Empty Nest Cure: Texas Mother Finds Meaning as a Mentor
Resource type: News
The Wall Street Journal |
By SUE SHELLENBARGER
After children leave home, many parents with empty nests must search hard for new pursuits to give their lives meaning. After Pat Rosenberg’s two daughters left for college, Ms. Rosenberg, 61, a longtime volunteer in the Houston public schools, found new purpose in mentoring a student — a poor teenager who, by his own account, was drifting toward a life of crime in his tough inner-city neighborhood.
In his unusual relationship with Ms. Rosenberg and other adult mentors, Tristan Love, now 18, says he found the strength to turn his life around, becoming a sought-after public speaker committed to attending college and pursuing a career in law. Ms. Rosenberg tells the story:
The Challenge: “We moved to Houston in 1986 for my husband David’s career, before our two daughters entered school. I got deeply involved in the schools right away and stayed involved as our daughters’ grew up. I was a room mother and headed the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) in both middle school and high school. When they were at school, I was often at school, too.
“After our second daughter left for college 2-1/2 years ago, our house became incredibly quiet. It was a real period of adjustment. All of a sudden, this person who has been sitting at your dinner table with you, and going out and coming home late, and keeping you worried all the time, is gone.
A New Venture: “I’m on the board of the Houston arm of Communities in Schools [CIS], the nation’s largest dropout-prevention organization. It was in that capacity that I first noticed Tristan Love, at a pizza party. Tristan was 16 then, and very standoffish, very aloof. He was looking around and summing everybody up, evaluating everything. I learned he’d moved repeatedly, had been kicked out of a previous school and had seen a friend die in a gang shooting. He was living with his father and they’d just lost everything in a house fire. Communities in Schools had given him books and clothes.
“CIS had just sent him as part of a group to a national youth conference in Minneapolis, where he learned about the ’40 Developmental Assets,’ an approach by Dr. Peter Benson to helping youth succeed. Dr. Benson’s emphasis on kids’ need for caring, supportive relationships with adults put into words what I’d always tried to do as a volunteer — to make all the kids feel valued. As PTO president, I helped develop programs to give parents more of a role in school. Students need to see adults caring about them. That idea, of the importance of caring relationships, really took hold with Tristan.
“After that conference, I saw Tristan speaking to a group about a peer-support project he’d started at his school. I think in the past, he’d been a leader, but in a negative way on the streets. He was beginning to see he could be a positive leader. He’d never spoken in public before. But when you put him in front of an audience, he has charisma, and a spark. He’s able to speak from the heart.
“When I was invited to speak at a state conference of 150 school and government officials in Austin, I asked Tristan to go with me and speak. He said, ‘I’d love to. What should I wear?’ On the way, I asked him, ‘Tristan, do you know what you’re going to talk about?’ He said, ‘Yes, Miss Pat, don’t worry.’ I asked him, ‘Are you a little nervous?’ He said yes. I was a little nervous myself. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“When I introduced him, he asked me for the lapel mike, put it on and started walking around, telling this incredible story. He spoke about how supportive relationships with adults can change the life of a teenager and a community.
“When it was over, people were crying. Tristan said, ‘I feel so bad’ that people were crying. That was foreign to him, that people would care that much about his story. I said, ‘That’s a good thing. You bring out the emotion in people.’
“I also took Tristan to speak at our church and at a national conference. His story carries a lot of weight with youth. Our daughter said, ‘Mom, he’s like a rock star.’
“Tristan and I became very close. I saw him a couple of times a week, talking to his counselor at Booker T. Washington High, helping him get applications in for scholarships and colleges, including Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. I had to be that nagging mother. He handwrote one scholarship application and faxed it to me, and I said, ‘No, Tristan, I want it typed.’ So he stayed up all night and typed it.
“Tristan was invited to a formal and didn’t have money for a tuxedo. I said, ‘If you want to come do some chores, I’ll give you the $60 for the tux.’ It was Christmas, so David and I had Tristan help us decorate the tree and hang the outside lights. We talked about family traditions; he really didn’t have any. Our kids were home, so on Christmas Eve we picked up Tristan so he could have lunch with us. We gave him the only Christmas present he received, a sweater. We also have him on our cellphone plan because I want to be able to reach him, and I wanted him to be able to reach us.
“Tristan was getting Cs and Ds as a freshman and sophomore; gradually he raised his grades to As and Bs. He had to fight to get into advanced-placement classes, but he did it and he’s doing well. He was one of 750 kids citywide who applied for a scholarship; applicants had to do a written essay about an obstacle they’d overcome. He wrote about the fire at his house. The interview was a little overwhelming; he said to me, ‘Here I was sitting with kids from private schools, from all these high-achieving schools.’ And he won; he received a $12,000 scholarship. This from a kid who had never dreamed of going to college.”
The Result: “Tristan has reignited my passion for this work. He puts a face on what needs to happen. We need more mentoring in the schools. Kids like him can inspire others, but first they need to feel connected to teachers and other positive role models. So many don’t feel connected. When I look at Tristan, I see this remarkable kid who didn’t know he’s remarkable. Now, he’s beginning to understand how special he is. How many others are out there, in whom that little spark hasn’t been found?
“You can walk into any bookstore and see all the self-help books for people who are 50 and don’t know what to do with their lives. They haven’t found their spark. I could be sitting around knitting and reading. But I choose to do this instead, for about 50 hours a week. It’s like a calling. This is my passion. This is my spark.”
The Outcome: “Tristan was on a campus tour of black colleges last month when he called me. He said, ‘Miss Pat, are you sitting down?’ So I sat down and said, ‘What is it, Tristan?’ And he said, ‘I’m into Morehouse.’ It was the most wonderful thing.
“It’s been quite wonderful for my husband and me to help another young person go to college. Our whole family loves having Tristan around; he’s so warm and generous. Tristan is the son David and I never had.”
Tristan Love: “I look at Miss Pat as my mentor, my mother. I call her ‘Momma Pat,'” Tristan says. “She is going to nag you and nag you and nag you until you get things done. She has helped me reach my highest potential; that’s what makes her so powerful.” He credits her, Booker T. Washington staffer Sharron Gardner-Solomon, and Communities in Schools staffers Albertha Herrion and James Moore, with enabling him to turn his life around.
Washington High Principal Mark Bedell: Mr. Bedell says turnarounds like Tristan’s “wouldn’t be possible without the help of Pat,” Communities in Schools and other youth-support programs. He says he hopes Tristan’s example “will have a positive impact, that some of our younger students will be able to pick up the torch and move on and continue to do the kind of things Tristan is doing.”
Tristan’s father Billy Love, 69, retired: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well,” he says of Ms. Rosenberg, Communities in Schools and the high-school staff, “that’s my village.”