Marifran Korb

CONNECTION

by on Mar.25, 2010, under Random Writings on Relationship

Connection is powerful. Omnipresent, it is ready for us to just reach for it. One person who did not believe in connection was a sullen 14-year old girl who was in the Youth-At-Risk Program.*  Since I had recently left my job and left my husband, I definitely was not looking to volunteer for this yearlong commitment. Yet, there I was. After Natalie’s difficult behavior, her mentor quit before the program started. No adult was willing to take her on, so it was either no one, or I.

Raised by her grandmother who died two years earlier on Natalie’s twelfth birthday, Natalie had been shuttled around to live with whatever relative had the temerity to take her in. Her mother’s current lover had shot her young mother. Her father was in jail for another 3 years for robbery. She moved five times that year. With just a spoonful more stability, I moved three times in the same period.

Natalie’s first communication to me was that I was too short, too white and too old. I had to pull the sword out of my heart on that last part.

Our first scheduled meeting was memorable. She had planned on ditching me before I could find her. Deliberately she gave me a bogus street number on a very busy street. Since her aunt’s last name was not the same as Natalie’s, I could not find her in the phone book. As soon as I left the public phone booth, it started to rain.   Walking back to my car to get my umbrella, I considered my options.   Discovering that I had locked myself out,  there was no turning back.

Remembering that another mentor had mentioned that Natalie lived on that busy street,  I asked a small boy if he knew her.  Natalie lived on the top floor of the corner building, he assured me.  A fortress of four floors, the red brick building itself absorbed the odor from a garbage-strewn courtyard. There was no doorbell to alert anyone that I was there. By then, the rain poured out in endless buckets and the odor of the garbage was getting more foul. My hair was already soaked, and my sandals were getting squishy.  I was in no position to wait around. There had to be another entrance.

After finding a tall child, I started climbing the fire escape that had been out of reach for me, though not for the pre-teen.

People on all the lower floors came out of their windows and screamed, wanting to know what I was doing. They said they’d get Natalie. Yes Natalie, the teen that did not like being found, came out to get me. She brought me in with the air of one who had been outsmarted … this time. Whenever I called after that, her grandfather answered the phone and yelled loudly: “It’s that crazy white woman.”

She tested me all along the way that bumpy year. At times she growled menacingly that she could beat me up. Never doubting that she could, I gazed at her unflinchingly without comment.

Our conversations were curious. One of our agreements and obligations of the program was to meet with other mentors and youths in the Youth-At-Risk Program. The day before each all- day Saturday session, I’d inform her of the next program, the new great speaker and the reason she would want to hear the valuable information. Her response was: “I’m not going.” Ignoring that, I’d keep rhapsodizing about the other youths that would be there, what benefit was in it for her, and what time I’d pick her up. She’d repeat: “I’m not going,” exactly as Poe’s Raven reiterated “Nevermore.” After several rounds of this, I’d depart cheerfully reminding her: “Be outside by the curb at 9 AM when I pick you up.” Getting the last word, Natalie would say: “I’m not going” as I waved good-bye.

Most Saturdays at 9, she’d be waiting at the curb. I never acted surprised, though I always allowed extra travel time in case I had to chase her down.

Through the year there were many challenges and ample unwelcome surprises in our relationship. At the end of the year I was astonished when I heard her insist that the other youths should vote me the title of Most Dedicated Mentor. It was a revelation that Natalie admired my commitment and determination. I didn’t let her get away with her behaviors and I never shamed her either. We were connected. Though she disappeared soon after the year was up, we were never separated and remain together on some level.

* The Youth At Risk Program was an international organization that made a difference to at-risk teens.  It no longer exists as it originated.  In every city where it existed, crime rates were reduced.

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