Amateur Mentors

For Katherine Diop

Plod on, you Angels say, do better aspire higher
And one day you may be like us, or those next below us,
Or nearer the lowest,
Or lowest,
Doing their best

—Stevie Smith, from “No Categories,” 1950

“The way up and the way down are one and the same.”

—Heraclitus, Fragment 69

The last kid had barely walked out our front door when my husband popped the top off a Dogfish Head ale, the bottle cap pinging onto the kitchen countertop, the cold beer sighing, as he lifted the bottle to his lips.

“Frankly,” my husband said, more or less, “I think we suck at this.”

Going on three years now, my husband and I have been the volunteer co-leaders of a life skills and mentoring program for young children. These days, the phrase “life skills and mentoring program” seems almost inevitably to be accompanied by the phrase “children at risk,” but these young people cross all the social and economic strata in our area, though that spectrum is narrower in our middle-class town than the class inequality gulf we keep hearing about in the news. This being the diverse DC metro area, there are kids whose parents are immigrants from Africa and Iowa alike.

What I’ve found is that both they, and we, are equally in need of life skills and mentoring: I am forty-four years old, but it wasn’t until we were well into leading this group that I learned how to correctly do a push-up, or hammer a nail. I knew nothing about the Maryland state flag, nor had I hiked a trail in the nearby woods. Together we have learned how to play catch, how to avoid Internet predators, and most recently, how to wash vegetables safely and cut them elegantly.

I read what I’ve just written above, and have to laugh: These sound like the kinds of things one might learn in occupational therapy, in a rehabilitation hospital. (Remember teenaged, hospitalized Warren Beatty in the movie Splendor in the Grass, pounding away his frustrations in the carpentry shop? Go watch it!)

But isn’t it the case that we are all in need of rehabilitation, from contemporary life? We talk all the time about getting young people away from video games and other kinds of screen time—à la Last Child in the Woods—but what about ourselves?

Each week is also an encounter with our own patience, and its limitations: Crowd management. Short attention spans. Sometimes we feel like yelling “Shut up!”—or worse—at the top of our lungs. Afterward, we collapse onto the sofa, Dogfish in hand and think, we suck.

And the worst of it is the creeping feeling—despite the fact that we believe in this work, are committed to it, and actually enjoy it, most of the time—that it is, in the end, of miniscule significance. We live in an atmosphere where the talking about doing something, its framing and representation, the distillation of targets and benchmarks and best practices, all in service toward some desired social goal, far exceeds in importance the task itself.

Nobody, we have realized with dismay, is ever going to give us a MacArthur genius grant for leading this little group.

Think of how elite students seem to package their experiences these days: There’s the requisite trip to Africa or Central America to dig wells, but that’s not sufficient: Rather, one has to “develop a mechanism for creating more sustainable wells,” preferably one that is replicable and can be brought to scale, monetized, and ultimately, distilled into “Lessons Learned” that can be reflected on at length on All Things Considered or Charlie Rose.

Somewhere in this story, though, is a cup of cold water. Someone offering it, and someone receiving it.

The other day at the bakery in the lobby of my office building, I saw New York Times columnist David Brooks having coffee with former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee—both of them the apotheoses of this very kind of achievement. I imagined them having an epic, quasi-orgasmic confab about achievement and how best to measure it. The need to specialize, the need to be professional.

On the very day I write this, Brooks has an essay in the Times that talks about the ways that the beneficiaries of Meritocracy—whether from “Nebraska or Newark”—find themselves isolated from the rest of their peers:

They’ve been raised in an atmosphere of social equality and now find themselves in a culture that emphasizes the relentless quest for distinction — to be more accomplished, more enlightened and more cutting edge.

As I read that, once again, that Mephistophelean voice creeps up inside my head: If you stopped doing all these volunteer things, then maybe you could do something really professional and really important. And it’s hard to deny that this is the truth: Because of this group, because of teaching Sunday School, because of my husband’s guitar lessons for neighborhood kids, and the meals sign-ups I chair for the sick and shut-ins at the church, we are not recording trenchantly innovative albums or completing breakthrough cycles of Abstract Expressionist paintings—much less talking about the lessons learned in the process of doing so.

For some months now, I have been reading, savoring, The Duty of Delight, the collected journals of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. It’s heartening to read, even decades after she had become a national figure, how quotidian her preoccupations continued to be: Keeping control of her tongue. Having enough food to feed the daily breadline the Catholic Worker ran. Dealing with the hassle of the indigent who thronged to her door.

The root of amateur is nothing less than to love. Day continued to be an amateur even as she helped build the community of the Catholic Worker around her.

Let me love, love, continue to love like this. Even if I suck at it.

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  • Juliet

    Thank you for this. This is beautiful.

  • Katie

    Dearest Caroline! As Plutarch said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Three cheers to you and your hubby as we work together to fuel the fire inside of our young boys on their path to becoming responsible, caring and respectful young men.

  • Tracy Dowling

    Chesterton often spoke of the amateur as lover. I believe he also is the one who originally said ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.’
    Our age and our children have suffered from the lack of volunteers–those people who picked up where society failed. Everything is professional these days — but if examined closely, often isn’t truly professional at all–just someone putting in time for a title.
    It takes time to be a good friend. It takes time to cook a good meal. It takes time to teach children their manners, plant a garden, clean the bathroom. No one is going to get famous doing any of these day to day things. But they are still intrinsic to the art of living, of creating a genteel and civilized world.
    Someone has to care about the next generation…and of course, sometimes you are going to feel sometimes that you “suck” at this kind of caring…love, like anything else, takes practice.

  • Helen

    The truth is, Caroline, that you and Brian ARE doing things that are really professional, really important. Your dedication to being with not only your children but others and sharing life’s lessons is far and away more precious than the passing glamor of public recognition. On a Facebook posting the other day, Brian wrote, “it isn’t what you have that’s important, it’s what is in your heart”. Both of you have a love in your heart that can’t be outshined by any high benchmarks or acclimations……that’s why we love all of you so much.

  • Amy

    From someone who knows you – I would nominate you for a genius award and for what it’s worth, think you do a beautiful job with our children. How else could my boy sit down in the Best Buy guitar room & plunk out “Smoke on the Water” for the clerk, or repeat messages to his sisters about “duty to the household”? Hint – it wouldn’t be form me. True, though, is the ever-nagging doubt that our interpersonal relations with others are meaningful. I do think, though, that breaking-up with the notion of validation & tasting every second of those interactions is probably, in the end, a lot more rewarding.