I entered the circle late that morning and didn’t even notice Brad. I found a vacant spot on the carpeted floor. He had buried himself in the couches amongst these forty vibrant teens. And so his voice caught me off guard – “I’m excited to be here today with you” – it was deep and unfamiliar. He looked rugged with a toque and tattoos. I was intrigued. Who was this mystery man ?
Brad is a professional writer, interested in teaching, who learned about Vernon Community School from one of our school’s secretaries after moving to town. Like most mentors, he had contacted Murray Sasges, a founding teacher of VCS, and they met for coffee at a local cafe. After hearing Brad’s ideas, Murray extended an invitation to visit VCS and make a pitch to the students – telling the story of his passions and what he was willing to offer the students. Nothing is promised to mentors at this stage. Students are invited to take or leave the suggested engagements offered by each mentor – our bias at VCS is respect understood as deep commitment not as compliance or politeness. When a learner selects a mentor, they are making a very important promise to learn from them for the entirety of the year (and sometimes longer). Because each of the forty mentors we have enjoyed and appreciated over the past 3 1/2 years – since the beginnings of VCS – are volunteers, our slogan is ‘mentors trump all.’ We adapt our schedules and agendas around each mentors – no matter what. Sometimes assessments are even rescheduled to respect mentor time constraints. This hospitable ecology seems to have created sustainability – positive word of mouth stories in our community and a steady flow of curious mentors. Since the genesis of the school, we have probably had 10 mentors who have not connected to our students’ interests or passions, and although thanked for their time and effort, their pitches were not taken up. Some have returned with revised plans and attracted students the second time – which also provides astonishing modelling of persistence for our students and teachers.
Brad’s pitch was very powerful. He spoke with confidence and certainty – “I know what it’s like to earn a living writing. Here are some magazines that have included my writing. I can help you become a better writer.” To be honest, I thought his pitch would intimidate many of our vulnerable learners. Busy with self-directed work, when the circle dissolved, only Nick stayed behind to talk with Brad. My heart sunk as it always does for those who come, pitch and don’t receive much attention. This young man had been avoiding writing and really anything that led to vulnerable feelings for the past 1 1/2 years, and I didn’t know how to reach him yet – nor had the other teachers at VCS. Thankfully Brad had the morning to hang around, so he asked Nick to show him any writing that he had done. Nick pulled out a story that I didn’t know existed, and they spent all morning together chatting, attending to the text, and chatting some more. It was heart warming. And remarkable, when Brad informed me that Nick was a gifted writer. Nick became alive in a way I had never seen before. I was humbled, and delighted.
We have noticed that one of the unintended outcomes of mentors at Vernon Community School is that students have the opportunity to learn and interact with all kinds of diverse adults. Most teachers, like Murray and I, are people who generally did well at school stuff. Mentors, on the other hand, can be people who didn’t succeed in school, and have found success in the world – who inspire students to reframe their potential. Mentors can be people who are rough around the edges, and who mirror and affirm a child’s personality or life experiences. And mentors can be people who through their passion give time and attention to a child who needs this kind of care before they can sustain interest in other academic challenges. Mentors bring the world into the classroom – students lives are changed, and teachers no longer have to represent all things to all students. Mentors too have reported that their bad experiences in school have been transformed through their valued contributions to VCS. Also significant have been the relationships developed and the gratitude extended at our yearly student-led mentor appreciation dinner and honouring. According to any data we have collected from students and mentors over the past 3 1/2 years, it’s a win-win, reciprocal relationship.
Nick’s relationship with Brad was observed by more than me. Now, Brad has a weekly creative writing class where a committed group of 20 – ages 12-17 – spend all morning working towards writing 30 pages by spring break. Some are strong writers who are very anxious to share their thoughts. Others have limitations which have made writing almost impossible in the past who are pushing themselves far beyond my wildest expectations. And finally there are those who think Brad is so dynamic and interesting that they are willing to take up whatever challenge he presents to bask in his attention and support. Brad demonstrates appreciative workshopping and reminds these budding creatives that in real life it’s on the 8th draft that you worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar – until then you work on telling a gripping tale – which is hard work! Brad, on the other hand, now knows that teaching is his passion, and is inspired by these interesting and diverse young people. We are so grateful for him, and he can’t wait to return next Tuesday …