WHEN MENTORING IS PART OF LIFE’S JOB DESCRIPTION
MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE THE FERTILITY DRUGS LEFT ME STILL BARREN. Or it might stem from my three siblings and me being raised by our exhausted, widowed mother. We really could have used some encouragement growing up.
For whatever reason, I’m in love with the concept of pitching in to mentor and encourage kids–helping to shape the lives of my niece and nephews, as well as the children of friends and neighbors.
Nine years ago, I attended a neighborhood spring picnic and met 10-year-old Eddie. He was the only child in attendance. And I was one of the few single people. All the couples sat together in the big circle of chairs on neighbor Charlotte’s lawn. I knew some of my neighbors better than others and was looking for an inviting nod or some sort of signal. Nothing. I hate that awkward feeling, like when you attend a conference and don’t know where to sit, come lunch.
But then along came Eddie. He was a cute little boy with dark brown hair, big eyes and bigger teeth. I can’t remember how he started the conversation but we ended up sitting together and talking the entire evening. The kid had an amazing vocabulary and never received anything below an “A” on his report cards, ever. Both his parents were teachers, and his nearest sibling was much older, so it all made sense. Eddie talked about the solar system and what astronomical phenom was about to happen the coming weekend and about how he couldn’t wait to be old enough to drive a car. I thought he was the most interesting person there.
As the summer progressed I noticed Eddie, who lived one street over, rode his bike every night after dinner. I also saw him on our neighborhood beach with his mother, Sylvia. They played in Lake Michigan for hours, laughing, swimming and splashing around.
One evening after work I was mowing the lawn and was delighted to see Eddie cycling up my driveway. I stopped my Toro and we caught up about his summer vacation. He politely asked how my job was going and what was new with me. I knew he had a good home with involved parents, but I was happy to be part of Eddie’s village, just the same.
I found myself trying to get home from work to be outside when I thought Eddie would come by. We had a few more fun chats that summer. He always seemed to have a hard time ending our visits; I just attributed it to him being a kid, so I always wrapped it up with something like, “Okay Eddie, I better go in now. Let me know when you get a ‘B’ sometime so I can relate!” He’d laugh and say he’d try.
Spring of 2005 rolled around and as soon as the tulips popped up, so did Eddie. I was happy he hadn’t outgrown, or forgotten, his over-50 mentor and fan. As the spring went on he shared that he was almost 12, looking forward to his birthday, and to summer vacation. Just as I was about to wrap it up for the day, Eddie told me he was getting bullied at school. I assured him it was probably because he was so smart and articulate and the son of teachers. He agreed; it didn’t seem to be that big a deal.
That summer I only saw Eddie a few times on his bike. I was traveling a lot and also figured he might be outgrowing me–understandable, with the 40-year age difference. But one Saturday in October I was out blowing my giant oak leaves to the curb and rocking out to “Footloose” on my ear buds when I looked up to see Eddie straddling his bike at the foot of my driveway.
He quickly caught me up about summer camp, his new teacher and a cute girl he had met. And then he just said it: “Kids think I’m gay.”
What the hell? I was totally unprepared for that. And who did I think I was, playing Mother Superior with this fragile little life? But there was no turning back. Eddie’s big brown eyes were now close to the same level as mine, and I couldn’t let him see the panic.
“What kids are saying this?” I asked. “And besides, so what if you are gay?”
Eddie shrugged his shoulders. “My friends, they say I’m gay,” he said firmly.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Eddie. “But I don’t think I am.”
“Is there a boy you’d like to kiss?” I asked.
Eddie giggled. “No!”
“Okay,” I continued. “Is there a girl you’d like to kiss?”
Eddie giggled the same giggle and repeated, “No!”
Of course, the kid was 12. He didn’t want to kiss anybody.
“Well if you are gay, that’s sort of like telling me you have brown hair,” I continued. “So what?”
“My parents wouldn’t like it,” Eddie said.
“So you think your mother would stop setting a place for you at the table if you’re gay? Do you think she’d stop doing your laundry or stop buying you birthday presents because you came out of her womb this way?” I asked.
Eddie giggled again. Then he said, “Well maybe if I could come inside, we could look up gay websites on your computer and that could help me figure it out.”
Holy Mary Kay Letourneau–that was not going to happen. I told him I would get tarred and feathered if I brought him into my house to look at porn. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Honey, if you are gay, your family and friends will love you for who you are. I don’t know when, but you will know for sure, one way or the other. In the meantime, just be yourself. You’re a great kid and I feel lucky to call you my friend, gay or straight. But in the meantime, how about you give me the names and addresses of those little bastards who are bothering you and I will seriously mess them up.”
Eddie always got a kick out of my “sailor talk,” as he called it. He smiled and headed for home.
That was the last summer Eddie rode his bike around the neighborhood. The next, and last, time I saw Eddie he was 16 or 17, and had a role in the Our Town Theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He was great!
Last year, I found Eddie’s name in the local paper announcing his honor roll status within his high school graduating class. I bought a card, stuck twenty bucks in it and wrote a note saying I wasn’t sure he remembered me from one street over, but I wished him well at the University of Michigan.
A couple weeks later, I received a note from my very special pal:
I actually still go by Eddie, although my parents are trying to push “Ed.” I don’t really think it suits me.
Thank you for your well wishes, the twenty dollars and, most importantly, for being a part of my life. Although our chats were few and far between, you helped me. I am an open homosexual now and more happy and confident with myself than ever before. I attribute my grades, participation in theater and success in swimming to the confidence you helped build. Keep in touch. I would love to speak with you again to catch up.
You seldom know if you make a difference in someone’s life. But Eddie took the time to tell me I did. And in return, Eddie made me feel like I had not only a heart, but a womb.
After a 36-year career in corporate marketing and advertising, Terri Connett is now a columnist for iPinionSyndicate.com. She writes, with an edge, about social justice, aging, politics, and Catholicism. Terri lives in a small resort town on Lake Michigan’s shore and may be reached at email@example.com.