A few days ago, I stopped at the convenience store up the street at 5:00 AM for my daily pre-gym ritual. My shopping path is down to a science by now, and within a minute, I was plopping my wares down on the counter: one 32-oz. Gatorade, one strawberry milk, and one banana protein shake for after the workout. The total came to $6.87. I swiped my debit card and the register began to beep. Dave, the cashier, looked at me with a quirked mouth. “Do you want to try it again?”
“It didn’t take?” I asked.
“It says ‘insufficient funds,'” he said apologetically, as if he’d somehow caused the problem himself.
“That’s odd,” I said. “I was sure I had plenty in there. Yeah, let’s try it again.”
“No luck,” Dave said. “Do you want to put it on a different card?”
I exchanged my debit card for a little-used credit card, made the purchase, thanked Dave and left the store. Once in my car, I called the automated line at my bank. Sure enough, my balance was $5.42.
It will be a little hard to explain to some readers why I smiled instead of panicking, at finding this meager sum as my balance. But I’ll try.
Three years ago, I was working at a school for the deaf — the school where I’d worked with the amazing little boy, Brian, whom I told you about in a recent post. I was well-liked and trusted by staff and students. I had freedom to create and implement services as I saw fit. I was paid well and had full benefits. And I loved the kids and my work there.
The problem was, I loved something else more.
Since high school, I have mentored teens on a “volunteer basis.” And, while I have been employed in many other professions over the years, mentoring has always been my calling. My first love. For me, volunteering has never been an hour-a-week outing with one child. There is great value in this, and I encourage it! But my volunteering has always been a full-time investment with dozens of kids at any given time, even more if you count larger groups.
It’s difficult to give a scope on what mentoring looks like for me. I am “on-call” 24 hours a day. I talk with kids a lot, at all hours, about whatever is on their mind. Family. Dating. Choices. School. Loss. I help facilitate family communication and mediate conflicts between friends. I teach music and language and writing and memory skills — whatever will enrich teens and create opportunities for open dialog. I advocate for students and parents, regarding educational needs in their schools. I give driving lessons. I’ve picked kids up, dropped them off, bailed them out, and taken them in.
I love this with everything I have in me. It’s like oxygen.
Four years ago, I had reached a breaking point. I was investing in more teens than ever before and in more intense situations. I had capped my work week with the school at 24 hours, but they were wanting more of me and my position: full-time hours along with training, travel, and speaking engagements. I could no longer do it all. I was physically ill, I wasn’t sleeping, and my energy was depleted all of the time.
Hard and painful decisions had to be made.
The obvious choice was that I would finally have to give up mentoring. With me, it’s all or nothing. And I could no longer give my all. The reasonable choice — the responsible choice — was to invest more in the work that paid the bills. I did love the students I worked with, I was good at what I did, and I had a lot going for me there, I told myself. But the thought of really giving up mentoring — my passion — was excruciatingly sad. Still, doing both was no longer an option. I just — couldn’t.
I’m certain that I cannot, even as a writer, accurately express the magnitude of the choice I faced.
Parents, teens, and “past teens” who are now adults themselves, reacted strongly to the news. “You can’t give up! It’s what you do. It’s who you are. It’s what you’re made for.” The wave of support and appreciation was overwhelming. This only made the inevitable decision all the harder.
Over a birthday dinner at a fine restaurant, my friends Bud and Dib were the first to suggest the highly implausible alternative: “What if you just took the plunge, resigned from the school, and mentored full time instead?”
I could think of a dozen reasons that this didn’t make sense. How would I survive? And yet, these two people who could not love me more if I were their own flesh and blood were suggesting it. From their mouths, it almost sounded plausible.
“You’ve made such a difference in our own kids’ lives,” they continued, “and many, many other people feel the same. We’d certainly be willing to help you and we know others would, too.”
My eyes glassed over and I felt woozy at the sheer magnitude and joy of that possibility. But I felt equally queasy about the idea of asking people for money in such a way.
During the next week, I lined up ten or so counterarguments — things that would have to fall into place if I were to make such a drastic life change.
By way of example, I’d had the same doctor since I was a child, and he was absolutely wonderful — making time to see me whenever I needed him, whether he had room in his schedule or not. Staying late. Using his dinner breaks. If my health insurance lapsed, I’d lose him and never get back on the list, I told myself. But that very week, I got a letter from him, saying that he was leaving the practice after decades, to do medical work overseas. The doctor issue was no longer an issue.
Systematically and in short order, each of the barriers I’d presented was removed. Every last one. It was uncanny.
The last test was the school. It was mere weeks before the students would arrive for the start of another year — and I would have to resign, leaving them without a specialist in my field. How would they respond? Yet when I told my boss, a friend whose own children I had mentored many years prior, her reply was gentle and gracious: “We can’t replace you. Even if we could fill the position, we won’t be able to replace what you brought to this school. But mentoring is your heart. It’s your life. Will will miss you. Now go and do it!”
And so I did.
That was three years ago next month. I have not asked anyone for money during this time, and yet the bills continue to get paid, thanks to the timely generosity of friends, and even strangers who simply believe in what I’m doing. It’s taken some adjusting, for certain. But it has been an amazing journey. My friendships have deepened. I’ve learned more about humility than ever before. I wake up every day full of life and enthusiasm, getting to do what I love. Knowing that I am making a difference.
And I am happy.
Some may say that I have less. I honestly can’t see it that way.
Every piece of furniture in my apartment was given to me.
This means that, as I move about my home, I am constantly reminded of the many people who care for me.
My car has over 250,000 miles on it and is need of extensive repairs.
I have transportation that has not failed me yet. I have no car payment. My car holds a lifetime of memories, of doing things that matter.
I have no health insurance.
I have been healthier in the last three years than any period prior, and have not needed to see a doctor. For the small stuff, I have several dear friends who are in the medical field, who are willing to have a look (though John usually just tells me that I have the dreaded B.S. — “Baby Syndrome”).
I do not have extra money set aside for vacations or luxuries.
I was treated to a nine-day, all-expense-paid trip to Paris just last year, and with the most wonderful people — a vacation those wealthier than I would envy and even the wealthiest could not hope to repeat, as far as the human element. What’s more, visits to friends’ homes are true vacations that I am fortunate to enjoy often, and where I am treated with care that surpasses the finest of hotels.
I have no stock portfolio or 401K. And, yes, my bank account can dip to dollars and cents.
I have more than I need of material things. I share meals around tables filled with warmth and laughter regularly. As for the things that matter, my present is brimming and my future is secure.
For my last milestone birthday, my closest friends held a dinner in my honor. I was seated at the head of the table, where a golden crown was placed on my head. Many hugs were exchanged. Teary toasts were given. Gifts were filled with thought and care. Faces were lit with joy all around.
Birthdays are a time for celebration and reflection. With my next birthday only weeks away, I look around me at all I have.
Truly, no king is richer.