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Friday, September 30, 2016
As I sat on a plane headed to Virginia to drive home to Portland with Rico in his BMW, I started to wonder how I would react when I saw him.
It had been four years since Rico entered the military, and we had seen each other only a handful of times since he left. On one occasion two years ago, on a week-long family trip to Disney World, he had driven from Norfolk, Virginia to Florida to meet up with me and David, his mother Maria, and his brothers Luis and Diego and his oldest sister Gabriella. The one earlier time, we had all been together had been nearly a year earlier, when Rico was home for a short vacation. During that time, I hadn’t seen him much: he spent much of his time glued to playing Call of Duty on his PlayStation 4 in the living room of Maria’s crowded two-bedroom apartment – also home to Gabriella, her boyfriend Mark, Luis and Diego.
At Rico’s request before he left for the Navy in 2012, I had started mentoring his youngest brother Diego. Just as with Rico, it had not always been easy. From ages four to his current age of eight, Diego had been quite oppositional. He had been suspended from school multiple times beginning in kindergarten for hitting his classmates and general bad behavior.
David was still mentoring Luis, now age 14. Luis had just come out of an incredible growth spurt that left him above six feet in height. With David’s help and continual academic pressure, Luis had maintained a good GPA through middle school. He had even been selected to play on the varsity soccer team for Reynolds High, the largest high school in the state of Oregon. And although university teams are not allowed to ‘recruit’ players until they are juniors, the University of Oregon coaching staff had already talked with him about his interest in soccer.
Over the past four years, Diego and I had become very close. Even though he feigned shyness when addressed by other adults, while we were alone he could carry on surprisingly long, intelligent conversations. These days, Diego was asking a lot about dinosaurs, mammals, the solar system, extraterrestrials, and many other things so detailed that I rarely had a coherent answer.
This time, instead of pretending to know everything as I had with Rico, I posed questions directly to the global expert: Siri. In my case, Siri was programmed to communicate using the pleasant voice of an Australian fellow. In my book, “Growing Up Twice,” I detailed the many ways in which Rico’s father, had been completely absent from his life, and left him lacking male role models. Diego’s situation was similar, but somewhat more complex: Diego’s father had an actual wife and family, along with a much younger mistress and Diego’s mother. He dropped by occasionally to see Maria, but spent little time with his son.
After nearly every encounter with his father, Diego would act up at school. He became enraged if he felt wronged; he could hit or punch if another student messed with his belongings; or he might scream and throw furniture if he grew extremely frustrated by an assignment.
In one of his worst fits of all, at age seven as a second grader, Diego toppled desks over and pushed them around the room before ripping posters off the wall and tearing them to shreds. Although I didn’t witness this kind of behavior myself, his sister Gabriela told me when she went to pick him up he was acting like a child possessed by the devil. As he had once taken a swing at me with his metal scooter at age six, I knew he was quite capable of it.
Earlier in the year, before changing schools, Diego had been kicked off the bus for punching a girl in the stomach. His explanation to me was that she said he was ugly. If Diego was crushed by the lack of attention from his father, who he objectified as a perfect dad in his conversations with me, his outward rage seemed activated by frustration with learning. His school’s experts had diagnosed his learning disabilities as long and short term memory issues combined with dyslexia. Shortly after we moved Diego to a public charter school that had just opened across the street from his house. It had a short summer vacation, school days from 7:30-4:30 and required students to wear uniforms.
I had spent much more time with Diego than I ever did with Rico. I saw him most Saturdays and Sundays from around 9 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Over the years with me, Diego had taken swim lessons, played baseball, and attended numerous camps for soccer, lego and Minecraft.
It was at the beginning of third grade when he began reading three letter words. It felt like huge progress that he was getting closer to learning the entire alphabet. Still, working with him on letters and words was difficult. He would cry and with tears streaming down his face repeat over and over, "It's frustrating!” before finally tuning out. He had started writing "No" on all of his reading assignments at school before hiding them in his desk.
Between working and my and David’s recent move from our downtown high rise apartment to a house on Portland’s inner Eastside, I hadn’t been able to spend much time thinking about my cross-country trip with Rico. Now I was on the plane to Norfolk, wondering what would happen in a couple of hours.
Not normally very emotional, just thinking of Rico brought tears to my eyes. I was going to have an entire week alone with him, reconnecting and learning all about his experience in the Navy.
I don’t know whether my absence made his heart grow fonder as I was, it seemed, still trying to influence his life decisions, and telling him what to do. Indeed, I had already signed him up to start attending community college in January.
