When the mentor becomes the mentored

Students from Ms. Michelle Agard's 4th grade class at Endeavour Elementary Magnet School in Cocoa, Fla., pose with retired Lt. Col. Susan A. Romano Nov. 12, 2015.  The students paid tribute to local servicemembers for Veterans Day and invited Romano, the class' reading and writing mentor, to be a part of the festivities.  (Courtesy photo)

Students from Ms. Michelle Agard's 4th grade class at Endeavour Elementary Magnet School in Cocoa, Fla., pose with retired Lt. Col. Susan A. Romano Nov. 12, 2015. The students paid tribute to local servicemembers for Veterans Day and invited Romano, the class' reading and writing mentor, to be a part of the festivities. (Courtesy photo)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- My organization is unique.  If you've ever seen the sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," you'll be able to relate to what it's like here at the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

I work with nuclear engineers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and countless other hard-science geniuses.  We have a radiochemistry lab and a clean room and all sorts of "science-y" stuff everywhere you look.  You'd think you were on the set of the TV show - even our main elevator is out of order! 

AFTAC is the sole agency in the Department of Defense that is responsible for nuclear treaty monitoring.  Because of the enormous degree of skill, expertise and educational levels of those employed here, many of the scientists and engineers are highly sought after to speak at conferences and symposiums, colleges and universities.  They're also in demand locally, especially when schools conduct their annual Science Fairs and Science Bowl competitions seeking highly-qualified judges and subject matter experts.

When a local elementary school was looking for mentors to help with STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, they reached out to AFTAC to see if anyone at the center would be interested in volunteering their time to assist the teachers and guide the students in those areas.

As much as I wanted to participate, I knew my background wasn't what they were looking for.  As a liberal arts major with a degree in Public Relations, writing and editing are my strong suits.  Give me a spelling bee, and I'm there.  Need your school newspaper copy edited?  I'm on it.  But chemistry?  Biology?  Math?  Ugh.  A fate worse than death in my mind!  Nevertheless, on a whim, I submitted my credentials to the school, listing public speaking, grammar and journalism as my areas of expertise.

Lo and behold, I received a phone call from Ms. Michelle Agard, a 4th grade teacher at the school.  She asked if I would be interested in coming to her class to help with her lesson plans.  I explained to her that I wasn't a scientist or engineer, and she said, "That's exactly why I want you.  I need someone to help my students improve their writing skills.  I hope you'll consider it."

I was thrilled!  I was going to be able to impart my wisdom on these young minds, and I was going to be able to make them feel the passion I have for reading and writing.  "They'll learn so much from me!" I bragged to myself.

Little did I realize the absolute opposite would occur.  It didn't take many visits to Ms. Agard's class to come to the realization that most - if not all - of these students were from tough upbringings.  Several came from single-parent, multiple-child homes.  Some were being raised by grandparents or other relatives.  A few were immigrants who spoke very little English.  Most were flat-out poor.

On my first day, I was met in the front lobby by two greeters, Andy and Jy'Quanae.  Their beaming smiles alone made me feel so welcome.  When we arrived at the classroom, I was treated to bilingual poetry by Na'Kiyah, Marilyn, Daniel, Adelso and Xavier.  Shykeria presented her interpretation of the writing process.  And in keeping with Ms. Agard's theme of overcoming their fear of writing, Ci'anna sang "Let It Go" from the blockbuster movie "Frozen."

These children presented their gifts to me, with all their heart and soul, and I left that day with a completely different perspective.  I realized I needed to put my ego aside and let them dictate the terms of what they needed from me, not the other way around.
Over the course of my visits, Ms. Agard allowed me to sit down with several students, one-on-one, to conference with them about their writing assignments.  They were attentive.  They were polite.  They genuinely seemed interested in what feedback I had for them.  Best of all, they wanted to write more - more letters, more essays, more poetry, more book reports.

Each visit was more special than the one before.  One week I brought several Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) for them to discover.  Another time I brought small plastic Air Force Symbols that were made on AFTAC's 3-D printer, which they thoroughly enjoyed.  On Veterans Day, I proudly wore my uniform and they sang "God Bless the USA" to me.

As the weeks passed, I came to the realization that I was no longer the mentor.  These young people were the mentors, and I became the mentored.  They taught me patience.  They taught me generosity.  They taught me perseverance.  And most important, they taught me humility. 

In addition to the reward of being around these future leaders, I also received humbling feedback from Ms. Agard herself.  She sent me an email that read, "You are such a pleasure to have in our class!  Conferencing with you yesterday was motivating to say the least.  I remember you mentioning that your mom was a teacher, and after observing you in the classroom, you have the natural ability to teach and more importantly, to inspire.  Your mom is extremely proud of you, young lady."

It has been inspiring to say the least.  There are so many words I could use to describe the experience:  meaningful, productive, rewarding, motivating, invigorating, compelling.  I feel something akin to what Penny felt like when she broke through Sheldon's cool, aloof exterior after giving him an autographed napkin from Leonard Nimoy.  "He's hugging me!" she exclaimed.

They're hugging me, Mom.  And it's the best feeling ever.