Lessons from Big Brother James: You can only teach what you’ve been taught

Big Brother James learned at an early age the impact of a positive adult mentor and role model in a young person’s life. Growing up in a single-father home in inner-city Detroit, he felt grateful to have a father who taught him important life lessons and handy skills. He became a Big with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee because he wants to pay it forward for generations to come and make sure young people know they are worthy and never alone.

The “why” behind the mentor

Big Brother James grew up in the inner city of Detroit in the ‘70s in a single-father home. This was during the height of the crack epidemic, and he was thrust into the very center of it.

“There was a challenge not having my mother there as a young man, but I was also blessed that I had my father, who not only taught me great work ethic, but he taught me how to fend for myself and be independent.”

His father taught him how to work on cars, cook, and do odd jobs around the house, such as how to install a toilet or sink and do pipe fitting. He feels immensely grateful that he was able to learn those life skills and values from his father. James raised two sons of his own, and he made sure to pass those lessons on to them, and he’s always looking for ways to expand his impact to other young men.

James wants young people to know that there’s always someone who cares and they’re just as worthy of attention, resources, and opportunities as anyone else. He said he knows what it feels like as a kid to think that’s not true.

“As a young African American male, it does become discouraging when you see other cultures who seem to have what we consider to be the perfect family structure, where there’s mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, taking the children to the park, taking them out for ice cream. And as a child, you may never say it or share it, but you see those things. I saw that as well in the environment I came up in, and there was some sense of envy and not feeling like I belong, and it would even go as far as feeling like, do anybody care, do anybody love me? Those were feelings I would have internally, and as a child I didn’t know how to communicate that to people.

“So knowing that that’s what children are experiencing, I just wanted to have some type of impact to be able to make a young child, especially Black and African American children, see that your culture and your people are not different. Because that’s what you can begin to feel like, that there’s something different about you that makes you feel like you don’t belong or you’re not as welcome or entitled to the resources, activities and access as anyone else.”

In addition to letting young people know they are worthy and supported, he also seeks to be a vessel for passing on the legacy of African American culture to future generations.

“In our African American culture, we have traditions and cultural standards and ideas that I want to see continuously passed on and shared with other cultures. That’s why I feel like it’s important that we continue to share it, because you can only share it if you’ve been taught it. You can read a book, but there’s no greater lesson than personal experience.”

Matched at long last

Big Brother James was matched with Little Brother L.J. right after the pandemic drew the world to a halt. As with many of our matches, the virtual divide presented its challenges, but none that couldn’t be overcome. L.J. lives in a single-mother home and doesn’t have much access to technology, but he and James were able to start out by connecting over FaceTime by using his mother’s phone until eventually he was issued a school laptop and they could communicate over Zoom.

L.J. is 10 years old, and since James has raised two sons, he has a valuable perspective and approach to connecting with a young person and getting him to open up. James knew that learning about his interests would be key, and L.J. is very interested in video games. James learned some of L.J.’s favorite video games, but his mother also looks to James to help her son redirect some of his time and energy into other outlets.

During the lockdown, some days they would play video games, much to L.J.’s delight, but on other days, James would say no to video games, and instead begin simply generating conversation, asking him to share how his day was and what he experienced, and then expand the conversation around those topics.

Memories and lessons that last a lifetime

In early 2021, James and L.J. were finally able to meet in person for the first time. L.J. had expressed interest in fishing for a long time, so that is the activity they settled on, even though James had little fishing experience himself.

James taught L.J. to put the bait on the hook and throw his rod out into the water. One of the highlights of their mentoring relationship thus far is that the first time L.J. threw out his bait, in less than a few minutes, he started yelling, “I think I got something!” Sure enough, he caught a fish on his very first try. He even caught one on his second try too. James taught him how to take the fish off the hook and throw it back into the water so the fish could keep swimming. James has been waiting until L.J.’s birthday to get him a fishing rod of his own.

Aside from fishing, sometimes James meets L.J. at his house and takes him on walks to places like McDonald’s or the mall nearby. When they go to the mall, there is an arcade where they can play games, and James saw this as a chance to teach him money management and responsibility. He started out by giving him five dollars’ worth of quarters to spend on games, and told him, “When that runs out, you’re done.” The first time they played, L.J. dropped all of his money in one machine and he was done in less than 10 minutes, so James gave him some grace and extra quarters. But the next time he ran out quick, James held him to the original amount. Now L.J. has learned to slow down, spread his money out, and not spend it all in one place.

One time, L.J. was tasked with taking the money to the machine to get quarters and split it among the two of them. When he gave James his half, James realized L.J. kept more than he gave. James didn’t get mad, but he used it as a teachable moment, conveying to L.J. the importance of sharing, and not trying to cheat someone out of things. The next time James gave him the money to split between themselves, it was clear his lesson made an impression when L.J. did the right thing all on his own.

“It’s those kinds of moments that I think are teachable moments; they’re memorable, and they really are going to impress upon him as a person in his character,” James said.

If you’re interested in mentoring a young person and sharing your own life lessons, fill out the volunteer inquiry form to get started.