I didn’t know whether he would actually go, but I had calculated that his G.I. Bill education benefits had a cash value upwards of $100,000.
And now that we had three bedrooms, our house was big enough for him to live in. Rico claimed he wanted to live with us a while, at least until he could find a place of his own. We agreed and I had gotten his room ready: it had a sleeping bag and 30 boxes of his Nike Jordans piled high the middle.
The plane touched down and I emerged anxious to see Rico. It had been a ten hour flight with a three hour layover. As I walked through the terminal, out of security and down the corridors toward baggage claim, I eagerly anticipated our reunion.
Rico was nowhere to be seen.
My Brothers Keeper Alliance and MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership have just released a 35-page guide designed to help mentoring organizations develop programs to effectively implement mentoring programs for boys and young men of color.
Note: This document is not geared toward the actual volunteers. If anyone out there has such a document, please forward me a link and allow me to share!
Diego* is nearly eight years old. I’ve been mentoring him for about three years at the request of his older brother -- my former mentee who joined the Navy after graduating high school. Recently, Diego and his family learned that like millions of other children, he faces obstacles due to a learning disability.
From time to time, and especially early on in school, Diego has experienced difficulties managing his emotions and frustrations in response to his learning style. He is a bright boy, and knowing his friends have begun to read without issue has, at times, been discouraging to him. As his mentor, my goal has been to, first listen, then talk, while encouraging his growth. Working alongside his teachers and familial supports, I have continued to help guide him toward appropriate ways to communicate his feelings and frustrations with learning.
Like many boys, Diego is very active and sitting still in class can be difficult for him. His specific learning disability was diagnosed six months ago through a series of standard assessments. Although he encounters struggles when memorizing and decoding symbols of the alphabet, ongoing work and encouragement for each small victory has been key to his reading success. Lately, he has made huge strides and his grades have improved, helping to bolster his self-esteem. His goal for the year is to learn to read and write all the letters of the alphabet and to work on his subtraction skills.
Despite having a learning disability, Diego often surprises me with knowledge that at age seven I didn’t possess. A couple of weeks ago, he told me about the Civil War. He’s also discussed with me information from his science classes, including mitochondria, the functions of red and white blood cells, and the fact that cells have a nucleus. For the past two semesters, Diego received all A’s and B’s, and his behavior in school also improved.
I’ve begun studying the emotional lives of boys. I’ve learned that as a society, we can sometimes ignore trying to teach boys words to explain their feelings and they may act out simply because they don’t have the words to express their frustrations with homework or other things in life.
I continue to be a resource for Diego − and as a mentor I want to improve my own skills in articulating, listening, validating and supporting him. Using a recent example, over Mother’s Day weekend, he became angry and started crying when the Pokémon game he was playing didn’t save where he left off. I agreed his situation was frustrating, and sympathized with how he felt. I tried to use several words to explain how he must feel. Then I taught him how to save his computer game. He played for a while and exclaimed joyfully that he was glad he had to start over because two of his Pokémon characters had evolved right away.
Two thirds of children with learning disabilities are boys. Mentoring youth with learning disabilities should be approached with patience and understanding, knowing that each young person can benefit from the support and guidance a mentor can provide. I look forward to seeing how Diego continues to grow, and will continue to be by his side throughout his journey. In the end, I am certain he will conquer his obstacles and find success using the same interest and determination he shows playing Pokémon and learning about the Civil War and the biology of cells.
*Not his real name
The book "Growing Up Twice" about one man's life-changing experience in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program will be available for free download June 17, 18, 19, 25 and 26 during Gay Pride month.
A Big Brother is a caring adult male who makes a positive impact on the life of a boy or teenager. Often these boys are what’s known as “at-risk” by the U.S. Government and educational authorities. An at-risk youth as any boy who does not live in a literate, two-parent, incarceration-free, drug-free, English-speaking, gainfully employed middle or upper-class household with three or fewer children. This definition applies to more than half of the children living in the U.S. today! At-risk children experience higher rates of economic dependency on others. Many at-risk children have behavioral or emotional problems, skip school, and suffer from a lack of interest in school and as a result, may have extremely poor grades.
A Big Brother has the opportunity to make a positive impact on a boy — and often his entire family — all at once. Studies have shown that boys with Big Brother mentors are less likely to skip school, they get better grades, they are less likely to take drugs or alcohol and they are less likely to become teenage fathers. As one example of the success of this program, the Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest chapter based in Portland, Oregon, has had over a 95% graduation rate for all the boys and girls supported by Big Brothers and Big Sisters — including children of color.
