I am good with children. And I’m not just saying that — there’s real evidence. I ran a summer camp for little kids when I was fifteen. I tutored 12-year-olds at my synagogue for seven years, and once I overheard one of them in the hall saying to her friend, “Kate is the coolest teacher. You’ll see, when you get her next year.” I felt like I’d just won a gold medal for being awesome at life. Or, you know, teaching.
I like kids. I want to have them one day. I feel strangely confident when I think about being a mother. More confident than I feel when I’m faced with something like weird colored water coming out of the shower or the question of which recycling bin to put the egg carton in. Raising an entire child? Bring it.
But something just happened to me that has shaken my confidence and tested my faith. Big Brothers Big Sisters rejected me.
I am apparently unfit to spend time with an inner-city girl who needs a mentor. Because I am not mentor material. I don’t know why, and I’m afraid of the answer: I might also have a problem with bad breath. Psychotic tendencies. A depressingly dour countenance. The potential to launch into passionate diatribes about how “the liberals are running this country into the ground—look at all the immigrants we have here now.” I can’t tell you because I don’t know myself anymore. BBBS has shredded my self-image.
I was thrilled, at the information session. This is right, I thought. I am supposed to be doing this. I’ve been so selfish, writing all day long, sitting at my computer while this big, tumultuous city rushes by outside my window. (Well, technically, outside my window is a brick wall. But beyond that wall…) It was the first time in a long time I felt like I was doing something for all the right reasons.
I felt like I was waking up out of a career-obsessed haze. I suddenly wanted to make an impact — a real one. To have someone make an impact on me. To show a little girl the parts of the city that I loved but didn’t have time to go to anymore, because I was too busy getting ahead. I wanted to slow down. I wanted to learn this girl’s story — whoever she might be — I wanted to get to know her. I wanted to share with her my love of words, because maybe that girl would like to write, too. I wanted to listen. TO LISTEN! Is that not the height of maturity? I had lots of very sound reasons for wanting to be a Big Sister, and I went in feeling good.
I did an hour-long interview with a social worker. He asked me about my sex life. Had I ever had sex I didn’t want to have? I answered him honestly. We talked about my family (“Oh, my brothers! We’re so close! They’re some of my best friends! Of course, we have our little fights — Jake’s stubborn, and I’m stubborn, and Gabe’s in a frat now, which is hard for me to understand, because I always thought frats were creepy, but it works for him, so I support him in that… But they’re hilarious!”), and about my expectations. We talked about religion, about what I thought kids needed. I felt like I was acing it. I talked about kids needing attention, real persistent attention. He asked me to describe myself in a few words. I stumbled briefly, but I picked “sensitive,” as one of them, which is accurate, and also, I thought, good for mentorship, right? I shared my concerns with him — what if I wasn’t what the girl had hoped for? He asked me how I’d react if she talked about smoking pot, having sex, getting raped, being bullied. I tried to think each scenario out carefully before I answered. I would listen. I would be there for her. I would report instances of abuse to the caseworker overseeing our relationship. I would try to get her the help she needed.
I filled out form after form. They fingerprinted me. My rabbi wrote a recommendation. And my husband, and one of my friends. They had to fill out a lot of paperwork, too. My rabbi said, “I’m so glad you’re doing this. This is really the right thing to do. I think it’ll be an amazing experience.”
And then there was the mandatory workshop, where we went over scenarios again. I participated a lot.
I came home buzzing with excitement.
And then I waited.
And began to worry, a little. Maybe it was just taking a long time to process all of my information.
And then, yesterday, there were two pieces of mail for me. A jury summons from Brooklyn’s supreme court, and a thin envelope from Big Brothers Big Sisters. My husband grabbed it and ripped it open.
“Read it!” I said, in an excited voice, but my stomach knotted. We all know what a thin envelope means.
“Oh, honey,” he said, his face falling. “I’m so sorry.” He looked up at me, stricken, the letter stuck in his hands. We stood there, on either side of the kitchen counter, awkward, my failure in between us.
The letter began, “Dear Kate, It is with regret that I have to inform you that your application to become a volunteer Big has been declined.”
I didn’t know that volunteers could be rejected. I felt like a drug-dealer. I felt like the college I thought I’d get into had rejected me. I wondered if the FBI had uncovered something incriminating in my records. If someone had stolen my identity briefly. If I have committed horrifying crimes in my sleep.
If so, the world was safe that night. I lay awake in bed, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. I’m too nerdy. They want mentors who are more outgoing, to inspire the kids. I said that stuff about how well my family gets along. He thought I was lying! He thinks no one is really good friends with their brothers! I don’t understand strife! I have no perspective! My life is too easy! I answered that question wrong! They asked what I’d do if the girl wanted rollerblades, had always wanted them, and couldn’t afford them. I said we could rent them and then later I might buy her a pair. WRONG! NEVER BUY THE KID GIFTS! I was supposed to tell her to save her money for them. That was it. That is why I’m not fit to spend time with the underprivileged children of this city.
I wanted to write to the program director, and ask why. I wanted to say, “But I would have been great! Why didn’t you give me a chance?” And then maybe beg a little. But the letter said, “In accordance with long-standing agency policy, BBBS of NYC does not supply reasons why a decision is made.”
I stared at the letter. It had a long, long list of “officers” and “trustees” running down the left side of the paper. So many people who got to be involved in the noble work of helping children succeed. I will not be among them.
I am not allowed to volunteer.
So instead of looking for another program or heading over to the nearest soup kitchen, I’ve returned to my selfish little life. I write, and I write, and occasionally I glance up at the brick wall outside the window. And then, just today, I read a brief piece by Michael Musto in a Village Voice blog. He wrote about getting rejected from BBBS. Suddenly, I felt better.
I threw out the rejection letter.
“The power to change lives” reads the subtitle, on the letterhead. Clearly, I will have to find some other power. Like, master recycler. Or grilled-cheese maker extraordinaire (it’s true). Or maybe just “good with words.”