What I Learned from Being a Mentor

What I Learned from Being a Mentor

This year, make a resolution that’s unlike any other. Check out one mom’s experience here.

By: Lexi Walters Wright

School lunch tables are a lot smaller than I remembered. Every Wednesday for a year, I wedged myself and my cafeteria tray — unchanged from my own school days decades earlier — onto a lunch bench and next to my Reading Buddy.

Deshawn was a third grader obsessed with dinosaurs and Jackie Robinson, in that order. Each week we met, he brought a library book about one or the other. As I ate my rectangular pizza, he read to me. Sometimes he stumbled over words and asked for help sounding them out. Other times, he’d stop reading to ask me something: Why did I think the dinosaurs really died? Had I ever been to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

And finally he asked what I knew was coming. “So, why do you do this, anyway?”

Becoming a Mentor
“This” meant mentoring him through a local pro-literacy organization. The Reading Buddies program was intended to aid an elementary school whose student body wasn’t faring especially well on state reading tests. To improve the learning outcomes for these kids, the non-profit group matched area professionals with the most at-risk young readers in the school.

During our sessions, Deshawn got to make most of the choices: what he’d read, where we’d sit, what we’d talk about. If he brought a comic book or a picture book way under his grade level, I didn’t mention it — he had absolute freedom to read whatever he wanted with me.

Between chapters, he’d tell me about basic things happening in his life and at school. I learned about the video games he played with his brothers and the boring job his mom had to work until late in the evening. Sometimes he brought homework to do with me instead of a book so that he wouldn’t have to wait to do it with his mom when she got home.


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The Benefits of Mentoring — for Mentees
I don’t have any idea whether Deshawn’s reading skills actually improved during our year together; I moved the fall we would have begun our second session. But even if his test scores didn’t increase, I know that time wasn’t wasted — for either of us.

Formally, I know now that mentoring is all about helping young people develop and appreciate their own unique strengths. But here’s what I knew about it back then, first-hand: Deshawn looked forward to our visits. Upon seeing me in the cafeteria, sometimes he’d petulantly roll his eyes and bark a snarky hello, but he was always eager to show me the book he’d chosen and always grumbled when it was time to leave. I showed up for him week after week, and him for me. Our conversations flowed naturally after our first few sessions, and I think we were both surprised by how disappointed it felt when the summer came and the program ended.

The Benefits of Mentoring — for Mentors
I returned to my office after each Reading Buddy session with a profound appreciation for so much more than I would have had if I’d just eaten at my desk. I understood the landscape of my local school system better and I felt a little more connected to my community. I’d seen a kid who had a lot of barriers to success try to do a little better on my behalf. And that felt awesome.

While mentoring Deshawn, I got to think about my own reading career and what shaped my education experience. I thought fondly of my past teachers, and I made a mental note to try to find them online.

For me, mentoring was time and energy well spent then and now — for my mentee, yes, but also for me.

Get Started Mentoring
If you’re interested in getting involved in a formal mentoring program or just want to learn more about volunteering in your community, do a quick search online or stop by your local community center or library to find out how you can help.

Have you been a mentor to a special young person in your community? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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