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123 MAY 2009
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Relationship Building

Carina Lewis

Soon I'll be doing my training to become a mentor to a disadvantaged child. Iíve been thinking about the word ďmentorĒ and what it will entail. Iím wondering how the relationship will develop and how difficult it might be for a child to build up trust in someone when they've been badly let down in the past. I keep imagining a surly uncommunicative youth I canít relate to at all. How would I deal with that? But then I do have an inkling of what to expect, having spent a few years as a driving instructor to 17-year olds.

The funny thing about being in a car with a teenager is that they start to talk to you. Itís something about there not being any eye contact so they find it easier to open up. During the first few driving lessons conversation was by necessity somewhat limited due to tension and anxiety. It consisted of quiet screams of ďAaarrrghĒ, ďItís going to hit us!Ē, ďSTOP!Ē and a variety of expletives.

I remember one of my pupils, who eventually passed her test on her fourth attempt (and then I think it was because the examiner couldnít face a fifth). We were waiting to go left at a T-junction. After about five minutes the pupil was still manically glancing left and right, obviously blinded by panic since there were no cars in either direction. I suggested that perhaps it was time to move forward so we did. She executed a lovely left turn but as I started to relax she put her foot down on the accelerator and forgot to straighten up. My life flashed before me as we hurtled further leftwards at speed up a steep grass bank and missed a lamp-post by half an inch before jerking to a stop. The pupil turned to look at me with terror etched on her features. I gave what I hoped was a reassuring kind of chuckle, which came out more like a sob. ďNever mindĒ, I said soothingly. ďThese things happen. Now let me explain how weíre going to get back down the bank ...Ē

Most days I returned home with a pounding heart, poured myself a stiff drink and needed all evening to return to my usual level of anxiety (which was already slightly exacerbated by being a single parent to three teenagers of my own).

But I digress. What I really wanted to say was that, as the driving became more relaxed and, on my part, consisted of no more than fingernails digging into the seat and my periodically stamping an imaginary brake, the conversation would start to flow. It amazed me how much these teens would confide in me. I heard all the boyfriend problems, the parent problems, the drink and drug explorations, the schoolwork hassles and so on and so forth. I found myself advising because it seemed that I had no choice. It seemed to be what they wanted me to do. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Me: Thatís great Nora. You pulled away beautifully there. Just be a bit more careful about the speed of oncoming cars. Only pull out if youíre absolutely sure you have time. The man behind us now is a bit annoyed.

Nora: Oh, sorry, he didnít seem to be going that fast.

Me: Donít worry he can see your L plates so he knows why you made a mistake. (Meanwhile the man in question would be throwing V signs and hammering his steering wheel with his fists).

Nora: Iím not feeling quite myself today actually.

Me: Oh, dear .... into third .... whyís that? Any particular reason? .... Mind the cyclist .... oops...Itís all right he just wobbled a bit. I can see youíre not concentrating as well as usual.

Nora: I had a really shitty night last night. My mum and dad had a row and he hit her ... do I keep going straight on?

Me: Yes, then left at the next turn .... He hit her? That must have been terrible for you. Has it happened before?

Nora: Well ... quite often actually. Now heís packed his suitcase and left home and mum keeps crying and itís my exams in two weeks and my sisterís been caught shoplifting .... did you say left? ... and I donít know what to do...

Me: Okay. Hold on a minute. Keep your eyes on the road. Try not to cry because you wonít be able to see properly. Now weíll pull over and stop on the left. Mirror, signal ...donít forget to check your left wing mirror .... now gently does it. Thatís right. Ooops a bit close to the kerb. Donít worry. I'll pick up the hubcap in a minute. Okay. Turn the engine off. Now would you like to talk about it all ...your problems I mean?

Nora: Yes please. I donít think I can drive any more today. I canít think straight.

I would spend the rest of the lesson listening, commiserating, making practical suggestions and mopping up tears, after which I would drive the pupil home. In fact, it was these experiences that led me to train as a life coach. I became a confidante to so many of my pupils and some of them are still my friends. Up until then Iíd assumed that a lot of teenagers just werenít interested in what old people like me had to say. I couldnít have been more wrong. All teenagers need someone older they can look up to and talk to openly. If theyíre lucky it can be one or both of their parents, but often the last person they want to confide in is a parent, especially if the parent has problems of his or her own.

So, I suppose to start with being a mentor will be a bit like building a relationship with my driving pupils. It'll be more about listening than talking, more about showing an interest than telling them what to do, more about caring than lecturing. It'll be about emotional support and being a role model where there have been none. Where it goes from there will depend hugely on what kind of relationship we build together.

Perhaps I donít need to feel so apprehensive. After all I have some past experience of this kind of thing. Hmm. Perhaps I should take my mentee on some drives through the countryside. Only this time I'll be driving.

* * *

Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

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