Women tend to volunteer in much larger numbers than men, and male volunteers are needed! Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest will begin matching Bigs and Littles actively in 2016. If you are a man considering becoming a Big Brother, you can learn more about the experience by reading the book Growing Up Twice: Shaping a Future by Reliving my Past. This new memoir is the first-ever written by a Big Brother on this life changing experience, and it is now available on Amazon.
One Goodreads reader recently wrote: "I kept having to look at the pictures and bio thinking this can't be real - has to be a novel. It is amazing to me how these complex relationships all played out and everyone made it work somehow. I believe the messages in this book are so important that it should be gifted to libraries so everyone has free access."
If you are currently the Big Brother or mentor to a boy, or if you are the parent of a boy, you should read the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. This incredible book can help you understand how boys think. In fact, you may even recognize patterns of your own behavior. Amazon's summary: "In this book: Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., two of the country's leading child psychologists, share what they have learned in more than thirty-five years of combined experience working with boys and their families. They reveal a nation of boys who are hurting--sad, afraid, angry, and silent. Kindlon and Thompson set out to answer this basic, crucial question: What do boys need that they're not getting? They illuminate the forces that threaten our boys, teaching them to believe that 'cool' equals macho strength and stoicism. Cutting through outdated theories of 'mother blame,' 'boy biology,' and 'testosterone,' the authors shed light on the destructive emotional training our boys receive--the emotional miseducation of boys."
I haven’t seen Rico since last November but he writes to me often.
On April 18, 2016 he sent me this Facebook message:
“Well 1st things 1st, THANK YOU!!! so much for all the care packages you have sent me this deployment, and helping mom send me hers. You’re the best, made me feel loved. I was always that kid who would never have my family come watch me at sport events, just you, and you will always be the one in my corner. I love you dearly brother.”
“So in roughly 2 months’ time I will be coming back home from deployment. I would sincerely like/love it if you would come be at the pier when I arrive… it’s a wonderful exp, and it would mean a lot to me if you could… I felt like shit last deployment when nobody was there.. part of me honestly wished u would be there to surprise me.. but we know how that went. Anyways, this time around I don’t want to have to play a guessing game. I would really appreciate it if you came out here!”
That was interesting — since last time I had no idea when he was coming back so of course I couldn’t go. I replied to his message that the reason I didn’t go the last time was that HE DIDN’T TELL ME WHEN IT WAS.
Since I do know when he’s coming back from deployment this June, I started looking up airline fares to Norfolk, VA from Oregon. Even taking a red-eye was looking like $780—highway robbery!
Then I started looking into flying into nearby Newport News or even DC. After a bunch more research I finally found a RT to Newport News (still a red eye) but one that was only about $550. With Rico’s offer to stay in his apartment and drive his car while I was there, it actually seemed possible. So I booked my flight, and hopefully his ship will come in when it’s supposed to.
Recently, while Rico has been on a deployment, David and I took Rico’s brother Luis on a whitewater rafting trip. The excursion lasted four days and three nights down the Class IV and V rapids of the Illinois River in Southwestern Oregon. The River starts in the mountains of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and joins into the Rogue at Agness near to the Oregon Coast. The only way in OR out of the 30+ miles of wilderness was by water. There were no trails except one that came down to the river at one point. And it was miles and miles from any road.
Taking the whitewater rafting trip was a very unique adventure — only 48 people each year are allowed to be taken through the rapids by the commercial companies. Private parties go, taking their lives into their own hands. Our guide estimated that only a few thousand people had ever seen these remote canyons by boat.
The first half day was beautiful and we set up camp before nightfall. Then it started to rain. And get windy. And rain and rain and rain. The river rose by six feet the next morning. We spent the next whole day sitting in our tents, talking, and eating. It was cold and wet. Since he was in the book Growing Up Twice, and he was 14, I figured he was old enough to read and understand my book about my mentoring his brother Rico. I was surprised when Luis holed up in his tent by himself and read the whole thing in one day.
Later we were sitting around a camp fire waiting for dinner when Luis walked up to me.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“It was funny!” he said with a laugh, “I didn’t know Rico almost got a girl pregnant!”
Great. Did he think it was funny because that whole episode seemed… stupid? I couldn’t tell. Luis was hard to read most of the time. He stands and frowns a lot, striking a sort of dowdy pose. Luis reminds me very much of another one of my best friends growing up whose name was Bryan.
