Monday, February 27, 2012

Helping Violet Flourish

Ever wanted to mentor a kid?  I definitely have wanted to for a few years, so I finally applied to be a Bolder Options mentor this past August.  Bolder Options is a mentoring program focused on fostering healthy youth development with a focus on physical activity.  I was attracted to Bolder Option because of the opportunity to help a youth in need of a positive role model while being able to focus on running with her.  I was paired with my mentee, Violet, in early September.  I will meet with Violet once a week for a year.

I have had a fun time getting to know Violet.  She is funny, spunky, and intelligent.  She makes up her own jokes, and she is a talented singer/rapper.  Running is not yet her favorite activity in the world, but she puts in a lot of effort and puts up with my overabundant encouragement.

On Friday night, Violet and I went to watch her first hockey game at the University of Minnesota.  The women’s gopher team was taking on St. Cloud State University in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.   Violet was not sure about watching hockey.  No one she knows plays hockey, and as the women’s hockey poster confirmed, her skin color was not reflected by the participants in the game. 

I, on the other hand, was pumped to be at the game.  I played hockey from kindergarten through freshman year of high school and some of my best childhood memories are playing pick-up hockey at the local outdoor ice rink.  The women’s hockey team (ranked 2nd in the nation) moved the puck beautifully, and my adrenaline spiked with each powerfully maneuvered goal.  At the beginning and end of each period, along with each goal, I stood up to sing the Minnesota rouser.  Violet was so embarrassed of me during the first period, but by the second period, when she realized everyone was making a fool of themselves, she joined in and started having fun.  At the end of the nights, she admitted to having a good time, especially when she got up to dance and sing.

However, I became increasingly upset and stressed out during the evening.  Although Violet was in a mostly good mood, she periodically insulted me throughout the evening.   I was told I was lame, poor, fat, a bad mentor, a “B,” and that I wear the same yellow socks all the time.  Violet makes comments like that once in a while, but I don’t understand where that stream of insult came from.  We had a little talk after the game about expressing negative emotions vs. insulting, but I’m not sure how seriously Violet took the conversation.  “Oh good,” she told me after we were done, “I thought you weren’t going to let me have a granola bar when we got back to the car.”

I have struggled and am struggling to know what to do in the situation.  Obviously I don’t like to be insulted, and I believe Violet needs to be able to more appropriately express her anger when she is upset.  However, I wonder if insulting instead of expressing emotions is a valid and rational response to her daily environment?  I don’t agree with the way she expressed herself to me, but would I do a disservice by insisting she conform to the social values I have?

Most people who are reading this are probably thinking, “Well of course you should encourage her to not insult you.  That is obviously disrespectful and bad behavior.  How is she going to function in society if she insults people who care about her?”  An example of how harmful behavior can be encouraged by a child’s environment can be found in Geoffery Canada’s book, Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun.   In the book he describes the street culture in Harlem during the 1950’s and 60’s where children as young as six were encouraged by parents, siblings, and friends to fight back against other children if they were threatened.  Bigger kids often provoked a fight with younger kids on the block.  Even if a child knew they couldn’t win the fight, acting tough during and after the fight had much better results than not engaging in the fight.  Children who didn’t fight did not earn any respect and therefore were constantly bullied because they were known as easy prey.  Children who did learn to fight earned the respect, friendship, and backing of the other kids on their block, which was often necessary when the child left the safety of his block.  Is it necessary for Violet to be ready with insult in order to avoid being picked out as easy prey?

As I continue to build my relationship with Violet, I want to balance talking to her about treating others with respect with recognizing that my values do not always fit with her reality.  She is a wonderful girl, and I am excited to see how both of us grow as a result of our time together.

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