Connecting With a Caring Adult

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A caring adult can make a huge difference in a teen’s life. Here, two young writers describe how this kind of relationship was crucial to their academic success. Christine Mendoza writes about the importance of her adviser and softball coach. Misty Wilson considers the impact of a guidance counselor and a grandmother. Mendoza also takes advantage of a community-based video program, and Wilson and her siblings benefit from an alternative school. Youth workers often play the role of “caring adults,” but they can also help teens identify other supportive adults and refer them to programs and schools like those mentioned here.

It’s the Relationship That Matters
By Christine Mendoza, 19

Growing up in Brooklyn, I went to four schools between seventh grade and high school graduation, and they couldn’t have been more different. I had the chance to experience first hand different ways of organizing schools and classrooms, and to try out for myself a lot of the current theories about what works best for kids. And I came to some surprising conclusions.

My seventh-grade experience sounds like a dream come true: I had a private tutor six hours a day, and the company of two dozen other kids like myself. My elementary school chorus teacher, Mr. Zwirn, had taken our group to audition for a Broadway musical, and along with several others I got a child’s part. A bus took us every day to the Minskoff Theater in Times Square, where 25 tutors were assigned to help each of us keep up with our schoolwork. Then came the tedious hours of rehearsal every afternoon and evening, getting us ready for the next year, when we would join the show.

But my tutor didn’t know anything about where I was academically, and I couldn’t explain it to her. I brought my textbooks from the junior high where I would have been going, and I did exercises in spelling, math and science. We didn’t have a science lab and we didn’t take any field trips. We didn’t read anything but the textbooks; sometimes the tutor would read them aloud to me. I only got to be with the other students during the lunch period.

The next year, I was back in junior high with my friends, though I spent a lot of my out-of-school time in performances. That was a good year, because our chorus teacher had transferred there and our group had become so well known that we got to sing at big events like Yankees, Mets and Knicks games. The school gave eighth graders a lot of freedom, even letting us go off campus for lunch if we wanted. It was a big school, but all the staff knew the members of the chorus.

I auditioned for a small performing arts public high school in Manhattan, and started ninth grade there thinking it would be just as good. But the teachers hardly cared about our learning in regular academic classes. When I would raise my hand in math class to ask a question, the teacher would tell me I was holding other students back. Soon I grew embarrassed to ask and I fell further behind. By the next year I was in a pattern of academic failure, and so they barred me from my musical theater class.

Discouraged and unmotivated, I dropped out of school without telling my mother where I was spending my days.

A year later I found myself with a second chance, enrolled at a small alternative public high school that places students in workplaces around the city for academic credit. I took classes that fit into my internship schedule, and we had seminars every week where we would speak with our advisers about issues that concerned us. My advisor, Carlos, who was also our softball coach, was a social studies teacher and former social worker. Carlos cared about what we did and where our lives were headed, and his genuine concern and advice really made a difference.

Like the chorus in my junior high, that softball team mattered more than almost anything else I ever did in school. There were 15 of us – four girls and 11 boys – and we were like a big family. Carlos had motivating words for us before we played, and he always encouraged us to keep our heads up, even when we were losing. We practiced every day, and we won nine out of our 10 games. Our coach believed in us and he was there for us when we needed an adult. And that kept us motivated to work hard and come to school.

While in that school, I began an internship in videography at the Educational Video Center in New York that eventually turned into a job after graduation. But I still keep in touch with Carlos, and I am hoping to visit his seminar this fall and show one of my videos to his students.

You might think that having a private tutor would be the ideal way to learn and succeed in school. But my experience shows that it’s not so much the role that matters between a teacher and a student. Whether it’s math class or chorus or a softball team, it’s the relationship with an adult who cares that really keeps us learning.

How a Family Turns
By Misty Wilson, 19

Just a year ago, my family was working toward stability at a moment of precarious hope. I was starting my first year at Brown University. My brother and sister were both enrolled at the high school that changed my life. And my mother had finally made the decision to enter a residential drug rehabilitation center. It was a new beginning for all of us.

For much of my childhood my mother struggled with using drugs – this was her remedy for the pain of raising three children as a single parent in poverty. Although I always knew my mother loved us, at times I almost gave up on my family and accepted the idea that I would have to depend on myself. “Follow your dreams,” my mother always told me. “I never want you to be like me.”

At the age of 17, my mother had given birth to me and dropped out of high school. Her blooming years of exploration and growth were abruptly stunted, replaced with the burden of raising first one child and soon two more. She depended heavily for guidance and support on my grandmother, who helped her be a good mother and eased the harsh realities of her life.

However, a little over three years ago, my grandmother passed away. Her passing was hard on all of us, but it came down heaviest on my mother, who felt alone in the world. I remember often watching her cry. The stresses of raising three teens as she struggled to find work and pay the bills were harsher than ever. Without my grandmother there, my mother began to escape regularly to the drugs she had sporadically used before to numb her pain.

But her escape was a scary trap that hurt us all. She began to stop her normal cooking and cleaning and interacting with us. Vicious fights would break out between all of us daily, and we began behaving disrespectfully toward her and each other. Later, she would leave home for days at a time, and as the oldest I found myself taking the responsible role in the family.

My 16-year-old sister, very bitter toward my mother, became depressed and isolated. My brother, 15, would skip school and roam the streets, hanging out with older people. I was constantly worried and angry, but I was scared that if I asked for help the system would break up our family.

Soon holding back the stress became impossible, and I spoke to the adviser who had guided my education ever since I started at the Met, a small innovative high school in Providence, R.I., where each student follows an individualized program and has the chance to pursue real-world opportunities. That led to a counseling session with my adviser and our whole family, facilitated by the school’s guidance counselor.

But that was only a first step. Even though we all left the meeting with a better understanding and a little more hope, the problem still persisted. I graduated from high school and went away for a summer job. While I was gone, our house caught fire and my brother and sister had to move in with relatives. Soon after I returned, my mother disappeared, leaving us a despairing note with a friend. I moved into college without her.

But during that first week, as I began my new life as a Brown student, my mother decided to begin a new life, too. I got a call from her, saying that she wanted to meet with me and my siblings, along with some members of our church. She was going to do something about her problem.

The school year now unfolding brings a moment of victory and pride as I begin my second year of college and I watch my mother celebrate her first anniversary of sobriety. Both my sister and my brother are thriving at the Met, getting the same kind of education that got me to this point. For the first time I can remember, my whole family is moving in a positive direction.

Was it my grandmother’s spirit that changed my mother’s course? Was it the support of my advisers at the Met? Was it our church community and the amazing family that took my siblings in? Was it some strength deep inside each of us?

Somehow I know that it was all of these things together. I have learned that changing a family, just like changing the world, takes people who truly care and want change, working together, to make a difference. My family was among the fortunate ones who had that. Now I can go on and do the same for someone else.

Reprinted with permission from What Kids Can Do Inc. and Jobs for the Future. Copyright © 2001 What Kids Can Do Inc., P.O. Box 603252, Providence, RI 02906. (401) 247-7665,