Lessons Romeo Taught Me

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. -Buddha

Growing up in San Francisco, there weren’t many positive role models in my neighborhood. During the 80s and 90s we admired the hustlers, sports stars like Jerry Rice and rappers like E40 and Too Short. This urban upbringing narrative may sound like a broken record for some. At least it does for me, especially knowing now that I’m in a position to change that story for others.

But being a positive role model wasn’t my motivation for becoming a mentor. Given my work on the school board, my interests were policy related. Throughout my career in education my work has been focused on middle and high schools. I had the least exposure to the elementary level. Also, the Principal of Romeo’s school is a friend of mine. We met years ago through our shared interest in advancing conversations about social justice in education. When I reached out to my friend to ask about becoming a mentor at his school, he told me he had a student in mind.

I didn’t ask any questions, I just showed up.

My first day I waited in the office for my mentee to arrive. His name is Tyler (the student’s real name is being concealed to protect his identity). As I waited for Tyler, Romeo came into the office. He had just been sent out of class over a behavior issue. He had a look on his face as if he was used to this routine. We started a conversation, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was on the school board, he said “oh, that’s cool.” His questions were sharp, probing and his tone was matter of fact. I got the sense I was speaking to someone much older than the child in front me.

We parted ways. I started my first session with Tyler. Tyler was having an especially rough time at home and school. After a few months, he transferred to another school outside of the city because his family found housing. When I arrived on campus to visit Tyler for our last session, there was Romeo again, sitting in the office. The school decided to match us.

Romeo is the oldest of five kids. At times, he finds himself at odds with the students or adults at his school. I have heard about his behavior, but he’s never given me any issues. He loves to play chess, reads anime comics and wants to run his own business someday. We talk about science, he likes to ask me questions about my personal life and loves to hear stories about the places I’ve traveled. We talk about the places he should visit as well.

There are lessons I’ve learned that only Romeo could teach me. My title is mentor, but this experience has definitely made me the student. Here are a few of those lessons.

1) He sees and remembers everything: I have yet to meet someone that has done such a great job of holding me accountable to my promises or remembers so much of our conversations. He knows if I have on the same outfit on from the last time we spoke and asks me follow up questions to conversations we had months ago. I need to take notes so I can keep up with his memory.

2.) Your title means nothing when it’s recess time: When I visit school sites most of the adults behave like the boss just showed up. Not Romeo. I could cancel meetings and move things around to see him, but if it’s time for him to play at the park with his friends none of that matters. Recess time is sacred, do not disrupt it.

3) Boys need order from strong men: The most important lesson I can share with Romeo is my example, but he yearns for the type of direction that builds confidence. Those old lessons of stand up straight with your shoulders back, look someone in the eye when you’re speaking with them, keep your fingernails clean. Over the course of our time together, I see Romeo taking heed to these lessons. But I know that if I had a negative example, he would likely follow that as well.

One day, my tenure on the Board of Education will end. Someone else will replace me to take on the next budget issue, advocate for the popular new wave in curriculum and try to resolve whatever dispute is claiming the attention of our stakeholders. This work is important now and it will be important then. But for me, it’s all hot air in a boardroom unless the lives of students like Romeo are improved as a result our work.

At times I asked myself, “How will this vote impact Romeo?” Hopefully as positively as our time together has impacted me.

Book Recommendations: Between The World and Me, 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos.