When I first met Diana, she was in the office at the school where I worked for punching a girl in the cafeteria. She was furious, clenching her fists and fuming as she waited to talk to our principal and find out her fate. Of course she was letting us all know in a very loud voice that whatever happened most certainly was not her fault! After that, I began to notice her at school quite a bit; mostly because she was a frequent flyer in the office –always embroiled in some sort of issue, conflict, or drama–usually involving improper use of her fists—or of her mouth.
I began to get to know Diana and hear her story. She was failing most of her classes. Never did homework. Long, long discipline record. Didn’t care about school. Not engaged in anything constructive.
Underneath that tough exterior, she was hiding a lot of pain. You name it, she was dealing with it:
a fractured family, a mom she rarely saw who lived far away, an alcoholic father who worked a lot, previous sexual abuse, an older brother who was using drugs, rarely attended high school, and had a juvenile record. Her home had always been chaotic, full of violent outbursts and verbal abuse. Then came the new step-mom and younger step-sister she resented—just more people to fight with at home. She took out her frustration on the people around her—and on herself. She cut. She smoked. She used. She OD’d on pills and took a trip to the ER in an ambulance. She wrote suicide poetry.
I did the only thing I could do—Listen and care.
We walked laps around the school track week after week. Month after month. She talked. I listened. I became her mentor by default. I listened and sometimes I cried with her. Most of the time I felt helpless. I couldn’t change her dad, her living situation, her brother, or any of the things that were troubling her.
By the time spring came around, there were a few chinks in her armor. She was bright, creative, a deep thinker, and had a strong sense of justice and concern for others. She just wasn’t showing that side to anyone else but me.
Then came the dreadful news—her Dad was relocating the family to another city, another state, more than 200 miles away. She thought about running away. She really had nowhere to go. She wanted to live with other relatives. They wouldn’t take her. She was angry, depressed, and ready to give up. She told me she would never graduate from high school.
I said good-bye Diana on the last day of school of her 8th grade year. She gave me a hug, fought back tears. On her way out, she kicked the row of lockers, slammed the door, and ran outside screaming obscenities. I promised her that she could graduate and that I would be there to see it, but as she left that day, I really didn’t know what would happen to her or if I would ever see her again.
And our lives went on. She moved. I moved. I changed jobs. I started a family. Every so often, I would hear from Diana by phone, but she never shared much information and I didn’t see her at all.
Until I received an invitation to her graduation. I drove 150 miles with my infant son to attend the ceremony. We took pictures together with her parents afterwards.
She was glad I was there and thanked me for coming, but she didn’t say too much. It was a little awkward. Somewhat anti-climatic. I drove home, and life went on.
About a year later, Diana contacted me and asked if she could come visit. When she did, I heard the rest of her amazing story. Suffice it to say that life did not really get any better for Diana after moving at the end of 8th grade, but much, much worse. By the time she was a senior and turned 18, she was completely on her own, renting an apartment, working almost full-time to support herself, and still trying to go to high school. She was credit deficient and her chances of graduating were slim. The fact that she was alive and even attending school at all was nothing short of a miracle. Then she told me:
“The only thing that kept me going most of that time was that you believed in me and that you were going to come to my graduation.”
She almost didn’t make it. She had worked extra hard that last semester to make up extra credits just because I said I would come to her ceremony. I was speechless. I never would have guessed that she would hold onto that simple promise over all those years.
Today, Diana is a wonderful woman who has been successful in every way. She attended college, has a career, and loves to travel. She is happy, healthy, and surrounded by family and friends who admire her for her optimism, energy, and great compassion toward others.
Every time we get together, she says “You changed my life.”
To which I say, “You changed mine!”
Or, more accurately—we changed each other.
Because that’s how mentoring works.