"Are you going to mellow out, or are you going to be crazy like this all day?"
"Crazy," the six-year-old answers, turning up the end of the word like he's asking his own question.
Erich Meyerhoffer, a 32-year-old social worker with Denver Area Youth Services, is unfazed. "No," he says calmly. "Let's mellow out." He leans against the principal's desk and uncrosses his arms. "This is the first time you're going to meet them. You want to make a good impression, right? Remember how nice you were when you first met Scarla, your old mentor? You went up and shook her hand..."
"Can I be crazy?"
"You can be crazy later."
"Now," Michael repeats, his voice tinny and robotic. "Now...now...now..."
Meyerhoffer turns to Juliana, Michael's six-year-old cousin, who's sitting nearby. "Let's take you out to meet them," he says. "Because you're not being crazy. And we'll leave Mike here to be crazy." Meyerhoffer knows that when Michael gets nervous, he tends to get even more hyperactive than he usually is; the attention-hungry boy "could have fun in a paper bag," Meyerhoffer says. Juliana, on the other hand, becomes quiet and withdrawn when confronted with new situations. Today her responses register barely above a whisper.
Meyerhoffer knows these youngsters well. It's January 2005, and he's been working for thirteen months directing a small program that matches volunteer mentors with children of incarcerated parents. (The children's names have been changed for this story.) Michael was originally paired with a female social worker. Their outings were fun and productive, but she realized that the boy could use a male mentor. At the same time, Juliana began to ask for a mentor of her own. It took a while, but Meyerhoffer finally found a couple that he thinks will be a good fit.
"He got a worse life," Michael says out of nowhere.
"He's what?" asks Meyerhoffer, a bit confused. The boy is difficult to understand sometimes. He didn't speak until he was three years old, and he's still struggling to develop a working vocabulary, often slurring consonants and mixing parts of speech. Meyerhoffer hypothesizes that Michael's "distorted speech patterns" may reflect some learning disabilities and the fact that he's being raised by his elderly maternal grandparents, who primarily speak Spanish in their home.
"My new mentor. When he was little boy like my age, he got a worse life."
"He had a pretty bad life," Meyerhoffer nods. "Who told you that?"
"Mm-mmm," Michael shakes his head and looks at Juliana. It was her mother who said that their new mentor had a rough adolescence. "Nobody," he answers.
"That's okay," Meyerhoffer assures the cousins. "Yeah, he did have a hard time. And you know what you guys should do? You can ask him questions. You can ask them both what they like to do and where they're from." Peering into the school lobby, Meyerhoffer sees that the new mentors are there. He stands and once again asks Michael if he's going to behave.
The kindergartener laughs and pokes his tongue out the side of his mouth, which is filled with silver-capped teeth. "Crazy!"
"Okay, you can stay in here then," Meyerhoffer says.
"Crazy," Michael shouts one last time, his eyes following Meyerhoffer and Juliana as they leave the room. Finally, when he sees that they're not turning around, he surrenders.
While Anne parks the car, Marc flops his thick wave of dark-brown hair to the side and looks up at Annunciation. The two-story school, which is run by the Catholic Archdiocese, occupies an unassuming building constructed of faded tan-colored bricks, with 6/6 windows chomping on dormant air conditioners. A concrete handicap ramp leads to the front doors, where a sign announces that the academy offers grades kindergarten through eighth. Below it, a smaller sign taped to the window asks visitors to ring the doorbell or "Toca el timbre, por favor."
For the past two months, Marc has trained for this day. But still, it seems so quick, so sudden, being thrust into the role of a mentor. In one instant you take on the responsibility, and uncertainty, of helping some kid with whom you have no previous connection -- and never would, if not for this program.
At 29, Marc Plaskie is three years younger than his wife, Anne. They both have round bodies with thick legs and easy smiles. They married not long after moving to Denver about seven months before, in June 2004, and this is the first time they've set foot on this quiet block along the border of the Cole and Five Points neighborhoods. Even so, the area seems familiar to Marc, who grew up in Chicago and knows the physical and mental geography of inner-city life intimately.