My Journey as a Mentor By Gayathri Sreedharan

It’s been a little less than a year since I first became acquainted with Aagaaz. It took me very little discussion/discovery before I asked to be part of the mentoring programme. My relatively brief experience mentoring two young women from Aagaaz’s fold has dealt me a few life lessons already. Above all, this – ‘mentoring’ a young person of an impressionable age, from a less privileged, minority background is much, much tougher than it looks to be. It’s not unlike backseat parenting; you have to do more than just consider, but actually measure every word and action, and be ready to be questioned, have your belief system challenged at the most unlikely times.

For starters, when I was assigned my first mentee (I’ve had two since January), I started our relationship with the [arrogant] assumption that, as my mentee, I needed to teach or coach the young woman concerned. The power dynamic was established in my mind even before I had met her. In our first meeting, I asked her for the things she needed help with, and she reluctantly trotted out answers about a school subject or two that she may need help passing. I imagined helping the young woman study on a weekly basis would give us time and regularity, and in so doing, help establish trust and intimacy.

But it was evident that my mentee found our sessions boring, and forced. I’ve always enjoyed a spontaneous connection with children and adolescents, if I say so myself. For the first time in many years, I found myself scrambling to look and sound interesting, for some faux ‘with it’ element that might engage her, but with little success.

Funnily enough, I didn’t face such a block with children her age in the drama classes I co-teach over weekends in Rajouri Garden and Civil Lines. When spontaneous chatter fails, I sometimes resort (shamelessly, or maybe not so much) to infantilization, giving funny and just wrong answers when necessary, and sticking to certain failsafe topics such as the latest movies, what’s wrong with this public figure or the other, current affairs and general knowledge. The teenagers I work with there take pride in being up to date on the latest facts. I’ve rarely received a silent stare or Mona Lisa-esque smile in return. The power dynamic exists, but that infantilization trick allows me to turn tables for a bit, or just until somebody crosses a line, which is when I drop pretences and take on a sharper tone. It’s not an uncommon story.

But with my mentees at Aagaaz, it’s been a learning experience precisely because these children already know so much about the real world. Despite my limited interactions, I suspect they know much more about the kind of performance that would truly demand attention and respect. It’s this realization that has brought me to re-examine the very definition of mentoring, and indeed teaching – indeed, the question, what gives me the authority, the presumption that based solely on my age I can truly mentor someone?

The ice wall unbroken with the first, I found a slightly more organic and genuine start with another young woman. Following my mother’s unexpected demise in August, she has offered me more support than I have for her, which has further demolished any notions I might have had about the process of ‘mentoring’. Perhaps it’s a more symbiotic relationship than I previously imagined.

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