig into neutral territory: “Where is your father?” (He’s in jail; he was set up.) “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” (An older sister recently got pregnant at 18, is a high school graduate and lives with the baby’s father.)
Mentoring troubled teens was supposed to be just a volunteer job, a way to leave my lonely home office for a few hours every week in pursuit of face-to-face interactions. In the half-day orientation – once we were cleared of background checks – I practically rolled my eyes: Was I really going to feel tempted to give money to these kids or get overly involved in other ways? They had their own families, their own lives. But I saw on that January afternoon how quickly an urge to help a person in danger, who has no one on her side, kicks in.
On the drive back to my Bay View home – a beat cop recently told me it’s the city’s safest ZIP code – I choose the Lake Michigan route along Lake and Lincoln Memorial drives. Seeing water curl onto the shoreline always calms me. In orientation we were advised to have a therapeutic exit after each mentoring session, be it jamming out to rock music or, like me, taking the scenic route.
At a stoplight in Whitefish Bay, some white teens crossed in front of me, toting violin cases and colorful backpacks. It struck me how different their lives were from that of the girl I’d just mentored.
That night I alternated between staring at the wall and checking newspaper headlines online for news of a murder or violent fight. Before long, the school’s principal – one of the few Caucasian adults at the school, a kind-hearted guy who is close to retirement but not close to giving up on these kids – emailed a reply to my concerned note from earlier: He promised to talk with the school counselor, the girl and her mom. He’s on her side.
I didn’t want to go back to the school. But I did. Over a four-month period she drew a diagram of which girls had slept with which boys in the school and put together a puzzle while I brought up the topic of a career (she wanted to be a doctor). We never talked about the gun again, and I never knew what happened after our mentoring relationship ended, although I wanted to believe she was a cheerleader at her high school, as she was before. When I was her age, I was selling Girl Scout cookies, practicing my clarinet, and attending friends’ birthday parties. Happy moments and familial support cocooned me.
The next year I was assigned to three girls between the ages of 11 and 13 who were primped with lipstick, colored hair, tight shirts and idealism far beyond their years. I tried to break through the invisible but very divisive lines that exist between social classes. For my first mentoring session, Girl No. 1 kept her head down on her desk. She was tired because she’d stayed up all night watching her mother’s other children while Mom worked the night shift.
The principal encouraged me to motivate another teen girl with her writing. Her creativity stemmed from admiration for Tupac Shakur, reading his poetry and viewing documentaries about him as if they were candy, escapes from the life she lived, in which bullets grazed her home one evening. She told me this in a way that implied it was no big deal because nobody died. One of our meetings happened to coincide with my birthday, a fact I shared. She asked how old I was. “Forty,” I replied, with a big gulp. “Wow,” she said, her eyes bugging out. “I didn’t know you were that old.” I still laugh about that one. She invited me to her graduation, and while I wasn’t able to attend, that invitation told me I’d broken through, made a difference.
Another girl had already been accepted to Rufus King and Riverside, two of Milwaukee’s top public high schools, but fought compulsive anger issues. One more fight and she could say good-bye to those schools. The girl held a part-time job at IHOP. “I make the best omelets,” she said with a bright smile on our first day, also sharing that her mom loves to do the crossword puzzle in each morning’s newspaper.
But then one afternoon she entered the room looking sad and tired. “What happened?” I asked. “I quit my job,” she said. There had been a fight, an argument, and she was asked by the manager to leave.
On another day I was assigned to a boy whose mentor hadn’t shown. “Are you a cop?” he asked. The question baffled me until I realized my lily-white skin resembled that of the beat cops in his neighborhood, that these might have been among his few encounters with Caucasians. I was lucky on one occasion to sit in on a group-therapy session (they call it “group”) where two counselors chatted with four young girls. First, they handed out small bags of Doritos, because we all know that food gets people to open up.
“What color do you feel like today?” the counselors inquired, and went around the room asking for answers while the girls munched on chips. Soon it was my turn. “Green,” I said. “I like the green that’s emerging around us in spring.” Later I realized my response was very Pollyanna, even if it was true. How lucky I was to stroll in the park on a whim, grab the dog and greet others also out enjoying the fresh air, with no threat of bullying or gunshots.
If I were to give Milwaukee a color now, I’d say red. Racial segregation – after all, this is America’s most segregated city – rocks the city’s urban center, where violence is a daily occurrence in too many African- American neighborhoods. For those of us not directly affected, we bleed red with hopeful compassion, our hearts pouring open to those who don’t feel safe. But for those on the front lines, red is rage and anger, seeing pools of blood in the streets; and neighbors, friends and family members’ lives lost to senseless violence.
In August, a riot broke out in the Sherman Park neighborhood. A young black man had been shot dead by a cop. The local African-American population was upset, about not only this incident, but also four decades of feeling disenfranchised. Teens were taking to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, using the social-media channels as all teens do, spreading the message that this is not right. By then I’d stopped mentoring, feeling the pull to downsize my busy schedule. Were the kids I’d worked with in the line of fire in Sherman Park?
The next morning, I watched aerial footage of the previous evening, with cars tipped over and a gas station and bank branch up in flames. In Bay View, I flipped slices of French toast on the stovetop, enjoying a lazy Sunday morning, windows propped open, screen doors welcoming a cross breeze.
The next month, I knew what I had to do. “I’d like to volunteer again as a mentor,” I emailed to the volunteer coordinator. I saw blue that day, a calm shade against the rocky sea, knowing that I might again make a difference in at least one of these teens’ lives, and in my own life, too. ◆
‘Outside the Lines’ appears in the February 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Buy a copy online.
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