Have you ever wanted to give up mentoring a teenager? Or just felt you were getting nowhere? Or felt totally frustrated about being a mentor? Maybe a combination of all these thoughts and more? This relationship seemed tougher than climbing the highest mountain?
“I’m ….. uh ….. in trouble again!”
That unmistakably negative 15 year old voice in my ear as I drove across the Auckland Harbor Bridge to my North Shore home. Monday evening. Could the day really get any worse? I had lost two potentially major business deals and now Billy.
“What’s the trouble, Billy?” I asked, desperately trying to remember some mentor training tips. Disapprove of the behaviour, but love the child.
“It’s that peach-head Mr Squires. Says I cheated in the Maths test, but I didn’t, Tony, I swear …….”
“I believe you, Billy.”
“No-one else does!” A hint of anxiety in his voice. A short silence. “My dad’s going to murder me when he hears I’m internally suspended.”
I pictured a terrified Billy, shoulders drooped, looking up to his dad, a brute of a man, owner of a building construction company, hesitatingly breaking this news. Would this be the last straw in an already fragile relationship?
“Where are you, Billy?”
“Okay, meet me at the Food Court in 15 minutes.”
“What’s the point? This whole program sucks. My friends were right …… I’ll always be a loser! Stuff school!”
“Hey, Billy, meet me …….. please?!” Did he detect my concern or the feeling of irritability, the result of a tough day in the office? Both probably. Billy didn’t miss much.
“Uh … huh.”
Negotiating the traffic, telephoning Nicky to tell her I’d be late home, brain racing with thoughts of how to salvage the situation ……. mentor training tips competing for traffic focus. Get the facts. Don’t jump to any conclusions or assumptions. Believe in your mentee! Don’t quit on him!
Billy was standing forlornly near the mobile telephone counter, our agreed meeting place when we met at the Mall. Six months of my mentoring commitment gone, another six to go. I had thought we were making such good progress. Now this!
“Hey, Billy,” I said, playfully punching him on the shoulder, mindful not to humiliate him in public. “Let’s grab a milkshake and talk.”
Billy grunted an inaudible sound which I hoped was affirmative. I ordered two chocolate double-thick milkshakes, our regular order when we met at the Mall.
“Happy to sit over there?” I pointed to a table in a quieter area of the Food Court.
Billy nodded and slouched across to the table, before collapsing into his chair with an exaggerated, frustrated sigh, a picture of dejection and negativity, his self worth shattered.
“Other than the Maths, how have things been since we last chatted?”
Dumb question, I chided myself. Open-ended questions, remember!
“Forget about the Maths for a moment. Any two things you’ve done that you’re really proud of? Especially during the past two weeks?”
Brief eye contact, a hesitant sparkle, more fearful than joyful, a half-smile.
“Got 63% for that English assignment.”
“The one on Lord of the Flies?”
“63%!? That’s really cool!” Try to be genuinely positive and encouraging.
Billy nodded again, showing little emotion.
“Hey, that’s over 10% above your goal. You must have been pleased with that?”
Billy managed another half-smile as he nodded, continuing to stare avidly at the straw protruding through the plastic lid of my milkshake.
Nothing but protracted silences mixed with the occasional uneasy shuffle, as Billy prepared himself for the inevitable onslaught.
“School sucks, I tell you! I got 74% for my Maths test ………the best I’ve ever done….”
“74%, Billy, that’s brilliant! See what happens when you attend school, organise your time properly ………”
“………and Mr Squires hands me down for cheating!”
Billy made a brave, yet unsuccessful effort to fight off the tears. Either he was a brilliant actor or he had been seriously maligned.
“That jerk, Perry. He’s always sucking up to the teachers. We had the identical answers for two questions, one right and one wrong. I get nailed for cheating because teacher’s pet, Perry Armstrong, never cheats!” Listen! Listen! Listen! What is Billy not saying?
“And you get internal suspension?”
“Stink! Remember all the trouble I was in before I joined the Teen Plus program?”
