The president was not the only Obama to make a speech yesterday. Michelle Obama was at the Library of Congress celebrating the tenth anniversary of National Mentoring Month. My father didn't know it was Thank Your Mentor Day when he took his mentee, Byron, to his suburban Chicago Rotary meeting; he just wanted Byron to share the next chapter in a twenty-year-old saga with no end in sight.
Back in the late '80s, my parents became involved in a mentoring program that called for suburban church members to mentor promising students in inner-city Chicago, paying their tuition at a private Catholic high school that would give them a good education and also a shot at college.
Byron was my parents' third mentee, the first boy, and he and my father spent a lot of time together. Byron did well through high school, but decided to postpone college, take a job and help his single mother pay the bills. But he was doing more than working: One day about a year after he graduated high school, Byron called my father from Cook County Jail: He'd been charged with murder in a gang shooting. Ultimately, Byron was sentenced to twenty years, and went to prison shortly after the birth of his son.
My father had signed on to mentor Byron through good and bad. Although he'd never anticipated that it could get this bad, he did not cut off contact with Byron. He wrote him regularly -- their correspondence is a remarkable record in the evolution of two men -- and visited him in some of Illinois's worst jails. And when Byron was released this September, my father was there to help him find his way back in a world that had changed remarkably over sixteen years.
Changed, but in many ways stayed the same, as Byron found when he was pulled over in my father's minivan two weeks ago -- simply for being the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's the chapter the mentor and mentee shared at the Rotary meeting yesterday; it's part of the saga you can read in this week's issue of Westword later today.
In the meantime, happy Thank Your Mentor Day.
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