Power of Peer Mentors

Some of you may have seen the following post on my Facebook page:

Sometime in my thirties, I lost touch with my best friend from high school. This was before the Internet. I forgot her married name and I couldn’t find her. A year and a half ago, she sent me a message through her husband’s Facebook account. I didn’t know about Messenger, and I discovered her message only last month. We are thrilled to be back in touch. Recently she sent me this picture of a gift I had given her when I was fifteen. This is what she wrote:

Remember this?

I have had this gift from you sitting on my shelf ever since I moved into my own home 36 years ago. (Please pardon the dust!!) You inscribed on the back side “Your Friend Allways.” Just wanted you to know that I’ve cherished our youthful friendship all these years and rejoice at having reconnected with you.

Friends allways,

Kim

Of course I was very touched. I have a confession to make. When I shared on Facebook, I was embarrassed over my spelling of allways and I corrected it. Kim later wrote to say she loved how I spelled allways. To her it meant, “Throughout thick and thin good and bad, in all ways, I will be your friend.”

Now I’d like to share the backstory. Kim was my best friend at a time when the other friends I had felt like “pseudo friends.” In the mid-1970s in my small Minnesotan town, children were “tracked” (i.e., grouped by perceived ability). Many public schools today continue to track children. They go about this in a more refined manner, such as placing English language learners and special education students in the same classrooms, removed from general education students; providing separate classes for children deemed highly capable; or grouping the special education students together to make serving them easier, even when they have different needs.

Tracking became a reality for me when I entered seventh grade. Prior to seventh grade, I knew most of my elementary school classmates. In our rural town, we had one building with three floors. The first floor was the elementary school. The second was junior high and the third was high school. Since our town of just under two thousand residents had a junior high and high school, smaller outlying farm communities bused their older students to our town for secondary school.

Excited and nervous to advance to seventh grade, I expected to see my former classmates and hoped that the few I felt close to would be in my section. We were notified over summer what our section would be, and thus, where we should report. I was assigned to section three.

I had not been aware that moving to the second floor of our school also meant an introduction to many new faces from the various surrounding small towns. Except for a couple rambunctious boys, I recognized no one when I stepped into my first class. By the end of the week, I became aware that being assigned to section three meant I was in the “dumb” section. Like me, most my classmates could barely read. Unlike me, they seemed uninterested in learning, preferring to place their energies into antics. And I was outnumbered in gender four to one.

My classmates made it hard for teachers to teach. They managed to keep each class in a state of perpetual commotion, raising hands while impulsively blurting out off-topic comments designed to generate laughter. I missed my smart former classmates with whom I had rarely communicated (having felt completely inferior to), but I welcomed how they would spark interesting class discussions that I leapt into with abandon. In seventh grade, I found myself adrift in a sea of students I had not known but strangely recognized. They echoed back to me a version of myself I desperately wanted to hide.

I wanted order, control, and a teacher who could deliver a lesson that didn’t require extensive reading. With hindsight and years of working in schools, I understand now that the least skilled and experienced teachers were assigned to teach in section three. This crippling dynamic of placing those with little preparation in the most demanding, unappealing assignments continues today.

I briefly made friends with a new girl in section three named Evelyn. With her, I could carry on a thoughtful conversation. She read much better than I did and I wondered why she too was stuck in section three.

Much later, I realized Evelyn’s assignment to section three had everything to do with how those in charge viewed her family circumstances and made faulty assumptions from their observations.

The new friend I’d made in section three, Evelyn, wore shabby clothes, sometimes the same set several days in a row. What I noticed most were her rotting teeth. Desperate to have a friend, I talked my parents into allowing me to have a sleepover at her house. We romped around on her bedroom floor listening to Simon and Garfunkel sing “Cecilia,” laughing hysterically at the suggestive imagery. We were thirteen. That evening I learned about incest (without ever having heard the word or been given prior introduction to the concept). She simply informed me of what boys do to girls and that her older brother does it to her big sister and sometimes to her.