“Sure,” I nodded. Billy had been close to external suspension for wagging school, not doing his homework, caught smoking in the toilets and being insolent to teachers. He had even told me once that he had contemplated suicide, as he was sick and tired of everything and everyone. He was angry with the world. Hardly surprising, with his mum and dad separating just over a year ago. Dad had shacked up with a brunette about 10 years younger, the two of them hardly ever at home, leaving Billy to fend for himself. Mum had moved to Wellington with her new partner, who had something to do with the political scene, and with six year old Kate.
“I told you they’d never give me a fresh start. Give me one good reason why I should fight this?”
“No, Billy, I’ll give you two.” I smiled, thinking fast. “Firstly, because you have some great talent which I’ve seen in the last few months. Secondly, because I believe in you!”
“You’re just saying that ‘cos it’s mentor stuff.”
“Look at me, Billy, and repeat that!” Billy had pushed a button and got the reaction he wanted.
“You heard me!” He looked me square in the eyes. “I said you’re just saying that stuff ‘cos it’s mentor stuff!” He held his gaze, though all I saw was a confused, frightened, insecure, embattled teenager crying out for help, terrified of what his father might do to him, unsure of either the words to use or the road to take.
“Billy, you know my philosophy?”
“There’s a f@#$%^ solution to every problem!”
“Cut that out!”
“Whatever!” he muttered.
“So, we need a solution. You’re a smart guy, Billy, bigger than this. You’ve bounced back so many times when others your age would have quit. You actually inspired me the other day when I lost a major business deal and wanted to walk away.” Learn when to be vulnerable with your mentee.
“Yea, right ……!”
Was Billy listening to anything I was saying?
“Hey, buddy, let’s give it one more shot. Where’s the problem here?”
“That jerk, Squires. He hates me ……..everyone says so…..sarcastic as……..”
“I don’t think it’s Mr Squires,” I said gently, sensitively, authoritatively.
“Uh ….huh,” Billy almost choked on his milkshake. He pushed it aside, sat up in his chair and, aggressively pointing a finger at me, said, “You think it’s me, don’t you? You also think I cheated. Say it, man, say it!!”
“Okay, Billy, I’ll say it!” I had his attention, the anger in his eyes melting into hatred.
“You did not cheat in your Maths test. If it wasn’t you it must have been ……..”
“Perry! That scumbag, Perry!”
“Why, I’ll smash that paperweight ………”
“Where will that get you, Billy?”
“Your dad does.”
“Don’t go down that road again, Tony ……..”
“Your mum does.”
“Don’t mention her ……. She’s not even here.”
“Hey, Billy, people care about you. Maybe they are not that good at telling you ……”
“I don’t need a lecture. You’re sounding like my dad.”
That was all I needed to hear. I was tempted to stand up, walk away and leave Billy to get on with his own life. That would be another entry in his mental notebook: adults were all the same; authority figures who didn’t care about him. After all, through his confusing eyes, hadn’t everyone he loved and cared for walked away, leaving him to battle on his own?Never quit on a mentee.
“Solutions, Billy, we need solutions so you can stay at school and achieve those goals you set.”
“Stuff school! It’s not worth it! What’s the point of setting goals?”
“Okay, fine, Billy. Stuff school. Leave tomorrow. What will you do?”
He was focused now, yet avoided eye contact.
“I’ll get a job.”
“Sure, Billy. Who will employ a 15 year old with no qualifications?”
“I’ll do junk mail deliveries for a few months.”
“Is there a vacancy?”
“Dunno, but I’ll ask.”
“Okay, you do paper rounds. What will you earn?”
“About $100 a month.”
“That won’t go far.”
“It’s only for a few months. Once I’m 16 I’ll get a decent job at a shop in the Mall. There’s always someone advertising.”
“You’ll have to pay your dad for board and lodging.”
“When you are earning, you don’t expect your dad to house, clothe and feed you for nothing, do you?”
“Uh-huh?” Billy had clearly not thought this process through.
“Five years from now, all your mates who stayed in school will be leaving university or some such place and heading along exciting new career paths. You’ll be stuck in your job at the Mall, probably bored out of your skull?” Help Billy envision a future.
