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Saturday, April 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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COVER STORY

This boy's life
I wasn't sure I wanted to be a mentor. Now I'm glad I took the chance

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"What the hell are you doing with a little boy!?"

A friend asked me that a couple months ago, when I mentioned I'd spent the day with a child. She was joking, at least insofar as her horrified tone was concerned - but she was genuinely curious, too. After all, I'm 33 and don't work with kids, and she knew my wife hadn't been pregnant.

The short answer was: I was helping him get a library card. The long answer? I was doing my best not to screw him up.

That probably sounds pretty serious. It is. And it isn't.

See, it all started last summer, not long after my wife and I moved to Madison. Kelly, as is her wont, immediately began looking for ways to get involved with the community. Me, I wasn't so ambitious and merely decided to start attending church again. But her example was on my mind.

So one day after Bible study, when I saw a pamphlet from the nonprofit Madison-area Urban Ministry seeking volunteers, I took it home and filled out the application.

And a few weeks later, they gave me a 12-year-old.

You'd think it would be hard to get something as valuable as a 12-year-old. But honestly, I just had to supply three references and proof of auto insurance, then survive an interview and background check.

The truth is, they really wanted to give me a kid. In fact, when I went into the MUM office last July for my interview, one of the first things I learned was how badly the agency's Mentoring Connections program needed male volunteers.

"And it actually seems to have gotten worse," Fabu Carter Brisco tells me when I call to talk to her for this story. Carter Brisco is a match support specialist with Mentoring Connections - which pairs children with an incarcerated parent with adults who can hang out with them on a regular basis - and was the program's first employee when it started in 2004. "More than two-thirds of our mentors are women, while more than two-thirds of the children are boys."

The imbalance means a good chunk of boys are matched with female mentors. Obviously, that's no tragedy. But many boys ask specifically for a male mentor and choose to wait until they can be matched with one.

"They have significant women in their life. They have women as role models," Carter Brisco says. "They don't have men." My own mentee, KaAndrae, lives with his mom and grandma; his father is serving a life sentence in Indiana.

Right now, there are more than 30 boys on the waiting list and only two girls. And about a dozen women have recently applied to become mentors, compared with four men.

"It's not that men don't have a heart for children," Carter Brisco says. "It has to do with them thinking it's really difficult to mentor, or that they have to be an expert at it - or that the child will need more from them than just them being themselves."

Based on my own experience, there's some truth to that assessment. I wasn't that nervous about the idea of mentoring, or about potential hazards like getting accused of a creepy sex crime - I figured that we'd do most of our hanging out in public, and that we wouldn't be together at a private place like my house if someone else wasn't there.

But when I met KaAndrae for the first time, the fullness of what I was signing on for hit me.

This is not like ladling soup at a kitchen for the homeless, where if you don't show up, someone else can fill in. You are initiating a one-on-one relationship, and there's a real person whose feelings can get hurt. A real person whose feelings are already in a delicate place, if for no other reason than youth.

And then there's the more mundane problem, surely familiar to anyone who's parented or babysat, of simply keeping a kid entertained.

Like most such programs, Mentoring Connections asks its mentors to commit to spending at least an hour a week with their matches, for one year. KaAndrae and I typically meet every Sunday at 2 p.m.

The upshot is that every Sunday at about 1 p.m., I find myself wondering what in the name of God we're going to do together.

It's not that KaAndrae is particularly picky. He's cheerful and smart and understanding, and up for just about anything. In the 10 months we've been together, I can't recollect us ever having anything less than a great time.

But I still worry, every week. To my dismay, at some point in the last two decades I got old, or at least older. I don't remember, exactly, what it was like to be 12.

And so, falling back on stereotypes and clichés, I sort of reflexively assume that unless I deliver the Most Awesome Experience of All Time, each and every weekend, he's going to be disappointed and consider me a huge dork.

This, despite the fact that KaAndrae has repeatedly - and, I believe, sincerely - assured me that he actually thinks I'm pretty cool.

"My advice is to just engage, find out what the kid's interest is," Jerome Dillard says when I ask him what he'd tell a prospective mentor worried, as I sometimes am, about keeping a mentee happy. "I wouldn't be worried about being a failure, because it's about having fun."

Dillard, 55, is a part-time MUM employee who mentored one boy from age 5 to 16 and is now mentoring another. His point is one that every expert I speak to makes.

"The thing about mentoring is, it's a bit like alchemy," Larry Wright tells me. "You don't know what's going to make something turn to gold."

Wright - who earned his Ph.D. in communications at UW-Madison - is president and CEO of Mentor, a national institute based in Virginia that promotes mentoring.

With KaAndrae, it's really not that tough. Like me, he's into comic books and science fiction and fantasy. So we've spent more than a few afternoons bumming around Barnes & Noble and Half Price Books, showing each other our favorite reads.

He's also into sports, which I've never excelled at - but that puts us on a pretty even playing field when it comes to shooting baskets or playing catch. And he loves video games. I was average at best at those back when controllers only had two buttons; now, I'm hopeless, and he doesn't seem to mind.

Nothing, I think, delights KaAndrae more than making me play Modern Warfare 2 against him, which inevitably devolves into him killing me over and over and over and over, chortling mercilessly, while I desperately, futilely try to figure out how to aim my gun.

The problem of finding male mentors is not unique to MUM's program, or to Madison. At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County, 43% of the matches are boys, but only 33% of the "bigs" are men, according to program director Kristin Burki.

Like Carter Brisco, Burki thinks men might be less instinctively comfortable with the idea of spending time one-on-one with a child. "We really focus on reassuring Big Brothers about the support they'll get from the organization," she says.

