Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Life is hard. Mentoring is harder.

Vacation had started off pretty good. I had cleaned most of my house and had prepared two different meals--great for homemade leftovers. I was looking forward to coffee shops, reading, blogging, and working on some other longer-term projects.

About two hours into my coffee shop relaxation time, I got a phonecall from one of my 24-year old "kids." I have known him since he was about 11. He's always confided in me, for some reason, despite the fact that he recognizes that our experiences are completely different and there's no way I can possibly understand some of his circumstances.

About junior high, I began getting worried about him. He was such a quiet and shy kid in elementary school. Once he got into middle school, things started changing. He got involved with girls and became the girl-magnet. He was constantly in trouble at school. He transferred from school to school, trying to avoid problems. But, somehow, problems followed him. Evidently, he didn't like or respect most of the teachers and administrators at his school He wasn't a bad kid though. He became such a comedian and was *always* very respectful to me.

He made it through high school by resorting to an online diploma program. Once he had "graduated," we worked to get him into college. He only lasted a semester. But, he went out on his own and began working...a job he has to this day. A few years ago, he started going to a trade school for a certification that he recently finished.

I was worried about him early on but, unlike many of his friends and relatives, he has made some great choices over the years.

Today, though, his phonecall was out of frustration. One of his not-so-wise choices over the years was having four kids with two different moms. He has spent lots of money in trying to establish paternity and child support. Throughout that process, one of the moms has caused him a lot of grief, sending him back and forth to court and not letting him see the kids when she doesn't feel like it or when her new boyfriend is around.

Today I couldn't empathize with him though. I have no sympathy for him. He knew the girl was "messy" and trifling, yet he had not just one, but two kids with her. He hasn't followed up on the sporadic court processes (however, I wonder if he really knows how to do that in the way that would help his case. He's only 24!). He's spent thousands of dollars on attorneys trying to get his child support straightened out and I don't know enough about the process to tell him what he's doing right or wrong.

He may not be the best dad yet, but I get the sense he's trying. His dad has been in prison since he was a little kid, yet he's always been his role model. I thank God he finally got past trying to be like his dad.

After an hour of us arguing back and forth--me stressing responsibility and him saying he's giving up--I was exhausted and exasperated. Not only does he continue to spend money on child support and attorney fees for two of them, but he still has two other kids who need his attention...one who is sick right now and needs medical attention.

I don't know what to tell him. He's frustrated...and stubborn. Everything I offer he's supposedly already tried. He's tired. He's irritated. He calls me for the answers and I don't have them. I want to help him but I don't know how.

His solution is to get some "quick money" by selling drugs to help him get back on his feet. I know he tells me this for shock value, but I also know it's not unlikely. It's something he knows how to do...and it's the way his friends make ends meet. At this point, he doesn't care about the long-term consequences.

He wants to provide for his kids but he keeps running into brick walls. And now he has exhausted his money trying.

I want him to face the struggle...to figure it out. I want him to do that...I NEED him to do that for himself...his kids...his younger brother and sister...and for the community where he grew up. I need him to do that so *I* know it can be done. I want him to set the example that life can be tough, but you can persevere...but I don't know that it's that easy.

I know he's not the only one who has been in this situation, but I don't know what to tell him, how to encourage him, or what to say to challenge him. I don't know if our hour-long phone conversation made things better...or worse.

Growing up in the inner city is not just physically and economically challenging, it is mentally challenging as well. It's very hard to fight a community mindset and example that being moral, doing things the "right" way doesn't pay off. Living in the inner city makes it hard to worry about long-term consequences when immediate consequences are so prevalent.

Unfortunately, his (and others') choices are not within my control. I cannot will him to do the right thing. It's hard to know when to listen and when to direct. I can only hope I made the right decision and have the right balance of pushing, challenging, and caring.
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