“Yea, right …….”
“Is that what you want, Billy?”
“Whatever!” Arms crossed, turning away from me, the warning signs clear. My positive connection with Billy was slipping away.
Grasping for straws, remembering the mentor trainer saying repeatedly, Never quit! Hang in there! It’s a commitment! I had to try a new angle.
Billy stared at the floor. Expressionless. That look of despair, self-pity and defeat that I had seen all too often in the past was back with a vengeance.
“This is about you, Billy. What about those engineering dreams you shared with me? I really believe you can make it.”
“Whatever ……” No change in the body language, while the steely stare could have drilled a hole in the mezzanine floor.
“…… and that Maths result was everything we’ve been talking about for the past two months. 36% to 74%! I still can’t believe it – fantastic, buddy, fantastic!”
Another deafening silence.
Self-doubt seized control of me, began to overpower me, almost throttle me. Did I really think I could make a difference in a 15 year old adolescent’s life? Who was I kidding?
The other mentors at the monthly meetings appeared to be observing different levels of progress with their mentees. At least it was progress, while I continually seemed to be making the least headway with Billy. The ebullient, always positive mentor co-ordinator, Janice Hillman, would smile, quietly encouraging me to persevere. What did she know about mentoring teens and journeying on this emotional roller-coaster with mentees like Billy? Her kids were only eight and six.
“Did you ever have an experience like this at school?”
Billy had caught me unawares. He had neither changed his posture nor his gaze.
“Uh ….. what was that?”
“Did you ever have an experience like this at school?”
“Sure, Billy, sure.” I was battling to remember an incident, any incident.
“Lots of clashes with teachers, but there was one major clash I had with Paul, a mate. We played in the same Cricket team. He was jealous when I was made Captain ahead of him. So, he began spreading false rumors about me. You know what it’s like, I bet. It was lousy and Paul began to divide the team. I couldn’t really go to the coach about it, could I? Dad wasn’t interested, so there was no point talking to him – I mean, he was busy chasing Margaret, so was never at home.”
Billy turned and looked at me. “Like …..you….you also had a split home?”
“No. My mum died when I was at Intermediate School. My dad remarried. Hey, I sure have some understanding of what you’re going through, Billy. All just made me more determined than ever to prove myself ……….crazy now that I think about it.”
“Paul. What happened to Paul?”
“One day after school I asked Paul if we could chat. He was okay about that. We went somewhere where we wouldn’t be disturbed and talked for about two hours. All sorts of stuff came out. I told him how I was feeling and he shared his thoughts. So many misunderstandings ………but it was a good time…..”
“We both won, Billy. I understood Paul a little better, he saw things from my viewpoint and we actually became good mates after that. Weird hey?”
Billy was clearly thinking and was interested in my story, though he offered little to the conversation.
“What do you want out of this Maths issue, Billy?”
“Do you see a solution?”
Closed questions don’t encourage great responses! I wondered if I would ever learn the art of effective communication during this mentoring relationship.
“Hey, I must go!” Billy suddenly stood up, looking at his mobile phone, muttered some form of thanks and sauntered off.
I wanted to protest, though realised that would be a pointless exercise.
“Billy!” I called after him. He half turned around to face me. “Remember, one step at a time. Take the helicopter view of the situation. Call me if you need to.”
No response. Hands in pockets, jeans hanging low, revealing multi-coloured boxer shorts, sagging shoulders, Billy headed home.
I was a little uncommunicative with Nicky, telling her about the business deals that had fallen through, but not much about my time with Billy. After 16 years of marriage, she had learnt that there were times when I needed my space and she must not intrude. A special person, Nicky, especially as she kept trying to reassure me things would be okay. Did she fully appreciate the gravity of the situation?
During the next couple of days at the office I was miles away. My thoughts were on Billy and what he was up to. I telephoned him a couple of times each day, but the phone remained unanswered. I didn’t leave any messages, as he would know I was trying to contact him from the number that he could see on the screen. Sent him some texts. No response.
