By Mary Nicotera
Being of Italian-Irish descent and born under the sign of Scorpio, I wear passion and emotion on my sleeve. Consequently, many things in life make my heart swell and bring a tear to my eye.
Among those I cherish the most is that feeling I get when I walk into my mentor classroom. The 6- and 7-year-old kids welcome me with a hearty “Miss Mary! Miss Mary!” as they scamper toward me and wrap their little arms around my legs. There usually are several of them accosting me, thereby rendering me immobile. It is pure heaven.
It all started about 13 years ago when a good friend and colleague recruited me to join a group of dedicated co-workers who had quietly “adopted” Heritage Heights Elementary School in Amherst.
A couple dozen M&T employees were dutifully mentoring individual students or classrooms in this incredibly diverse school, which served local children and kids recently transplanted from around the world: China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Russia.
Some came to the U.S. knowing little or no English, and some of the locals had incredibly challenging home life situations. Our job was to try to connect with them in any small way and offer students some encouragement and support. Inevitably, and often, we also gave them love.
For the first couple of years, I mentored a first-grade class during math. You’d think a lifetime banker would find first-grade math a cinch. But back when I grew up, things were very different. We learned by rote, reciting math facts by repetition and in unison. The newfangled math terms and concepts had me perplexed and feeling quite useless.
With a little bit of help from the teacher and some tips from, yes, the kids, I was soon able to provide assistance to those who needed it. The children ate up every single ounce of attention that I gave them. And when I was fortunate enough to make a connection and earn a smile, it was magic.
The next several years, I was matched with a precious boy one-to-one, and we partnered straight through from second grade until he graduated to middle school. We were a team. I helped him with math. I helped him with reading. We played games and did puzzles. And most important, I listened to what was going on in his life and provided the additional care and support he needed through the years. I was treated like family at his graduation ceremony, an event I’ll remember fondly, and forever.
I’ve been back to mentoring a first-grade classroom the last few years. I feel privileged to have worked with the same dedicated teacher and consider her a friend. I always get a kick out of each new class of bright-eyed tykes.
As a mentor, I enjoy learning about their various customs and discovering the right way to approach their different personalities, traditions and fascinating philosophies. It’s heartwarming to hear greetings as I pass previously mentored children in the halls. And I cherish the many photos and homemade cards I’ve collected over the years. This includes the picture taken when the smart aleck boy covertly formed finger “bunny ears” behind my head.
There are so many children craving the attention that even an hour a week can provide. And I swear to this with utmost conviction. As much as I try to give to these children each time I mentor, the kids give back to me many times over. It’s the boomerang effect of mentoring, and I highly recommend you giving it a try.