The best way to describe Bryan was — droll. Bryan was always very sarcastic and hardly smiled but absolutely loved his own humor and laughed mostly at his own jokes. I had a lot of trouble telling when Bryan was being serious about anything because his sense of humor required that he tell you everything in a sarcastic and serious tone. Luis is sort of like that in that in most pictures he refuses to smile, thinking that smiling makes him look uncool. Luis spends a lot of time on his hair, constantly changing the styles, much like his brother Rico at that age. The main difference is that Luis’ hair is much longer and wavier. Rico’s hair was always some variation on the spikes, whereas Luis is content to let his hair get really long and wild, like a bad wig. He will even use a thin black headband to push it all up off his forehead in a floppy mass.
But we were still on the river, and while Luis was fretting over his hair, David and I were worried by the fact that the river was still rising. We spent the second night at the same camp – Pine Flats. It was a wide open spot in the river that after the turn of the century had been the homestead of a pig farmer.
After using their satellite phone to call their office the next morning, our guides Andy and Cooper said we would be moving a few miles downstream to spend one more night waiting for the river to go down to a level that would be safe for us to navigate the class V rapid known as “Green Wall”.
Along with our guides and our fellow traveler from Sacramento, David, Luis and I packed everything and rafted downstream — glad that the rain had stopped and the sun was finally coming. It was a beautiful morning and we set up camp at Klondike Creek. Our guide Andy who ran the supply boat did the cooking while Cooper set up a solar shower and the loo over a hill right next to the noisy, breathtakingly beautiful Klondike Creek. I’ve never taken a warm shower in such a beautiful spot my entire life!
The next morning, we got up at 6am and set out for a full day of rafting down 30 miles of Class IV and V whitewater rapids.
Despite having camped a bunch as a youth, and even spent hours singing to the trees, as I mentioned in my book, I hadn’t been tent camping in Oregon for decades. The thought of being out in a constant cold drizzle along a wild river was not a place I particularly dreamed of being in early April. There weren’t any dams on the Illinois. It’s an El Nino year. You never know what might happen with the weather these days, or on a class IV or V rapid with four cold, tired paddlers led by one guide.
There was only one scary incident. After Green Wall, we were in another rapid, a Class III, where we became pinned in next to Andy who was on the supply boat. Stuck between two boulders, our boat started to high side and take on water. We all had to scramble onto Andy’s boat and hold on while our guides got one of the boats loose enough to get through the rapids.
To be honest, before I went on that trip, I was a little afraid I might die. And I was afraid that Luis would fall out of the boat and drown.
Now that Rico has almost made it through the Navy, I realize how my own fears must be just some small measures of his. One time out of the blue he texted me “I don’t want to die!”
It has to have been difficult for Rico to sign away four years of his life at age 18. I don’t think I could have done that willingly. Rico is a brave man, and I can understand why he wants someone there when he steps off that aircraft carrier. He will have made it through months away from home, facing any young person’s worst fears — fears far worse than those I encountered in the wilderness rafting a bunch of whitewater.
And now literally while I was finishing up the editing of this blog post--Rico sent me a Facebook message saying that the secretary of the Navy passed a 30 day extension for him. So I won't be traveling to see him get off the ship after all.
Another bump on the river of life.
Join us as author Aaron Kirk Douglas describes his experience as a gay man mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the risks and rewards of mentoring a troubled young Latino boy. In the process, they both gained stability and insight into their lives.
Tuesday, May 24
7:00 - 8:00 pm at the MJCC
Free and open to the community.
Schnitzer Family Campus
6651 SW Capitol Highway, Portland, OR 97219
Newsworthy Books is pleased to announce that Aaron Kirk Douglas, author of GROWING UP TWICE, is featured in the April, 2016 edition of Oregon Jewish Life (click here) magazine. The honor feels especially fitting as the author celebrates the rite of Passover with friends, family, and strangers.
Author Erica Brown writes:
"We begin the Seder welcoming anyone who is hungry. We don’t ask for an ID card or a permission slip. We invite people to join our intimate circle not because we know them but because we don’t know them. Our job is to tell a story about oppression that happened because one group of people with power decided to make a small minority in their midst into strangers. You can oppress strangers. You can’t oppress friends." -- from My Jewish Learning.
GROWING UP TWICE is a celebration of erasing the strangeness between those of us who are separated from each other in a society that normally keeps us apart.
Happy Pesach everyone!