Wednesday morning I decided to contact Grant Buller, the school’s Liaison Officer for the Teen Plus program.
“Hi Grant. Tony Stewart.”
“Hi Tony.” Unusually abrupt or was I overreacting?
“Wondering how Billy is getting along?” I enquired a little hesitantly.
“Haven’t you heard?”
“Heard what?” My stomach churned and my mouth was dry.
“Oh, he cheated in a Maths test. The Head will probably externally suspend him when the investigation is complete. He hasn’t been at school for the last couple of days – probably wagging again. You know Billy – he’ll never change.”
This was one conversation I didn’t want to continue, certainly not at this point anyway. Curse the teachers who keep labelling these kids, I was thinking to myself, swiftly concluding my conversation with Grant Buller. When will Billy ever be given a chance?Be prepared to advocate for your mentee.
I stopped at the Mall on my way home, spending half-an-hour walking around the Mall looking for Billy. A fruitless exercise. I reflected on my six month mentoring journey. I had given my all to this relationship because I believed in Billy and wanted to give something back to the community. In reality, from Billy’s perspective, I was probably just another adult jerk who didn’t understand him, never could nor would and probably had not believed him. Maybe it was time to front up to Janice and inform her I wasn’t cut out for this mentoring. I never thought I’d have to make that call. It could wait until the morning.
I drove past Billy’s house. Maybe I would catch a glimpse of him. I needed to know he was okay.
A St. John’s ambulance screamed past me, siren blaring, as I turned into Breakwater Street, where Billy lived. There were no lights on at Billy’s home, though I glimpsed Billy’s dad speeding off in the same direction as the ambulance. Please God, don’t let this nightmare be true. I broke out in a sweat, loosening my tie. What had I done? Had I pushed Billy over the edge? If only I could retract some of my comments. What would Teen Plus say of my mentoring when they heard the worst news – Billy had become another New Zealand youth suicide statistic because he had felt rejected once too often?
“I’m scared, Nicky,” I finally confided later that evening. “I was too tough on him.”
“Nonsense. Remember, honey, he’s going to make the choices. Stop beating yourself up……..”
We were soon absorbed in the weekly television legal drama, one of the few
programs we enjoyed watching – though, to be honest, I was suffering from repeated
flashbacks to my conversation with Billy in the Mall. I had well and truly screwed up!
I telephoned North Shore Hospital. There was no record of admitting Billy.
10.30 p.m. I told Nicky I wanted to drive around Billy’s neighbourhood in case he was
wandering the streets.
The telephone rang. I grabbed the receiver and momentarily froze. Telephone calls this late inevitably carried bad news.
“Billy! Where are you?”
“I’ve just tried ringing you at the office, but you weren’t there.”
“It’s after 10, buddy.”
“Hey, I chatted to Perry and he owned up. Mr Squires even apologised to me – can you believe it?! ”
“That’s awesome, Billy. I phoned Mr Buller to find out how you were doing, but he said you were wagging school.”
“Took yesterday off to do some thinking. Like you said once, I went for a walk along the beach and thought some more. I was at school today, mostly with Mr Carter, the Counsellor, who helped me sort this out. He’s cool. He also agreed to help me find information on subjects I need to study for engineering.”
Thankfully, Billy couldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Hey, Tony, you there?”
“Sure am, buddy.”
“See you Saturday?”
“Two ‘o clock at your place.”
A mentor momentarily lost for words.
“Thanks for caring. See ya.”
That night I dreamt of a storm raging around me – gale force winds, flashes of lightning, rolling thunder, torrential rain. Behind the storm clouds the sun was rising on a new day.
©2019 Robin Cox
Promoting the Spirit of Mentoring – never stop sharing stories 🙂
About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in New Zealand and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Facebook or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website Robin’s free Mentoring Minutes daily podcasts (each podcast between 1.5 and 3 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available here. About 45 blogs have been converted to short video clips, all of which are linked to encouraging youth to reach their potential. These are available on YouTube https://www.youtube.