Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars

I have over 30 children. With three different people. Two of those people are women.

Are you judging me? You shouldn't be. That's not nice. And assuming?? Well, break down that word and it doesn't work out so well for either of us! Well, you have to break down the word "assume." The quip doesn't really work in the gerund form.

Now if you're done looking up "gerund" and thinking terrible things about me before I can even explain, I guess it's only right that I share a little bit. I told you last time that I had a Mentor Training File room in my brain. That's because I used to be a Freshmen mentor. (It almost makes too much sense, huh?)

That job was collectively one of the single greatest experiences of my life. For three years of my college experience, small groups of freshmen were given to me and a mentor partner to share and water and feed and help grow into good little Aggies.

After initially applying for the job, the other mentor candidates and I went through a rather involved training course. They gave us personality tests, had us act out real-life problem scenarios, and taught us lessons that covered everything from recognizing signs of stress, dealing with homesickness, and suicide prevention to study tips and understanding campus resources, to facilitating discussions, diversity training and appropriate mentor-freshman relationships. We did everything short of searching for cheese through a giant maze. (We did have to get through a corn labyrinth, though. That scenario is much more applicable to the job and the real world.)

Then it was a fight to the death. With pens.

Okay, it wasn't so much a fight to a death with pens as it was a series of essays that we were required to write. At the end of it, we had a pretty darn amazing group of mentors ready to go out and make a difference. We were assigned our children and got to it.

But the learning process is never over. No person is fully formed, and there is always room for improvement. This was part of the reasoning behind the many training sessions that would take place for mentors at the beginning of each semester, the end of every semester, and at least once a month.

We were constantly retrained.

A big part of that training was tied into our facilitation skills. On top of normal guidance and mentoring, we conducted weekly learning labs. In both scenarios, our kids needed to know that they were being heard. They needed to know that we understood their concerns and could respond in an appropriate matter.

[Enter: "Rephrase, rephrase, tie-in."]

That mantra was stressed to us at almost every single training session and always by the same person. It was the person who did it best. Her name was Allison, and she was highly entertaining. She was nice and a little princess-y, but not in an annoying way. She was pretty and smart and had one of those death stares that could quiet a room. You know what I mean, the kind where almost a second after she stops talking and locks her vision on someone you can just feel that it's about to go down?

Yeah, she's gonna make an awesome mom someday.

Anyway, her "Rephrase, Rephrase, Tie-in" was one of the highlights of training. She taught it well and it was familiar and safe. The year after she left our program for bigger and better things, someone else had to take over. We applauded the substitute's valiant effort, but it really wasn't the same.

But the gist of the phrase was that when listening to a discussion response, we needed to show that we understood by repeating what was said in our own words and then helping to bring it into what we were talking about. Not too difficult. Never really had a problem with it. Except for once. I think I was really only ever kind of stumped once.

To get there, let me explain that one of the things that mentor teams could do with their freshmen is have two-on-ones. We'd gang up on the kids in totally unfair sports challenges! Okay, not really. Actually, even with two people, mentors would never have the advantage. Not with me anyway. I lack the coordination for sports.

In reality, a two-on-one is where the two mentors set aside a 30-minute window to meet with a freshman and catch up on their life. It was a way to check-in and make sure that our kids were doing okay, offer advice and just kind of shoot the breeze. We always let the kids decide the direction of conversation.

That almost always worked out.


Over the course of three years, I had a whole bunch of AMAZING kids! They are huge parts of my life. The fact that I even still call them my kids when they're all adults should probably say something. I honestly can't take credit for the amazing people they are, but I'm a proud momma every day and I'm constantly experiencing "my heart is full" moments. Every single one is so wonderfully unique. That's a nice way of saying that a lot of them are really weird, but I love them for it.

One of my last kids is an absolute trip. She's in-your face and unashamedly herself. She's strong and independent and unafraid and doesn't care what you think about her. She's wonderfully talented and creative and gave me probably the most interesting "re-phrase, re-phrase, tie-in" opportunity of my mentor career.

When my partner, Jesus, and I met with her, the biggest thing on her mind seemed to be finding a job. She was looking for steady work, but still something that could accommodate her class, study, and extra-curricular schedule. She had been scouring want ads and applying like crazy, but to no avail. She did tell us, though, that she had found a temporary solution in The Battalion, our campus paper.

She was helping an entertainer of sorts. I guess you could think of him as something along the lines of a circus entertainer or the type of person that does sideshows wherein they lie down on boards of nails, because her job was to step on him while wearing high heels.


True story. 

Can't even make this stuff up.

She, along with a bunch of other girls, would meet up with this guy and and step on various parts of his body with high heels. The higher the heels and more dangerous the placement of said heels, the more money.

[And that, dear children, is why you should probably never find jobs in the college newspaper.]

Now imagine that moment where we had to respond. My years of training were going back to wanting to "rephrase, rephrase, tie-in." Not so easy this time. Because the response should really be something like:

"So, you've been needing a job, and were able to find something that doesn't take up too much time and lets you write off shoes as a business expense."

Which sound ridiculous and like an absolute stretch and all you really want to say is:

"So, you really need money and managed to find temp work assisting someone who is most likely a really big pervert."

I was never so grateful for casual conversation as opposed to real mentor talk. In a moment away from bosses and supervisory ears, we were able to kind drop the "nod and smile" routine and ask the kinds of questions that probably aren't allowed in a normal classroom setting. His story was that it was some kind of strength training. I don't buy it.

I know she eventually stopped going to that guy, and I was grateful. There are just too many sketchy things about that situation. And even though I still feel like she participated in something that I probably couldn't do without feeling the need to shower in scalding hot water immediately afterwards, I was thankful for her experience. The thing is, freshmen come up with some crazy things, but after that particular conversation, nothing really phases me. 

And I don't know if I ever signed a non-disclosure and really shouldn't be talking about some of this stuff, but honestly, imaginary blog reader, I think I can trust you to keep a secret.

Besides, I have way to many awesome stories not to tell them, because after all, kids will be kids. That means they're going to do and say some very odd things. And one of the perks of working with first-year students is that you get to experience those things first-hand. Everything from temp jobs assisting "strength-trainers" to near-arrests for trying to capture squirrels.

Oh, yeah, it happened. But that's another story, dear imaginary reader. You'll just have to wait.

And when I first started writing this post, the song "Handlebars" by Flobots popped into my head. I decided its lyrics were going to be my title. And if you really want me to make it fit, I can try and stretch that one for ya. Sometimes working with freshmen is like riding your bike with no handlebars. You just have to have confidence, believe in yourself and trust in your skills to maintain even when there's no guidelines. Like when your freshman is running around stepping on creepy men in high heels.

Yeah, just toss that one around in your head until you've convinced yourself that it makes sense and I am wise beyond my years.

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