By the time you read this, I will be back from Kansas City, where I will have given the keynote address at MANA de Kansas City’s 30th anniversary celebration. MANA is a national organization for Latinas, based in Washington, D.C., but with chapters across the nation. One of the many good elements of MANA is their Hermanitas program, which connects professional women mentors with bright young girls.
It seemed only natural, then, that I would focus my talk around the relationship I developed with my own mentee, back in the late 1990s. I was 26, a staff writer at the Boston Globe, and felt pretty good about how far I’d come. I had strong maternal instincts, but no promise of children yet on my horizon. These things combined to propel me to the local offices of the Big Sister organization.
There, I was interviewed by a social worker named Zinah Abukhalil Quiñones, who was about my age and, to my eyes, quite glamorous and intelligent. Zinah and I became instant friends, and she connected me to an “at risk” middle-school student named Nancy Brown, then 12.
Zinah told me that Nancy had been born in Costa Rica to black parents of Jamaican descent, was bilingual, extremely bright, and came from a rough home where physical and emotional abuse were the norm. I braced myself, and set off to meet this kid.
MEETING MY MENTEE
Nancy was a beautiful girl, with wide-set eyes that flashed with intelligence. She had an offbeat sense of humor, and a heart as big as the sun. She was also, to my great surprise, more mature than I was in a lot of ways—or at least more streetwise and worldly. She was as quick to counsel me on my ragged love life, as I was to help her with her homework.
Nancy lived in Roxbury, in a tough part of town, and took care of her baby brother while her mom and stepdad worked. The stories she told me of the abuse she’d endured were mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe she was still standing, much less such a loving, peaceful child. Her parents told her that if she wasn’t married by age 16 she was an old maid. I couldn’t believe people still thought this way, and yet there it was, right in front of my face.
Nancy knew exactly why she’d been referred to me (because the “system” had identified her as being “at risk”), and while she appreciated my interest in her, she did not seem to trust my intentions at first. It took a while for us to bond.
I took her to museums and concerts, and sometimes we just hung out at my apartment, talking about guys, or cooking. We went for walks. We listened to music.
AN INCREDIBLE TALENT
One day when I picked her up, she showed me her baby brother’s room, which she had decorated with hand-drawn Disney characters on the walls. The drawings were absolutely perfect. Professional-grade artistry.
“Why didn’t you tell me you could draw?” I asked, dumbfounded by her talent. I suppose that in some ways I had the typical middle-class person’s prejudiced surprise that talent and excellence also occur among the poor and forgotten.
Nancy shrugged off my compliments, but told me that she also liked to take photographs. She showed me some of her work, and it was honestly on par with some of what was being done in the photo department at the newspaper where I worked. My jaw dropped. I was stunned, and told her so.
I told Nancy she was an incredible talent, a born artist. I took her on assignments with me for the paper, and had her shoot artists backstage at concerts. I’ll never forget a compelling, unguarded shot she took of the rap star Coolio. It was one of the best I’ve seen. It was during that same time that Nancy began to sing for me, and her voice was just as incredible as her eye and her art.
I got excited about Nancy’s potential, and about our friendship.
13 AND PREGNANT
And then, at 13, Nancy told me she was pregnant, by a much older man who was likely involved in some shady activities.
I was devastated. I told Nancy about the options she had, and that I’d help cover the expense if she wished to get out of the situation. But Nancy was adamant about wanting that baby. “I want someone to love me,” she said. “Someone who is all mine.”
My heart broke. Nancy had no idea how hard this was going to be for her. She thought of babies the way girls think of dolls. I felt like a failure. I’d tried for a year to pull this child out of the difficult circumstances of her birth, and I’d failed to rescue her. I loved her so much that I simply couldn’t bear to watch her self-destruct.
I called Zinah and told her that I would not be renewing my contract with Nancy. It was too painful. Zinah understood, but reminded me that it was important to be patient. “I’m sure you had an impact,” she told me. “You just might not be able to see it yet.”
I was unconvinced. I walked away. I felt badly about walking away, but I justified it by telling myself that I was at risk of being sucked into Nancy’s world if she did not cross over into mine. I tried to forget about that amazing girl and her many gifts and her beauty. She haunted me. I wrote a character based upon her into my first novel, my passive-aggressive way of telling Nancy how disappointed I was that she’d thrown her life away.
Fast-forward 15 years. I get an email through my website, from Nancy. She tells me she is a grownup now, married, with three children. She tells me she has read the novel, and recognized herself in it. She tells me this in beautifully written English, with that awesome self-deprecating Nancy humor woven all through it. She congratulated me for my success.
SOLD ON THE POSSIBILITIES
Then Nancy told me that without having ever met me she would likely not have ended up owning one of the most successful hair salons on Newbury Street. “You showed me what was possible, and I never forgot it.”
There was a link to her salon’s web page. I clicked on it, and my mind was blown. For those of you unfamiliar with Newbury Street, it is Boston’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue, the upscale shopping district. To work as a stylist on Newbury Street takes mega talent, but to own your own successful salon there? Extreme mega talent and business smarts.
Nancy was now 26 years old, the same age I had been when I thought I was such a badass for being a reporter at a newspaper, and she was making more money than I ever had. She had been a teen mother, an abused and neglected child, and an immigrant. She’d gone to mediocre public schools and had little support, emotional or financial. And yet, here she was, a powerful, beautiful, successful young businesswoman.
MENTORING SEEDS SPROUT
I remembered Zinah’s words, about how sometimes you have to wait a long time to see the results of your mentorship, especially with kids from rough backgrounds. She’d been right, and here was Nancy, little Nancy, little pregnant Nancy, running the show.
Most amazingly of all, Nancy’s salon, NV My Hair, was not typical of that street’s narcissistic establishments. Because of the hardships she’d endured, Nancy chose to focus upon weaves for people who were going through chemotherapy. She was generous, and had found God, and she was letting the maker speak through her artistry by helping people.
MAKE TIME TO MENTOR
I cried when I read that email from her. We reconnected by phone, and remain friends to this day. I know that readers of this site are very busy being moms to their own children, but I encourage you, every single one of you, if you have a couple of free hours per week, to join with an organization like MANA or Big Sisters and donate some time to a girl who needs a friend. You don’t have to do anything special, other than to be there, to listen, and to be an example of another way to be.
Most of all, if you do this, be patient. Don’t expect miracles to happen all at once. But do expect them. Nancy Brown has taught me that there is absolutely no stopping the power of love. Every bit of love I gave that child has come full circle back to me now.
PRIDE AND APOLOGY
In closing, I wish to apologize to you, Nancy, for underestimating you when you were young. I should not have walked away. I want you to know that it was my own weakness and fear that led me to do it. I didn’t know how any girl who had a baby at 14 could pull out of that kind of tailspin. Now I know better. Now I know that lots of girls who have babies young end up living productive, impressive lives. It was my own ignorance that separated us, and you didn’t deserve to be abandoned by me. You have shown the world your excellence, and I am incredibly proud to know you.