A year ago, I wrote a piece about the journey of Lacey and her mentor, Caroline, who began spending time together years ago when Lacey was about to exit middle school. Lacey has had the opportunity to learn from a mentor who is, I suspect, a friend for life. Lacey also became a mentor through her work to establish a big sister program when she was a high school student. Lacey has just finished her first year at college and returned to her hometown for the summer. Reconnecting with her own mentor wasn’t difficult because they’ve Skyped together all year long. As soon as Lacey arrived home from college, she volunteered to spend time in Caroline’s school community to help in any way possible until the end of the school year. She also sent me the following post as a follow up to the one I wrote about her a year ago. So, here’s Lacey’s reflection on mentoring as she looks towards a bright future of her own. My original post is added at the end for Lacey context.
From Lacey … May 25, 2011
I see a nine-year-old boy visited by the high school star; a ten-year-old girl mentored each week by the community-involved senior. I hear that young boy say, “I want to play football just like my Big Brother mentors.” Fifth grade students tell me their goal is to attend the same college as their role model. This is the influence of mentorship.
When I reflect on the years that I’ve been a mentor and the things I’ve learned, one thing perpetually consumes my thoughts: the vulnerability of young people and the significance of a mentor in a person’s life. When young people have mentors available to them, teaching right from wrong and showing them attention they may not receive otherwise, it completely transforms who they are and sometimes who they would have potentially become.
By implementing the idea of mentorship and positive role models across the board, students learn to set the bar high and model respectable behavior. When mentorship is instilled in each student at an early age it becomes a norm- a self-sustaining tradition that will encourage elementary, middle and high school students to develop lifelong mentors. The mentorship represents positive, extended implications for changing the lives of people forever. This is evident when we look at the lives of past and present leaders in our country – Martin Luther King, Jr., Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Tom Brokaw- all had mentors.
From personal experience both as a mentor and a mentee I know that sometimes all a young person needs is a little guidance. Something that may seem small but it pays dividends in the long run. Whether it’s a small accomplishment such as making the high school football team, or monumental as in becoming a national figure, mentoring changes people.
Reprinting Learning from Lacey: Lessons on Leadership and Life
It’s almost five o’clock on this Friday and I’m about to finish chatting with the School Board chair. One more meeting after this, one more event after that, and I will be ready to go home. The Board chair and I have had a long season of fighting funding wars; trying to preserve offering our best to the young people we serve. We both relish a challenge, but it is late Friday. The knock comes and someone announces that a young woman is waiting for me. Then, Lacey just bursts through the door taking over the Board conference room as if she owns it. “I brought my graduation photos with me to show you. I wanted to give you one, they are all the same, do you want one?” The energy level in this room just went through the stratosphere. I smile, the Board chair leaves, and the other person I am waiting on arrives. Caroline serves as an elementary principal. Unlike me, her educational week has been defined by children and teachers. When I work on dollars and cents, I remind myself that it’s for members of our learning community; for Lacey and Caroline.
We educators often are more known for our losses than our wins. Most of our successes represent the small wins, the kind that aren’t worthy of a movie, a book deal, or even an article in the local newspaper. However, it’s the accumulation of small wins over time that represents the best of who we are as educators. It’s these small wins that keep us coming back to the core belief that our efforts are worth a lot to the young people we serve. The story of Lacey- student- and Caroline- principal- is one such small win, a tale of a relationship forged in the most kinetic of our schools- one in the middle. While their story is not close to its final chapter, their five years together reflects the closing of an important chapter for Lacey. She will graduate this June. This is their story in brief, a small win in the eyes of the world, but for Lacey and Caroline, it’s huge.
When Caroline slipped into the room, Lacey’s response was immediate, a full-on happy-to-see you smile and hug. My agenda this evening- document one of the small wins in our learning community. They were simply delighted to see each other. It didn’t take long to begin our conversation. Lacey started, focusing her eyes on Caroline, not me.
“When we first met back in eighth grade… I didn’t know I was a leader I didn’t know my own initiative- but you did-you weren’t the first person that told me I had potential, but you were the first person I listened to and it wasn’t until then, that I started believing in myself. Then, when I got to high school and I was hey, like I am standing out here and Caroline taught me I could do this… I’m not anything like I was in middle school to be honest, my eighth grade year I wasn’t a very good kid- I got into trouble and stuff, I remember getting into a fight with another girl in..”
