Phase two in my quest to obtain a little sister was proceeding more or less as expected, and I was back at the BBBS office for the third time in as many weeks.
The smell of pizza hit me full on as I stepped into the orientation room, not a minute early nor a minute late. A handful of guys around my age were divided between two smallish tables with piles of markers in the center. After a split second of deliberation, I choose a seat at the one with the bland-looking white dude and a Latino guy who seemed unnaturally enthused about the hour and a half of common sense training ahead of us.
The woman in charge instructed me to create a name tag including an illustration of what I thought would represent the ideal Big-Little relationship. Button-down John had drawn, unsurprisingly, two stick figures, one slightly smaller than the other. Oscar, too, opted for stick figures, with one leading the other down what appeared to be the unpredictable road to life. Both had smiles that took up the entire width of their heads.
I set to work drawing symbols to represent a well-rounded relationship, a basic blueprint of what I’ve tried to make for my own life: a book, some musical notes, a tree. While we waited for the last couple of people, my table mates and I studiously avoided conversation, and I daydreamed about outings with my little sister. We would hear recitals at Lincoln Center and eat ice cream and watch the boaters in Central Park. I would introduce her to the New York Public Library, my favorite writing spot, and drag her along on some of my volunteer projects. She would be a test run to see if I would actually make a good mother some day, and at the same time, a throwback to the days in high school when the little girls would dress up in homemade cheerleader uniforms and mimic my moves with careful but clumsy attention.
After outlining the stones in the road to a full-length mentor-mentee relationship, it was time for some light role play. We were split into pairs, and I thankfully ended up with Oscar, whose gusto for the activity I knew would prove useful. The guy who came in late and seemed unsure of how to answer any of the questions thus far was first to bat. He had been tasked with telling a kid not to smoke pot, and as the scene unfolded, offered a knee-jerk, “Don’t do it, it’s bad!” with as little conviction as possible.
The oldest girl in the room was up next, trying to fend off declarations of love from her “Little.” The girl opposite her was wonderfully persistent, begging her to “please be my mommy. I can just come and live with you.” Again, the scene ended with an uncomfortable shrug of the shoulders.
Oscar and I took a go at it, he with a backpack strapped to his back to lend authenticity to the charade. As he begged me for money for a month-long subway pass (a $104 affair in New York City) to get to school, I offered a reasonable alternative: a one-week pass to carry him through until the social worker managing his case could sort out the situation. I got the closest thing to abject approval from our instructor, who ended the exercise by informing us that all of the scenarios had been real issues encountered by Bigs within the program.
This revelation was no news to me, but several of the other participants looked shocked, so I tried to adjust my facial expression into one of mild surprise. I knew these kids would have some issues to work out; wasn’t this the entire purpose of the program?
We dispersed as antisocially as we had entered, with halfhearted waves and heads down. I certainly felt up to the challenge ahead.