One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is what I actually do during the day. Hey – it’s a valid question! Thanks for asking. I can pretty much break everything I do into 3 main categories: Mentoring, Coordinating Volunteers/Partnerships and After School Programs. In the next few days I’ll share a highlight of each. Today I’ll talk about one of the guys I’ve been mentoring.
Those of you who know me know I’m not really lukewarm about anything…I have been wired up to be an intensely passionate person. One of those deep passions is to be a voice of influence in younger guys’ lives. It’s also part of my job description, so the incentives are aligned! Early on in the school year, one boy in particular caught my attention.
For the sake of protecting this young man’s identity, we’ll call him Jay – Jay is the biggest 3rd grader I’ve ever seen (keep in mind I’ve worked in over 200 elementary schools during my time with Booster). He looks like the 3rd grade version of an SEC defensive lineman. He has a huge scar down the side of his face. It was fresh Here’s how our exchange went: “Hey man, how’d you get that cut on your face?” “From doin some real (stuff), get off my back” (In case it was unclear, the word he used wasn’t “stuff”). It was the moment I realized where I was and what challenges faced our students each day. The next day as Jay waked by me in the morning, I noticed his shoe was untied, saw an opportunity and subtly stepped to the side, on his shoelace. He tripped and looked back – “oh, my fault man” I said, “you might wanna tighten that up.” He looked me up and down and snapped back “you do it!” I raised an eyebrow at him and told him he could try that again. “You tie my shoe…please?” “I’d love to!” I knelt down and took my time tying his shoe, trying to make conversation. He went on his way. The next morning, I saw Jay’s mom letting him, his brother and their cousins out of the car down the block from the entrance to the school. Then, a strange thing happened: before he turned the corner, he stopped, knelt down and untied his shoes. As he approached me, he kicked his foot toward me and said “tie my shoe!” I raised the eyebrow again and again he amended (but with a smile this time), “puhleeaassee tie my shoe!” That happened each day that week. I asked his teachers later that week if he was someone who would benefit from some extra tutoring. They laughed, assured me that he would benefit greatly from that and we set up an arrangement.
Jay’s first reading assessment showed he was below a kindergarten reading level. He is 10. This is not just sad, it is unjust. the system has failed him, not the other way around. He’d been passed from grade to grade without being able to read. Unfortunately his story is the same story of more than half of our 3rd graders.
Our first task would be to catch up on reading a clock, multiplication and go over the kindergarten set of flash cards until he knew them. I asked him what he wanted to be one day. “A rapper” he replied, leaning back in his chair. Perfect! I asked if he’d ever heard of Lil’Wayne or 2 Chainz (popular rappers). I went on to explain that they both were not only honor students, but also college graduates. “So if you want to be a great rapper, you have to know a lot more words than you know right now, we gotta build your vocabulary. Here’s the thing, Jay – you could absolutely be a great rapper, but you’re going to have to work hard in school to make sure you have an edge on everyone else.” That was it. From that point forward, he began taking his words home, working hard during our time together and relentlessly trying to get smarter. His grades started to change, his behavior (sporadically) improved and in October and December he was voted student of the month.
Early in the school year we made these goals together (we’ve filled in many more since)
I love this guy. He’s tough, fiery, crazy smart and just yesterday tested at a 2.7 grade level in reading (aka he has grown almost FOUR YEARS in reading levels in 7 months). I take him home each week after Bible Study on Wednesdays and admittedly it’s tough to drive away. He lives with 6 siblings/cousins, his mom and his aunt in between abandoned houses, both marked up by gangs claiming the neighborhood as theirs. He has to (and sometimes chooses to) fight a lot. He doesn’t lose often, and that swagger has (thankfully) now started to spill over from the street to the classroom. He is starting to see how smart he really is – and he’s proud of it. He’s always wanted to but never been able to play organized football – this fall he will be a part of a 4th grade football team in the neighborhood and will undoubtedly be the Jadeveon Clowney of youth football (PLEASE click that link if you don’t know who he is).
My involvement in Jay’s life and his academic improvement DOESN’T point to what a great tutor I am or my staggering academic prowess. Those of you who know my story can vouch for that! I got kicked out of college for not making the grade – TWICE. What this story DOES speak to is the amazing power of the gospel. Just think about the dynamics in play: me, a 29 year old white (allegedly Latino) guy from the suburbs of Atlanta with a beautiful blonde wife and 3 kids sharing life and helping tutor a 10 year old, tough as nails African American kid from a poor, tough neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. I didn’t need some degree in social work or African American studies – nor years of experience…I just needed time and the ability to convey that I sincerely care about and believe in him. I used to wonder why God infused in me these passions for hip hop music and football (certainly not staple passions of Wilson men) and “coincidentally” that is the common ground I share with Jay. My prayer for him is that he will be awakened to the truth of the gospel, and by walking in that truth, BE the man he needed in his life to those who need him in the future (…AND that he will be the first NFL player in history with a platinum rap album).