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Big Middle-Class Sister

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from the magazine

Big Middle-Class Sister

We shouldn’t apologize for teaching poor kids how to move up in America. Autumn 2008
The Social Order
Public safety

Alan Luks, the recently retired executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York, told me recently that program volunteers should behave like “middle-class surrogate relatives” toward the children they mentor. He quickly apologized for using the term “middle-class”: “That’s wrong.” But it isn’t. Middle-class values are exactly what disadvantaged kids need in order to succeed. It’s too bad that the people who run mentor programs are often so steeped in bad social theory, nonjudgmentalism, and “cultural sensitivity” that they discourage volunteers from teaching their mentees how to move up in America.

When I signed up to be a mentor with BBBS seven years ago, the initial conversations I had with my mentee, Veronica, didn’t bode well. The transcripts would probably read like police interrogation sessions. I would ask her questions about school, family, friends, anything I could think of; she would answer in as few words as possible. And our meetings, which included outings to the beach, the movies, and museums, as well as bicycle riding and even a couple of trips around the park on horseback, were not without their logistical frustrations. Veronica was always late, for instance, often by almost an hour. At first, I chalked it up to her youth. When we were first matched, she was only 11. I would show up at her house at noon on a Saturday and find she was still in her pajamas and had forgotten about our plans.

It quickly became clear, though, that she was only behaving like the adults around her, who had no middle-class values to speak of. The one-bedroom apartment where she lived was chaotic. Her mother, her aunt, her sister, and her two younger cousins were the fixtures, with a parade of her aunt’s boyfriends and occasionally her own father added to the mix. Veronica spent money as though she were in the middle class, but she never earned or saved any, so far as I know. That didn’t stop her from buying Coach sneakers or a new cell phone every few months.

The biggest obstacle standing between Veronica and a middle-class life was education. My great coup was getting her parents to put her in Catholic school in ninth grade. We filled out the applications together, and despite Veronica’s objections—“There are no boys there!”—her mother sent her anyway.

As it happened, the school partnered with another mentoring program, called iMentor, so I became her mentor through that program, too. We e-mailed every week and saw each other every few months. Volunteers in iMentor must be college-educated professionals. But executive director Mike O’Brien says he “would stop short of making a judgment” that there’s anything wrong with the mentees’ original environment. “I love New York City in all of its complexity,” he tells me, noting that, just as many of the mentees hadn’t seen the professional world, most of the mentors “had never been to East New York.”

The mentors I know never told their charges that there was anything wrong with growing up in East New York—they didn’t have to. Mentees saw what these adults had and wanted it for themselves. For a few years, Veronica and I lived on opposite sides of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “I want to live in your neighborhood,” she told me on a visit to Park Slope when she was a high school freshman. It was a good opportunity for me to teach her something: “Well, if you go to college and get a good job, you can.” I’m sure that I’m not alone in my judgmentalism. The reason young men and women are able to become mentors in the first place is that they made the right “middle-class” choices in their own lives. Of course they’re judgmental. Judgment is what got them educations, good jobs, and decent apartments.

When Veronica was about 13, I got a flyer for a BBBS seminar, led by a representative of Planned Parenthood, on how to talk to mentees about sex. It started as you might expect: Give them all the information they want about birth control, emphasize the importance of safe sex, tell them where they can get tested for STDs, and so on. When the discussion turned to what the appropriate age is to begin having sex, the woman explained: “You should tell your ‘little’ that they shouldn’t have sex until they are in love.” I nearly fell out of my chair. Veronica had been in love seven times during the last school year alone.

Veronica and I have never discussed birth control or STDs, but about five years ago, she told me she wanted a baby. I told her that I didn’t think that was a good idea yet, and that she should finish high school, go to college, start a career, find the right guy, get married, and then have a baby (what my parents refer to as “the right order”). She nodded and said that seemed like a long way off. I assured her that she wouldn’t regret waiting.

When Veronica still hadn’t filled out her college applications and hadn’t even decided where to apply by January of her senior year, I complained to the people in charge of iMentor. I wanted the program coordinator to make some demands from the school. I wanted the school to make demands from Veronica. I wanted her mother to put her foot down. It was time for ultimatums. Instead, I got more nonjudgmentalism. “I’m sure she’ll make some decisions soon,” the iMentor folks told me. “And maybe community college is right for her.”

This past June, I attended Veronica’s high school graduation. Her record wasn’t stellar, but she’s attending Kingsborough Community College this fall. She has learned something about discipline and hard work. She has had some good teachers. Her classmates have been a good influence overall.

And there’s no baby.

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