Some days I wonder how I navigated through America's systems. I was the first in my family to travel through the public, private, and higher education system, the corporate business system, and even New York's public transit system. Luckily, I was able to get through them without relatively too much pain.
I got through my childhood and young adulthood by figuring things out on my own, through hard work, and a supportive mother, but there was always one resource I wish I had: a role model, an older sibling or an older cousin who had gone through the system before. My friends were able to study from their older sister's SAT books. I had to buy my own (#firstworldproblems, I know). Their siblings were free tutors, editors, and wisemen when it came to college applications and skin care routines. Heck, I had to do all the road tests for the longest lasting backpacks and the best feminine hygiene products. Thank God I was born in the era of Google, but it would have been so helpful to hear relevant advice from someone who could sympathize with what I was going through at the time. I'm sorry Mom, your Chinese herbal medicine was never going to help me ace a test...
That feeling of being lost and yearning to have someone by my side during those formative years really stuck with me. It pushed me to seek out mentors in the future, but also made me realize that there could be one less person without a role model in this world, and I could actually make that happen.
I've always been on the fence about kids. Some days they're angels and other days, they're straight up monsters (I'm sure parents can attest to that). So when I signed up to be a Big Sister, my immediate circle of friends gave me a serious talking to about the commitment I was about to make.
Being with L, my Little Sister, was super tough for the first five months. It was the first time I was dealing with a kid other than my kid sister (who I could yell and scream at), and our personalities could not be more different. There were days I was struggling to find common ground and days I wrestled with giving up. I decided to teach L how to ride a bike, but it became a bad day when she fell after I let go, promising that I would hold on. Trust fell to an all-time low.
Gradually with time, wounds heal, positive experiences and memories are created, trust is built back up again, and a relationship becomes stronger. L and I have reached a point where we feel comfortable being silent next to each other. We know each other's quirks and when someone is having a bad day. We've had conversations about expectations, disappointments, and the real world post-middle school. She's only 10. I try to be as honest and transparent with her (with sensitivity towards her age, of course) and give her the really reallies for her to digest.
We have been matched for 10 months now, and recently, I've been seeing a change in her. The girl who disliked doing homework or going to school asked me about what it was like to go to college. The girl that was too scared to get back on her bike asked to go biking this past Saturday. The girl who was too scared to swim the length of the pool without holding the wall every 3 seconds swam today, hands-free from end to end. Her courage does not come automatically without reservations, but the progress she's making is so clear that I can't help feeling proud.
What motivated me to write this was something I saw on our walk home today. I asked L if she was interested in taking swim classes so she could become a better swimmer. She replied with her usual response, "No, because I don't want to." I prodded her with more whys, she said she wanted to hang out with her friends instead, and ultimately said she just didn't want to learn.
I responded, "The moment you stop learning is the moment you turn dumb."
As I was explaining how learning keeps her mind elastic and expanding, I could see the cogs in her noggin churning. She was actively listening to what I was saying, not hearing. It was the first time I saw her seriously considering the argument I was making...
One thing I loved most about P&G was the mantra to "Turn and Pull" -- women "turning" to other women and "pulling" them in to higher positions; affinity group members making sure to recommend promotions for their deserving members. This mantra sticks with me because it applies to so many people in our lives -- someone like a Little Sister, a current student from our alma maters, or a fellow friend looking for a job.
Our country talks about income gaps, racial gaps, educational gaps... all these socioeconomic gaps and big empty words that become chicken and the egg debates or a round of pointing fingers. Instead, why don't we take action especially for those of us in a position to "turn and pull." I strongly believe that my time with L will impact her life in some way. I hope that I can help her overcome the obstacles and navigate the system that we as Americans have to swim through. I hope I can be that role model for her that I yearned for as a teen. And I hope after reading this, maybe you will consider being a role model for someone, too.