Caroline leans in, and for the first time dives into the conversation adding to Lacey’s talk.
“That’s how we met, Lacey, … one of you went to the principal’s office and you came to me from that fight. I remember you were so calm and I kept you most of the day. Your dad couldn’t come and get you. So, I got your books. You pulled pillows off the couch in my office, sat on the floor and read there and talked to me all day. You were amazing.”
Being in the assistant principal’s office for fighting is not usually warm and fuzzy. In most cases, neither student nor assistant principal wants to see each other again. Perhaps it was her former experience as an elementary educator or that she’s barely over five-feet wearing stilettos. Or, perhaps, it’s because she is one of the toughest educators I know. She’s not a quitter and losing a kid is not an option- never has been. In a student management database, Lacey’s middle school profile screamed “I’m an at-risk learner.” Her parents split up when she was seven, she’s bi-racial, her grades were fair to not so good coming into eighth grade, and she began the year with a fight. In her life, she needed a mentor. Caroline, in her first year of assistant principal disequilibrium became just that.
“We spent time together pretty much every day. Children were released off buses at 8:45 and the bell would ring at 9:00. There were so many children at Walton, we put all 8th graders in the cafeteria and I did 8th grade breakfast. It was a great time to talk with students but my memory is of the opportunity to keep talking with Lacey in 5 minute snippets.”
Lacey remembers those days, too, particularly times when Caroline would pose questions to her, pushing her to think, to learn, to reflect. “Remember you asked me to describe you in a conversation one time. Then, you said I was effervescent. I had to go and look that up. But, you know, I still use that word to describe me. You made me look up a lot of words that year.”
Over the last five years, those initial words turned drop-by office visits, phone calls, and emails into listening, questioning, writing, thinking, reflection- a redrafting of the relationship from administrator and student into that of two people whose closeness now transcends that of mentor and mentee. Lacey remembers tenth grade as an especially difficult year; because of conflicts she felt she needed to move out of her father’s home to her mother. She tears up when talking about this time in her life,
“For example, I made efforts to be the 9th grade class president- I didn’t feel supported… needed to get to meetings and he wouldn’t feel like getting me there. Last year, my Dad started finally telling me I was doing a good job- maybe to get me back living with them. It was hard to lead when I was living with him.”
Today, Lacey displays that remarkable resilience that comes with discovering in life those people who are your touchstones when you need to connect. You go to them because they are unconditional.
“I would keep a diary and I would write about it every time I called Caroline- it was an outlet for me- going through hard times with my Dad.. I just felt better when I talked with her. Having someone to talk to really makes a difference- and I didn’t even have to talk to her about problems I was having with my Dad in high school. I liked her so much I didn’t want her to worry but it was nice to talk to someone who just wouldn’t judge me- it’s been motivating to have this relationship, inspirational- I want to make her proud of me.”
Lacey makes us all proud. Today, she’s a mostly “A” student, an athlete, school and county-wide student and community leader, a Big Sister, and tutor. College acceptances are starting to roll in. She’s been nominated by the staff for a prestigious young women’s leadership scholarship award. Most importantly, she defines herself as a servant leader and has a remarkable understanding of what that means.
“Serving makes you better- it makes you selfless, and I can be selfish –I don’t worry so much about me when I am thinking about others… I feel like what Caroline did for me; being there when I needed her for me; I do with Big Brother/Big Sister, I am able to be there for other students help with their problems, I can relate… I do understand because I have been there… when you talk about me serving- it is just what I do.”
In closing, Lacey shared from a recent essay she wrote, “Plato said, ‘he who is not a good servant cannot be a good master’ and I said that being a good leader is not about the title, prize, or attention but a pact to serve.”
Caroline believes that Lacey was destined to success regardless of whether they had met or not. Perhaps it is that unshakeable belief in a young person’s capability and competence that distinguishes those who make a difference from those who don’t. When Caroline’s husband heard about this meeting and its purpose he said to her, “you know, you didn’t choose Lacey, she chose you.” I, for one, am just glad they found each other.