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Mentor a Teenager
Photo: Lisa F. Young
On June 15, 1965, our 16-hour flight from Santiago, Chile ended. After making stops in three different countries, we landed in Miami and waited for several hours for our connecting flight to our final destination, New York City. I was 12 years old and didn’t speak a word of English. Neither did my siblings. In a strange country, my mother held us by her side, as a hen protects her chicks. A beautiful blonde, blue-eyed flight attendant helped us as we went through immigration and then onto our connecting flight. She was the typical kind, sweet and smiling woman you’d see on black and white American movies back in Chile. She welcomed us to the United States of America and she left a lasting impression on our lives.

When we arrived at JFK International Airport in New York, Dad was nowhere to be found. Somehow, with the many last minute changes, Dad had not gotten the last message from Mom and he wasn’t waiting for us. There we were, all alone. It was 3 am by the time we got to the fifth floor apartment where Dad lived in the Bronx. And what a beautiful apartment it was! It was in that apartment that day, between three and four in the morning, that we got our first real introduction to the American life. When we opened the refrigerator, there they were: a box of Oreo cookies and Coca-Cola bottles waiting for to us to enjoy (no cans then!). We devoured them.

Sometime in August of that year we started school at P.S. 70. With only a few English words in our vocabulary my sister and I were taught English by Ms. Goldberg. a gray-haired Jewish woman; a most wonderful, loving and kind woman. Not only did she teach us English, but also introduced us to the American way of life beyond Oreo cookies and Coke. She was nurturing and always careful in everything she said. Going to school at P.S. 70 felt safe because we would meet with Ms. Goldberg everyday. 

Ms. Spooner, the most beautiful African-American woman I had ever seen was my homeroom teacher. Her sweet soft voice and smile made learning a pleasure. She took a personal interest in each one of us. Even to the extent of inviting us, in the cold winter days, to her townhouse apartment, just walking distance from the school, for cookies and hot chocolate.

In August of 1966, I officially became a “teenager” as the superintendent/manager of the building called me. I went on to junior high school and met Mr. Perrine, an Italian-American teacher, who mentored me and helped me in the beginning of those difficult teenage years of my life in junior high.

I Was Not Alone

And then it was off to high school. My parents made the decision to send me to Greater New York Academy, the Adventist high school, in Woodside, New York. It was there that I met other teachers and mentors who accompanied me on my journey through my teenage years. Mrs. Elaine Kelly introduced me to poetry in her English classes. Mrs. Thompson introduced me to the beauty of the Old Testament stories. Mr. Baird taught me American History and Pastor Wayne Hancock spoke to me about Jesus and so on. 

The truth is that in the whole process of becoming a teenager, I was not alone. There were those adults who took a special interest in me as a person and treated me with respect, honor and dignity. 

In my 22 years of working with young people, I have seen it over and over again. Teenagers who have adult friends and mentors go on to pursue their dreams and succeed in life. There is a saying in the Talmud that says, “By saving one life, you save a world”. Embrace the world of a teenager and journey through life together. All it takes is one person to save one teenager and you are saving a world.

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By Sergio Torres. Copyright © 2008 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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