By Steve Woodward
We spent a few hours together on weekends for a span of nine months. He was a high school teenager. I was assigned through a local agency to be his mentor. We both were novices — at being mentored and mentoring.
Let’s call him Buddy. Buddy was an atypical “troubled youth”. He was not always in trouble, or always pushing limits, or always back talking. He was, however, mostly neglected like so many teens denied an upbringing within a stable family. When I was introduced to Buddy he was living with an adult sister, who is married and has a child of her own. The arrangement came about after Buddy was involved in a domestic dispute in another state, which left him estranged from his mother and charged with several offenses as a juvenile.
I never pressed his sister for details. She often repeated that he was a good kid who just ended up in a bad situation.
His father lived hundreds of miles to the south. Buddy rarely spoke about him. Nonetheless, Buddy traveled to visit Dad for a period of time during the mentorship. He had very little to say about the visit when he returned. Buddy had very little to say about anything. He was painfully quiet, acutely shy and, I was told, uneasy around other kids in his high school. In fact, Buddy kept a distance from kids in the school he was attending when I first came onto the scene. It was a school for kids with behavioral issues. The deal was that Buddy would be eligible to transfer to a “normal” public high school if he stayed out of trouble. He was wise enough to know that trouble was one encounter away. So he told me he stayed clear of other kids, went to his sister’s house right after school and spent a lot of time alone in his room. He played video games, listened to music and lifted weights. I did my best detective work to get that much detail out of him.
Eventually, Buddy was transferred. That was progress. I had the impression he was proud of himself. A rye smile was the only confirmation of that. If I could get a smile out of him now and then that, too, was progress. When we first began our Saturday or Sunday interactions, I would try to chat him up. I was lucky to receive a head nod, or “yes” or “no” for my efforts. Finally, I figured out that if I endured long periods of silence Buddy eventually would mumble a question. “Ever been fishin’?” “Do you like motorcycles?” “Do you play video games?”
As time passed, there was no doubt that he enjoyed our get-togethers. His sister always delivered Buddy right on time, and off we’d go. He had a typical teenager appetite for junk food, sweet tea and jumbo soft drinks. He was the most meticulous eater I’ve ever seen, and not one to chit-chat over a meal. During our occasional sit-down meals, Buddy typically ordered chicken and french fries. He would eat all of the fries, one by one, before moving on to the chicken. We made a deal that he would try one new menu item. Eventually, he ate seafood. A dramatic breakthrough.
My mentor role was focused on spending time with Buddy away from school, so I was tasked with finding new things for us to do or see. We visited Fort Bragg, an indoor skydiving facility in Raeford (where Buddy was a willing participant), and a car show in Charlotte at the speedway. We attended a Panthers football game one sunny Sunday, and a Hurricanes hockey game in Raleigh. We went fishing, bike riding around Reservoir Park, and hung out during a fall arts, crafts and food festival. Buddy was doing all of the things I never did as the father of a daughter with a horse.
I never was able to come close to peeling away his emotional shell to understand what was going on inside of his head. I never wanted Buddy to feel he was being interrogated. Occasionally, he would giggle convulsively while we were together. I wondered if this was an expression of joy, or an expression of what he thought about his gray haired, salad eating, sparkling water sipping mentor. Maybe he thought of me as a big dork. No telling. Nonetheless, when our time together came to an end — his charges were dropped and he was green lighted to leave town and move in with his Dad — Buddy strained to look me in the eye as he stammered, “I’m gonna miss you, man.”
I miss Buddy, too. My experience tells me that Americans might consider spending more time mentoring and encouraging neglected teens and less time knee-jerk reacting to gun and other violence perpetrated by emotionally damaged young men. Just think how many Buddys are out there today with no one to talk to who cares about them.