Reading is perhaps the most vital skill which all youth must possess. And yet the vast majority of the young men I have mentored do not read. Some, very few at that, become avid readers later in life once the school of hard knocks has dealt them some serious lessons. But could this be the great deterrent to those hard knocks?
We will never know. In most cases, they have had no example of the benefits of reading or of books in their lives. Most of the homes I have ventured into are devoid of books. Children that read are usually the offspring of parents who value reading. It will difficult to be a student of life without an interest in reading.
When given the choice between hiring someone who is “smart” and someone with good work ethic, the latter wins every time. There is no sin in being smart or trying to be smarter, but the point is that very few people who are “smart” have poor work ethic. Most of the smart people I have met in my life are people who work hard.
Even in the classroom, I have found the same result. The majority of the teens I have known over the years, the ones who are “smart,” work very hard to earn the grades they receive. I have wondered this outloud for years, “funny how the harder a high school student works, the smarter he is.” Yes it is interesting, indeed.
Living and existing are not the same thing. Many of the young men and women I have mentored have dropped out of high school. Out of the ones I have stayed in touch with most of them have struggled to makes a modest living. Their lack of preparation has left them with minimum wage jobs or dead end jobs.
An education is not an end-all and does not guarantee financial success, but it does open doors of opportunity. Most of my young friends covet a life of excitement and do their best to be happy, but when one lives from paycheck to paycheck or as they say “hand to mouth” there is very little to look forward to other than another day working marathon hours to survive. This is not living. It is merely existing.
There is no such thing as an expert on youth. Youth culture is dynamic and therefore shifts continuously. It is always troubling to meet someone who presents themselves as an expert in youth, or makes a claims to know everything there is to know about youth. I much prefer the person who is asking questions, absorbing feedback, reading and opining.
Youth culture continuously shifts, it changes, it is dynamic. The most popular art form with youth culture continues to be music, however reading has also gained great strength; just ask our friend Harry Potter. Rap music has also produced a new and unique brand of poetry and poems. All of this has happened within youth culture. The best we can hope to accomplish in terms of expertise is to be dedicated students of youth culture.
A day in court can emphasize the need to have purpose in your life. For many of my middle class friends the idea that one needs to have purpose in one’s life is a no-brainer. It’s one of those statements that will be met with a sarcastic remark. Something along the lines of, “no kidding,” or worse.
This is not the case for many of the young men and young women I have seen in court. Far too many live in state of stunted animation. There is no planning for a better tomorrow. What comes along, comes along. For many that something is idle time, which indeed is the devil’s workshop. Even if there are thoughts of a goal there is no hurry. Entertainment is king and so goals can wait.
What is success? Is it obtaining material wealth? If this is the case then some of the greatest leaders the world has ever known failed. Jesus of Nazareth, Oskar Schindler and Mother Teresa died penniless or pretty close to it. Yet one cannot say they were not successful in their life’s work.
Is it fame or how about education? Does getting into a prestigious university make one successful? Or is success merely a fanciful word we throw around, but we really don’t know what it is? Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places.
Success will only be found if one first explores the reasons for our existence. We must search for our purpose and understand what our passions are. In short we must have a dream. And finally we must grasp what our gifts and talents are.
One of my young mentees understood it best. This is what he wrote me in a letter from prison, “Augie, it has been said that a man is not ready to live until he finds a purpose to die for. I just want you to know that I am now ready to live.” Well said.
Success is to live your dream.
Mentoring at-risk youth requires much self-education. A good place to begin is to learn what the job is and isn’t. To start with, the mentor should never be primarily a tutor. To do so is a mistake. When a mentor approaches his job as a tutor it tells me he doesn’t understand his mentee or the job.
The first and foremost, the job of the mentor in this setting is to begin the task of learning the primary issues in the life of his mentee. This is a difficult job because most mentors arrive with good intentions, dramatic stories, and a mission to “help” their mentee change. Reality says listen twice as much as you speak and when you do speak ask questions 90% of the time.