Navigating Boston’s rain-splattered highways with a precocious third-grader in my backseat, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. She was eight years old in purple leggings and a bright silver raincoat. Her freckled expression alternated between exuberant and so-over-it. We were headed to a new museum exhibit for a special Big Brothers/Big Sisters tour, and I felt very grown-up myself.
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I’d enrolled in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program with some vague good-hearted notion of making a difference, not sure what that entailed. I was moved by the stories of vulnerable kids whose lives were bolstered by a caring adult who brought happiness, companionship and a dose of hope into their lives. As a tutor in college and a peer mentor in high school, the idea of nurturing an underdog always appealed to me. Once a gawky elementary-schooler with brown plastic glasses and my nose planted in a book, I always saw a bit of myself in those awkward kids.
That said: I wasn’t a teacher. At the time, I wasn’t yet a parent. I was a very upbeat, perky person who measured herself in terms of doing a good job, pleasing people, saying the right thing, and diplomatically navigating life by being funny, a bit sassy, but most of all, polished. I was raised to go the extra mile, to be polite and to seal every conversation with a tightly tied ribbon.
Driving in this car, alone with a pouty pre-teen as the rain began to pour, I felt very much at sea, not polite or polished at all. I was, in fact, a bit annoyed. She didn’t want to go. Her stomach hurt. The museum might be boring. Why didn’t I bring a snack? She wanted her mom. But I’d committed to taking her for three hours. I was in charge. We were going to have a good time, because that was my job. And I always did my job.
“I don’t want to go. I want to go home and watch TV,” she moaned, writhing against her seat belt. “I feel sick.”
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Instinctively, I became my own mother at the helm of a station wagon. “We’re going to go, and you’re going to have a great time,” I said, taking charge in an authoritative voice that wasn’t quite my own. “You’ll love it. Buck up!” I glanced into the rearview mirror. She shrugged and drew circles against the misty glass.
We got to the museum, and there was more drama. Tears. “What can I do to help you feel better?” I asked. Boredom. “Nothing in life is boring with the right attitude!” I chirped. Not enough money for ice cream and a souvenir. “You have two options, this or that, and I have a limited budget. What would you like to buy?” I demanded, Mary Poppins in need of a cocktail.
I held my own against each tearful plea, and my young charge seemed happy as she bopped back to my car with a leaky ice cream cone. Driving home, I found myself sitting a little straighter, shaking off the rain from my zebra-print trench.
“What did you think of the exhibits?” I asked. “It was fun, wasn’t it? She said it was, and rattled off her favorites. “That’s great,” I replied, giddily cool and secretly delighted, turning into traffic. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.” We spent the next half-hour excitedly chatting about future plans. I dropped her off promising we’d go for manicures the following week.
A full-on grown-up, I felt very much in charge. I drew the boundaries, made the rules, and set the tone. I held firm—and nothing bad had happened. In fact, she’d had fun. Ha!
I think of that afternoon often. I summon that voice, that inner stiffness, whenever I need to take charge in a meeting, or negotiate with a client, or hold my own in a business deal. Sure, she was easy practice—an eight year old wasn’t going to fire me or laugh in my face (not if I had the power to buy ice cream, anyway). But she inspired me to unearth a new no-nonsense persona, especially at work.
Mentoring requires gentle boundaries and unshakeable self-confidence, things I often thought I possessed in the abstract but never really accessed until I had to learn how to handle kids, especially a whiny kid in an elegant marble museum hallway. It wasn’t the reason I joined Big Brother/Big Sister—but, years later and in every area of my life, it’s still one of its biggest gifts.
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