So much for happily ever after

This wasn’t the ending I was hoping for.

After nearly two years of weekly mentoring an at-risk teen, I had hoped for a more climactic closure. We’d been to the museum, the bookstore, the campus recreation center, the mall, the zoo, the park, and the bowling alley. We’d worked on homework, read books, painted, watched American Idol, and cooked dinner. And in between it all, we’d really gotten to know each other.

I watched her deal with things way beyond her maturity level, like her dad going to prison and the death of a classmate. In turn, I, a 22-year-old college student and far from a trained social worker, dealt with issues far beyond my own maturity level. I counseled her when she got caught with drugs and convinced her to tell the truth. I listened as she told me that her mom was going to jail. I empathized with the injustice of her poor school system and lack of good options. I threw her a birthday party in a local park. I bought her shoes for a cousin’s wedding. I taught her how to play racquetball. I told her she could be anything she wanted to be. I was fiercely dedicated to her.

And so, for our last Tuesday night together, I had asked her what she wanted to do. I told her it could be anything within reason. She chose a manicure. I was thrilled. Sure, it was bit pricey, but the memory of us sitting side-by-side at a nail salon, getting pampered like a couple of yuppies would be worth it. It also showed maturity, I thought. It wasn’t a trip to an amusement park or to a movie. It was an activity for adults.

I pulled up to her house about 6 o’clock. I knew right away she wasn’t there. Her grandma’s truck was gone. The gate was padlocked. She had forgotten. I let out an ironic chuckle.

This type of behavior had been common in the beginning. I actually think it was a test of hers. She wouldn’t return my calls or show up for our meetings for weeks. I kept calling. I kept showing up. Finally, she warmed up to me and revealed that her last handful of mentors hadn’t lasted a month. She wanted to make sure I was in it for the long haul. She didn’t say that exactly, but I could tell what she meant. But not this time. The test was over. She simply forgot. I was hurt. Really hurt.

I had been looking forward to our last outing together. I felt proud that we had stuck together for so long, despite our vast differences. She liked rap music and spoke an English I needed an urban dictionary to understand. I liked acoustical ballads and was an English major. She liked to sing. I played sports. She wore professional wrestling t-shirts. I shopped at the Gap. But we had become friends, and I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with her each week. She had carved a sizable part of my life out, and I liked it.

Sitting outside her house, with the credit card bill from her birthday party expenses in my wallet, and the radio tuned to her favorite station, I felt totally dissed. Then, remembering her grandma had recently given her a cell phone, I felt a glimmer of hope. She picked up—a good sign. She had forgotten, but was audibly shaken-up about it. Somehow that made me feel better. She had just picked up a friend, and they were coming over here to hang out. She wanted to know if she could come, too.

Taking my mentee and her friends out to dinner and the mall had become fairly common over the years. I was always happy to include them. It was fun to see their interactions and their faces when I asked questions like, “What do want to be when you grow up?” and “What’s your favorite subject in school?” But this time was supposed to be just us. We had planned it for weeks. Plus, manicures were expensive. I’d only just graduated from college and was making minimum wage at a part-time job before the Peace Corps. My exclusion of others was well-intentioned on a number of levels. “Sure, I said. Of course your friend can come.”

Meanwhile, my head was a blur with mental math computations. Considering my current financial situation, I really couldn’t spring for three manicures. I felt like dropping her friend off at the corner, but the semi-adult in me knew what I had to do. I was honest with them. Well, not about wanting to ditch her friend, but about the money situation. “I don’t have enough money for all us to get manicures, but I’d really like you two to get one. What do you say?” They both smiled huge smiles, the ones where all the teeth show and you get those little crinkles around your eyes. Her friend ran her fingers through her hair. “We are gonna be throwed at school tomorrow!” she exclaimed.

As I entered the nail salon with my youthful friends, the stares started. Ordinarily we attract a glance or two, but our triad trumped them all. The girls went to an alternative middle school for kids who’ve been kicked out of public schools. They were in their uniforms, which consisted of khaki pants, blue t-shirts, and white shoes. Honestly, it kind of had a prison feel to it. And there I was, Bermuda shorts and a crew-neck shirt from Banana Republic. I sighed. Time to put some shine on these trouble-making fingers. I helped the girls pick out colors, and, having brought my camera, documented the whole experience. They giggled and batted their eyelashes, as proud as peacocks. Walking out of the nail salon, I decided that was the best way I could spend my money, handsdown. 

After dropping off the girls at her house, hugging my mentee, and instructing her to be good and call often, I got into my car and burst into tears. Sure, I was going to miss her, but what I was really crying about was the injustice of it all. My mentee and I live in two different Americas. I live in the one where my parents raised me lovingly, and I got to go on summer vacation at the beach. I went to a good school and had teachers who cared about me. I played on sports teams and had slumber parties with my friends. I got accepted to college and graduated with honors. I had a bright future.

She lives in the America where her parents gave her a name, and then walked away. She lives on food stamps and Medicaid. Her school barely passes state assessments. She’s never been to the beach, or seen snow, or even spent a Christmas with her parents. Go to college? She’s in the 7th grade for the third year in a row.  I cried because I wanted to do more than slap a nice, shiny coat of polish over her life, but couldn’t. Our last meeting didn’t go as planned.