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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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BEING A "BIG SISTER"

Growing Up

Carina Lewis

I’ve now had eight meetings with Mary (the 16-year-old I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters) and I feel we’re really beginning to connect. Sometimes we've only met for a short time for a coffee and once or twice she’s been busy with other important things (such as getting her hair plaited!) so we've just had a quick chat. However, I asked the home-mother, who is the lady who runs the house where Mary lives, if I could take her to my house for a visit and permission was granted.

It so happened that my daughter (aged 21) and son (aged 17) from the UK were visiting me and I think it really helped to break the ice for her to see me with my own children. There’s always a lot of laughter and teasing and we have a very close and equal relationship so she was able to witness this at first hand and realise that she can relax with me. We walked on the beach and she chatted to both of them separately as well as to me. Afterwards we had a drink at my house and she told me she was in no hurry to return to the home.

I was wondering how I would have felt if I had to share my house with a bunch of comparative strangers all the time when I was sixteen years old. Mary shares her bedroom with two other girls, one of whom she doesn’t get on with too well. Sometimes there are arguments and occasionally physical fights between them. At first I was a bit shocked but then I realised that very similar incidents can happen in any group if people are a bit stressed or feeling vulnerable.

It must be difficult never having any privacy and always having to share the TV viewing with six other people who may not want to watch what you want. Mealtimes must be noisy too and if you decide you want to cook (which Mary enjoys doing) you have to cook enough for everyone in the house otherwise you’re seen as selfish. I have nothing against sharing, but I can see that you must sometimes want a bit of space of your own and to do things which are for you and not always for the whole house. I suppose it must be the same living in any large family, but somehow if you’re sharing with your siblings it’s something you are more used to.

I think that was partly why she was enjoying being at my home, even though my kids were there. It worked so well that our next meeting was at my house again. This time there were no other people her age around, but we baked some banana bread together and then I gave her a driving lesson up and down a quiet road. Mary was so excited and nervous, but I was proud of how well she did. She listened very attentively and did exactly what I told her. After half an hour she was changing gears and pulling over and stopping with hardly any problem at all.

Learning to drive is extremely difficult. We all forget about those first lessons we had once we've driven for years. Remember when you’re trying to do different things with your left and right foot, thinking how to change gear with one hand; steering with the other and trying to make sure you don’t hit the kerb or a pedestrian at the same time? The brain struggles to take it all in, but with time and practice it becomes automatic.

In some ways growing up is the same kind of thing and the most difficult time is when you’re in your teens “that halfway house between childhood and adulthood. No wonder teenagers can seem weird, or problematic. They’re trying to make sense of all the information they've received over the years and to do the right things, but they have a complete lack of experience, some strange physical changes to deal with and one foot still wanting to stay in the safety of childhood.

Spending time mentoring Mary is helping me to remember some of those things when I was that age. Of course, it was a lot easier then too. There weren’t so many pressures and the world didn’t seem as frightening as it does to young people now. Nowadays it’s hard enough if you’re growing up in the security of a loving home with the support of parents. It must be so much more frightening and lonely if, like Mary and many other young people, you know that once you turn eighteen you may have to leave your home and completely fend for yourself without any back up or help. It's not surprising so many of those kids end up homeless, or in prison, or as single mothers.

Mary has been boasting to her schoolmates about how she’s learning to drive and she’s talking about saving money from a part-time job to buy herself a car in a year or two. It feels good to know that she’s starting to set herself some goals. Meantime I shall make sure she learns to drive properly and safely and hope I will be there to support her when she takes her driving test – one of her first big steps into the adult world – and when she takes some of the other big steps as well.

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