I never returned for another sleepover. Not once did I share with anyone what I had learned that night. Growing up with three rollicking brothers who I would wrestle with, and, in the early days, bathe with, to save water, I couldn’t begin to piece together what I had heard.

Section three continued into high school, although it became less distinct. We became the students not allowed into college-prep English and who were counseled into practical math instead of algebra. By the time Kim and her family moved to our small town, I was steeped in the practice of skipping classes, sneaking out and smoking, and identifying with my section-three classmates in a misguided effort to fit in and find a friend. Ninth grade was also the year we gals, regardless of what section we were assigned to, were finally given the opportunity to try out for basketball—something I had longed to do since fifth grade.

Kim and I met two weeks before the official school year started. We met in the gymnasium (which doubled as the lunch room) during basketball tryouts. The two of us were paired up to improve our passes and free throws. Kim was different from students I had been grouped with in class. She had enough confidence in herself to reveal her vulnerabilities, her challenges with basketball. My older brother played basketball and I knew more than most of the girls. I could tell she admired my skills.

With time, our conversations deepened, and I experienced being seen and heard on a level unimagined. As the weeks progressed, I realized she had no idea that I passed through junior high in section three. I could tell she was smart and unlike my section-three peers; she addressed me with an assumption that I too had a natural curiosity and love of learning.

School started, and Kim was new to everyone except me and a few other basketball teammates. We were best friends. Yet I had this group of pseudo friends that now embarrassed me. I loved talking with Kim about ideas, often from books she had read (that I hoped someday to read). I took my time to reveal to her that I could scarcely read.

Kim chose to go to the library to study or read before school and after lunch, a practice completely foreign to me. I typically went off school grounds during lunch break to hang out and frequently skip out. Since we shared no classes together and I wanted to remain friends, I, who could barely read, made friends with the library and joined her. At first, I found it boring. She was serious about using her time to study and work on assignments. In time, though, this new studious behavior miraculously rubbed off on me and I too began to put effort into school.

Kim modeled what a good student does and gave reinforcement with occasional conversation. She appeared oblivious to my initial cluelessness about what to study or read. Yet somehow her style of being a student seeped into me, and for the first time I began to take school seriously.

Kim was a straight-A student and graduated valedictorian. The fact that we were best friends contradicted my assumption, on some level, that I had been placed in the dumb section because I lacked intelligence. I found myself wanting to brag about having such a smart friend. Yet, in retrospect, it took much more than the validation of having a smart friend to resolve the damage that placement in section three enacted upon my self-esteem. I had hoped earning a PhD would put it all to rest; but ultimately, I also needed therapy. Writing my novel has become a transformational lever in finally resolving doubts about my ability to transcend what’s expected of section-three students.

My parents each worked full-time jobs while the four of us kids were in school. Now, as a parent with a supportive spouse, I have complete admiration for their efforts, as we raised only two children and found the school years to be a huge challenge. Understandably, my parents were confused by my needs. My father agreed with the teachers, that something was wrong with me. For him, learning to read and compute numbers was an effortless task. My mother, in whom I confided all kinds of philosophical concerns, refused to believe there was something wrong with me. They had no idea that before I met Kim, I was steeped in the practice of skipping classes and had been considering dropping out. They could not have straightened me out. Nor could the teachers I encountered.

The harm that is done to children grouped into predetermined categories of ability is long-lasting and frequently irreversible. Not only does it impair self-esteem, often irrevocably, it denies them the opportunity to experience a diverse learning environment. Had I not met Kim on the basketball court, I never would have found her among my section-three classmates. I often think, where would I be had I not met Kim?

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One thought on “Power of Peer Mentors

  1. Sue

    Your story is an example of a very sad reality. Thank you for sharing these tender moments with us. We have lots to learn from you.

    Reply

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