Opinion

I Thought I Could Help My Last Mentee — But I Was Wrong

mentor: Young African American male outside wearing a black and white baseball jersey henley shirt looking serious

Ursula Page/Shutterstock

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It’s pretty to believe that if one only puts in the time, he can save a wayward child. It doesn’t always work out that way. The troubled boy I mentored for 6½ years, through a Norwalk, Conn., school volunteer program, fired me last May. We’d been together since he entered fourth grade, and until our parting I’d visited him at school almost weekly, as well as periodically throughout summer. Now 17, he no longer wants to meet. 

mentor: Ron Berler (headshot), author of “Raising the Curve,” smiling man with gray hair wearing gray T-shirt

Ron Berler

I can’t say I’m surprised. For the last 2½ years, he has been spiraling toward a bottom he has yet to reach. Twice in the last 17 months he has been arrested, once on felony gun and conspiracy charges for which he was arraigned as a juvenile — he and four others attempted to sell a stolen handgun to their “buyer,” an undercover cop — and more recently for theft of about $150 in jewelry from a local CVS pharmacy, while still serving a nine-month probation sentence for the gun crime. The judge, the boy told me, warned that he’d be sentenced to a youth detention center if he appeared in his courtroom again. 

“Unless you make some changes, that’s where you’re headed,” I said, during one of our last meetings.

“Probably,” the boy responded with a shrug, adding that he didn’t fear prison life. 

I believed him, knowing that he spoke from experience. Following his gun arrest, he was remanded to the Juvenile Detention Center at Bridgeport, one of Connecticut’s two juvenile detention facilities, until the date of his first court hearing, a week later. 

Since I am not the boy’s parent or guardian, I was not permitted to speak with or visit him during his time there. The day he was released, I drove to his home. He greeted me with a high five, led me to the kitchen and lifted his pants leg. Encircling his ankle was an electronic monitor; he was confined to his apartment. School was not an issue, he told me. Because of the nature of his crime, he had been suspended indefinitely pending an expulsion hearing. 

I hardly knew what to say. The boy and I had traveled a great distance together. He was 10 when we met, a shy, skinny Haitian-American with puppy eyes and black dreadlocks down to his shoulders. He wasn’t much of a student, due primarily to a lack of desire. But he wasn’t a troublemaker, either. 

Downward spiral

Then in middle school he discovered marijuana and his grades collapsed. By his freshman year in high school, he was often high when he arrived on campus. He found new friends, many of them equally troubled, and began regularly mouthing off to teachers.

Suspensions followed. Often after second period he snuck off campus for an hour or more to hang out at a local Dunkin’ Donuts. One day he walked out midway through a class and while wandering the halls was confronted by the principal. 

“Where are you supposed to be?” he asked.

“You’re the principal, you tell me,” the boy snapped.

When the boy told me about their exchange, I was straightforward with him, practical. 

“Have you ever won an argument by talking back to a school official or teacher?” I asked.  

“No,” he admitted. 

“Then why would you do it?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

But I do. Like many students enrolled in school-based mentoring programs nationally — estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the director of research and evaluation for MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, Michael Garringer — the boy leads a disfigured life. His parents are long divorced. He lives with his father, who leaves early for work, before the boy lights up. He has little contact with his mother. 

For most of his school years, he was classified as learning disabled; he still can barely sign his name. He has anger management issues. He’s impulsive, a follower, easily influenced by others. I once asked him what he’d do if he were walking down the street with his friends and the others decided to jump a passing stranger. He told me he wouldn’t intercede, that it would be none of his affair. 

High school graduate?

Early on, before his behavior began to spin out of control, I thought I could help him. It is the mindset every volunteer mentor must have — similar, I imagine, to the positivity a pediatric oncologist must bring when meeting a new patient. In my dozen years with Norwalk’s youth program, administered by the city’s Human Services Council, I worked with seven troubled boys and believed I could aid them all. 

My goal for this boy, as with the others, had been to see him through high school and perhaps beyond. Norwalk’s program awards any child who continues with his or her mentor for at least four years and through graduation a $2,000 college scholarship. That’s a lot of money for a family with little. But none of those I’d worked with had made it that far. 

I had hoped for a better outcome with this boy, not just for him, but for me. I was approaching retirement age, and had decided he’d be my last mentee. I dearly wanted to see him graduate, perhaps enroll at the local community college, at any rate succeed. 

Instead his troubles metastasized, escalating beyond the classroom. One day a restaurant owner caught him leaving without paying the check. Several times, he told me, he sneaked out of his home late at night, met up with friends and went juggin’, which he described as breaking into unlocked cars and stealing what was there. 

His situation, I knew, was growing critical. My role as mentor was to be the boy’s friend and advocate, but also to serve as a gentle advisor, a stable presence in his turbulent life. With his father’s permission, I invited Bashaun Brown, whom I’d met through the Yale Prison Education Initiative, to speak with him. 

Brown had served 6½ years in prison for robbing a Waterbury, Conn., bank. While incarcerated, he had turned his life around, eventually enrolling in a for-credit, college-in-prison program run by Wesleyan University. For two hours, he sat in the boy’s living room and shared his story of crime and redemption, urging the teen not to follow his own self-destructive path. 

The boy, eyes wide, was rapt — until Brown departed. Within minutes, he returned to video games and talking basketball. I hadn’t expected an instant turnabout. But the gun crime that followed — I was unprepared for that. 

No contact

“So, what’s the most valuable thing you learned at the detention center?” I asked in his kitchen, hoping that his week in lockup had served as a wake-up call. In fact, I viewed it as a last line of defense. No one — not his father, his teachers, his school social worker, me — had been able to get through to him, to guide him toward making better life choices. He needed both a gentle hand and a firm one — one that reached into his heart to make him aware of his human potential, and another that said to him, “This far into the justice system and no further.” 

The boy didn’t hesitate. He’d made a connection with another juvenile, he told me, who would supply him with drugs if he wished to start dealing. 

Several weeks later, citing the nature of his crime, the school district expelled him for the 2018-19 school year. He was assigned to an online education program in a separate building, along with others who’d been tossed from school. The boy slipped further. He was absent or tardy nearly every day last year, was suspended multiple times and will have to repeat some of his courses. 

Now he’s back in his old high school — for the time being. The school district reinstated him and in late August he returned, reluctantly, to campus. I’m unsure how long he’ll last. His second day there, he received an in-school suspension. And more recently, an out-of-school one.

According to Human Services Council regulations, I am not permitted to initiate contact with the boy or his family now that he has terminated our mentoring relationship. He is free, though, to contact me. 

He hasn’t. More than seven months have passed since I’ve spoken with the boy, and still I think about him daily — who he’s become, who he still has the potential to be. David Hay, his elementary school principal, tried to reassure me: “Twenty years from now he might think back on the advice you gave him, and it may finally kick in.” 

I worry that 20 years from now he’ll be in prison. Or dead. 

I doubt I’ll hear from the boy again.

Ron Berler is the author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools.” He has spent much of his career reporting on youth issues.

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