ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
High school, transformed
By Kevin C. Moore, senior mentor, Ridgewood High School
I had few expectations of what I would feel coming into high school, but even my lackluster hopes weren’t met. With a few weeks conquered, I fell into the comforts of monotony. I woke up every morning, not really for any reason, but simply because I didn’t see any alternative. I went to my classes and did my work and talked and smiled with those around me, not because I enjoyed these activities, but because they were expected of me. The worst part is that I was completely satisfied with the way I was carrying myself. I was ignorant to what I could be.
That notion was jolted on a day I have yet to forget. My deliberate study hall procrastination was interrupted by a door swinging open, followed by the staccato steps of a hurried woman in heels. I would come to know this woman as Carol Valentino-Barry. I don’t at all recall the words that she shot at us, but I still feel their energy. She spoke with passion and vigor, explaining that we freshmen would be entered into her mentoring program. I felt my face shift to emulate my compatriots around me as I tapped into the one thought that we were all collectively thinking, “This woman is a lunatic.”
Once a month, the fateful day would come where we would assemble into groups of three or four before meeting with our adult mentor. Initially I detested these days, seeing them as a waste of time. But then I began to really experience it. It was an exciting feeling to talk about our lives — mine and my classmates’ — with no motive outside self-improvement. Our adult mentors gave us insight into their own lives, showing us practical applications of goal setting, time management, and executive functioning. I was still hesitant, but I embraced the outlet these days provided to me.
Then the day came when Valentino-Barry interjected her presence back into our lives. She painted before our eyes a picture of her vision: Each group of freshmen, with their adult mentor at the helm, would make and bag as many ham sandwiches, pretzels, and desserts, as they could possibly muster. We would actually be setting goals and managing resources in a very tangible way.
With every item that I placed in a bag, I thought of the person who, without our efforts, might not be able to eat. I began to feel like I was a part of something that actually mattered. I wanted to do more, and so I volunteered to be a part of the group that would distribute the meals. I was able to connect with and help people that I otherwise never would have met.
My sophomore year passed without any real involvement in mentoring, although I saw some people in my grade joining. I thought about my experiences at least once a week, and found the emotions it had brought upon me inescapable. As a junior, I could no longer resist the allure of this group, and so I signed up. I didn’t know what it was I was agreeing to, or what it would entail. All I knew is that I was addicted to that feeling of connectedness, and knew this program to be a fix.
The first day came and was a distantly familiar swirl of madness. It was a madness, however, not void of direction. The idea was simple: students like me (sophomores, juniors, and seniors), were paired with an adult mentor, and this duo would then be assigned to a group of freshmen. In talking with the freshmen about managing their time, we would share how we manage our own lives. It was a subversive tactic to get us to start helping ourselves by helping others.
There were three freshmen in my group. Three dead-eyed, stammering freshmen who seemed more concerned with their earbuds and phones than they did with breathing or eating. At first, I felt as disconnected to them as possible, and I barely spoke for the first, second, or third session. I would do nothing but watch the clock agonizing with each minute, waiting for the escape that 10:35 would bring me. That was the case for many months. That was the case until I saw these freshmen as the people they were. Disgusting as it may be, it wasn’t until that minute that I realized they thought, felt, and experienced things just as I did. I again felt connected. I began sharing with them my experiences as pertained to their issues. As much I believed I helped them develop, they did to me tenfold.
It wasn’t until my senior year that I experienced the entirety of mentoring. This final step of the journey would be all the elements of the previous year, with the added challenge of case studies. It wasn’t until this year that I would truly observe the relationship the program has with United Airlines. Most notably, after being given an aptitude test, we were paired with different careers within United Airlines. We got an in-depth view of the airline while also getting a first-person view into potential career paths.
The case studies we read came from noteworthy institutions, primarily Harvard University. We would receive the lengthy passages constructed with wording that felt like its main goal was to cause confusion, and be faced with the daunting task of reading them to prepare for the discussion.
I hated it. I avoided it all week until the class before where I would be found hurriedly skimming a 10-page packet about some business somewhere with some problem. The discussions were led by the Vice President of United Airlines, Charles Duncan. My initial relationship with Duncan consisted of him asking a question to which I had no answer and me shrinking into my seat avoiding eye contact at all cost. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the point in it all, but more that I wouldn’t see it.
It wouldn’t be until I actually tried on a case study that I was enlightened. The words of the passages presented real people in real situations. Their experiences became my puzzles. Never before had I needed to present my opinion of complex business procedures. Each month brought with it a new case, and with it a new problem that challenged and expanded my mind. Regrettably, it wasn’t until I neared the end of the year that I realized just how much I benefited from studying these cases. I felt as though I lived through each and every case and I found myself applying the mental strategies I learned to my daily life.
Mentoring didn’t radically change me, but instead enabled me to improve myself. Above all that it offered, I appreciated the opportunity to think and experience life from a different perspective and connect and empathize with others.
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