What's interesting, says Wright, is that if you take a survey and ask people if they'd consider being a mentor, men are more likely than women to say yes. "Obviously," he says, "there's some challenge with translating intent to practice."

Wright is reluctant to say there's some simple reason for the dearth of male mentors, such as women being more nurturing. "I think there's probably a deep explanation that we have yet to uncover," he shrugs.

Some mentoring programs have successfully attracted men by holding mixers, where grownups and kids get together to bowl or play games and can feel out potential matches in person. "The adults find themselves laughing and realize it's not abstract," Wright says.

Other programs have focused on locating informal mentoring relationships that are already in play. They may find a man who's spending time with a boy in need, then ask if the relationship could be formalized.

It's natural for children to want to see themselves reflected in their mentors, but Wright is quick to clarify that getting boys matched with male mentors shouldn't be the primary goal.

"To be quite honest, the challenge I'm addressing is making sure every kid who wants a mentor has one," he says. "I think we can learn a lot from people with different backgrounds. So I think when we try to match on the basis of similarity, sometimes we're actually foreclosing a tremendous opportunity to learn."

Wright is certainly right, though I wouldn't say my own major learning opportunities have sprung so much from differences like race or class.

Sure, KaAndrae is biracial - half black and half white, which, as Chuck D of Public Enemy would testify, makes him effectively black. And I am a native of Fargo, N.D., and basically the whitest dude alive. But while I do feel like a bit of an intruder whenever I pull up to his housing complex in Fitchburg, wondering whether the neighbors see me as some clueless do-gooder, my cultural baggage is my own problem.

And although economic disparity between mentors and mentees is pretty common, that hasn't been too much of an issue either. Madison-area Urban Ministry encourages mentors and matches to get together for activities that are free or low-cost, as the idea is not for the mentor to become a full-on surrogate parent, providing financial support for the child.

In truth, spending no money is probably close to impossible for a mentor. "I don't know if I could do it if my budget were zero. It definitely helps to set aside some money every month," says Mike Sweitzer-Beckman, a 30-year-old who's been mentoring a 6-year-old since December. But you don't have to spend a lot.

No, easily the biggest differences between KaAndrae and me come from the fact that he's young and I'm not.

"I've got locks on that car," he said to me on one of our first outings, pointing at a souped-up classic roadster in a parking lot.

"You've got what?" I asked.

"Locks," he said. "That's what my friends and I say when we see a car we want."

Yeah, go Google "locks on that car" and you're not gonna find a definition. This is the sort of knowledge one can acquire only in the field.

I also know now that I should be checking out Death Note, which is one of those Japanese manga comics you read right to left. Although I am fairly well versed in the particulars of American comic books, I felt very hesitant - like the old, uncool guy in the club - about picking up one of these newfangled Asian concoctions, until KaAndrae put one in my hands. (The story is about a notebook that can kill people, which is rad.)

And not long ago, I learned more about gladiators than I ever did in junior high when I helped him with a report for social studies. I remembered how hard it can be to write a report when you're new at it.

One of the corollary benefits of mentoring KaAndrae is that I like to think what I learn from being with him will help me with my own kids, when I have them. No matter how much I care about him, it can be very difficult to be patient at times. There's the persistent urge to jump in and do things for him, even when they're things he needs to figure out on his own.

It can also be difficult, because we're very alike, to resist the impulse to shape him in my own clearly magnificent image - or rather, to come to terms with the fact that he doesn't want to be shaped.

Cleaning out my old CDs awhile back, I picked out a stack for him to take home. Ah! How benevolent, how humanitarian I felt! To bestow upon this young man some of the finest musical treasures from the collection I had so tenderly curated, over so many years. How he would thank me! How brightly in his eyes I would shine, like a beacon of bad-assery.

"The Rolling Stones?" He looked at me skeptically. Then he flipped to the next disc and snickered. "Prince? Prince is a fail."

Oh. My. God. What the hell, I wondered, am I doing with this little boy?

A few Sundays ago, I went over to get KaAndrae and found him in a genuinely bad mood for the first time since we'd met. He was down.

I didn't really know what to do, so I faked it. I told him he'd feel better if he got out of the house. We grabbed some cheeseburgers, and when he finally opened up a little - a very little; he's 12, after all - about what was bugging him, I tried to listen more than I talked.

I probably failed at that last bit. One of my less attractive qualities is a total lack of hesitation whenever I'm presented with the chance to offer someone advice.

Driving him back to his place, I felt pretty stupid. Here had been my big chance to, like, mentor for real - and I'd gone and almost certainly said all the wrong things.

We were about five minutes from his house when he suddenly asked, "How long are you gonna be my mentor?"

This, at least, I had an answer for. "Well," I said, "I sorta figure that at some point in the next few years, your schedule is going to get busier than mine - you'll have friends you'd rather hang out with - and you'll probably be ready to break things off. But, you know, it's really up to you. And the thing is, even if we don't hang out every week, we can still see each other once in a while. I mean, I'm sort of planning on us knowing each other for the rest of our lives. I hope it works out that way."

He nodded. "Cool," he said. He was smiling.

The rest of our lives. That probably sounds pretty serious.

It is.

Then the next week he killed me about six times in a row in Modern Warfare 2. I never even hit him once.

So yeah. It is. And it isn't.

Mentoring opportunities
Men and women interested in mentoring can get involved with those programs in Madison. Visit mentoring.org to find others in the region.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County
608-661-5437
Offers several flexible mentoring programs for individuals and couples, including school-based visits
.

Madison-area Urban Ministry
608-256-0906
Matches children between 4 and 17 with an incarcerated parent with adults 18 and over
.

RSVP of Dane County
608-238-7787
Pairs children with senior citizens and adults for tutoring via email and in person
.

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