Thursday, May 29, 2008

About a Boy

Ahh, memories. I remember quite vividly the feeling of graduating from college and getting my first big job at Motorola in Scottsdale. Tucson was a big highlight of my single adult life, and I miss the place a lot. But it was exciting to get into an apartment in west Mesa, and extend my single adult life, this time with more spending cash. I still remember the feeling of going to Motorola my first day, wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, desperate to mask all of my fears and feelings of incompetence. Motorola back in 1996 was still a high flying large company, the biggest private employer in Arizona with thriving businesses in cellular, space, semiconductors, and defense. Remember Iridium? Motorola's vision of the future of telecommunications where everyone would own telephones that could link directly to satellites. Well, Motorola was in the middle of spending gobs of money on that technology while everyone else was going digital... I remember actually wishing I could be a part of that action.

Instead I joined the government group, the only group in the company offering new employees fresh out of college the opportunity to enjoy a three month training class where they could take all day classes and participate in a fake school-like project. It was Motorola's way to ease the transition from school to work. Really, it was a way for them to spend a portion of all that cash they were rolling in at the time.

It was during that training class that a representative from Valley Big Brothers Big Sisters did a presentation trying to convince a few of us to volunteer. Immediately, I was convinced, for some reason its far too easy to convince me to do stuff. But, this opportunity just seemed like an excellent opportunity to give back, and an opportunity to get some daddy preparation (at the time I was hoping marriage was soon to come).

I have always had this urgency to really make a difference, which is admirable, sure. But just making a some small intangible difference is not enough for me; I have to do something big, something that a made for tv movie could be made out of. Is that sort of delusional thinking common? I am not sure, but I am sure that it had something to do with the inordinant amount of made for tv movies I watched growing up. And I wonder if that is not one source of society's discontent. We immerse ourselves in fantasy so much, that we assume real life should work the same way.

Nonetheless, I was excited and inspired, so I jumped in, I became a big brother. I signed up, filled out the application, did the interviews, allowed them to perform all of the necessary background checks, submitted to the training, and eventually was to be matched to a little brother. For those of you who don't know how this works, its all about matching kids from single parent families with adults who can act as a mentor for the kid. This idea is a good one in most cases, I am sure. Statistically, the program seems to work. Statistics, however, are one thing. I was about to test this thing out for real. But its an impossible test to really take. We will never know how the trajectory of this kid’s life would have been if I had not been a part of it, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Regardless, I was in, and I was matched with a twelve year old kid named Thor (you know, I simply don’t remember why he got that name, I wish I would have written more of these things down). Thor was the oldest of four children, he had two brothers and a sister. His dad, sadly was in jail, Thor explained the situation of his early life, but I don’t remember the details. I do remember things weren’t so easy. His mom, though not educated enough to really enjoy a comfortable life, seemed to be managing at some level. They squeezed themselves into a low-rent two bedroom apartment they lived in the entire time I knew them. Interesting enough, they also happened to be Mormon.

It’s actually an interesting story to hear how the VBBS case worker decided to match me with Thor because we didn’t have that much in common. Thor really did not play sports, not the traditional ones anyway. He did love to roller skate, and do other more high-risk X-games sort of activities, but nothing traditional. He also loved to draw, especially comic book characters. I still have a couple of samples of his art. So, he was apparently tough to match, since most big brothers wanted a little to take to ball games, to play catch with. However, based solely on the fact that I loved to go to art museums, I was matched with Thor. But I wasn't matched yet, first Thor would have to approve me as his big. But I was committed; I could not back out after we met because that would mean just one more rejection in his life. He, however, could reject me. I’m not sure how common littles reject bigs, but I can imagine this not being very common.

I do remember that first day we met. I went to their apartment on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, so close to ASU. Thor and I talked at a picnic table outside his apartment. I don't remember that conversation much at all, but I do remember thinking he was a cool kid, but really most kids at twelve are cool. Thor liked me enough, I think his exact words were something like, “he’s nice”. And we were matched. I remember my first feelings were how desperately I wanted him to like me…

I do want to give you a quick run-down of my general approach to being a big brother with him, some of it was conscious, but most of it was sub-conscious, all of the issues I brought into the relationship:

1) I worried about spending too much on him initially, but eventually I just did. Its just easier. I had money, I lived cheaply in so many ways, so I had plenty of extra spending cash I spent too little effort keeping track of, and I spent a pretty decent amount of that spending cash on Thor.

2) I probably did 1) because part of me wanted Thor to like me. It’s a terrible way to behave, but I simply couldn’t help it. Like I said before, I wanted to have a pretty significant influence on him, I probably wanted that too much.

3) Similarly, I think my expectations were probably too high; I was hoping for too much of a payoff, especially early on. I just couldn't appreciate the moments I was having with him while I was having them.

4) My general approach was to include him in my life. I took him to events with friends of mine, even took him on some young single adult ward events, one most notably was a water ski trip. I took him to work with me on a "Bring your Child to Work day". All of my friends got to know him pretty well, and most if not all the girls I dated got to know him as well.

I probably had sort of a secret sub-goal as well, one that I’m not very proud of, I probably used him a little bit as a way to get girls to like me. Remember the movie that came out a few years back, it was called About a Boy , it starred Hugh Grant. I guess you could say I was having a far less Hollywood version of that. I remember telling my sister this and she literally laughed out loud knowing how this would definitely be an impressive thing to do for many Mormon women, however, I don’t think it had much influence on Sara…

At any rate, I will not bore you with every last detail of our big brother/little brother experience, but I want to give you some highlights to maybe provide the general feeling of the experience.

Very poignantly, I remember shortly after we were matched, he would often say that now he had three brothers, I being the third. For some strange reason, I kind of blew that off. Again, my expectations were just way too high, I just couldn’t appreciate what I was getting at the time. Some time later, a woman called me to do an interview on my big brother work because she was doing some research on the whole program. I think she was attending NAU. I told her this experience, and of course she recognized immediately the significance. I wondered right then why I hadn’t.

One of the very first activities we did together was also very funny because it was a typical Scott Turley thing to do. Remember he was a newly converted Mormon. I’m not sure they attended much, but at the time he was in the Scouting program, and me, all Second Class scout of me, someone who knew nothing about Scouting at the time, decided we could work on his scouting requirements together. That lasted all of about one hour.

Instead, we tended to do easier stuff. We watched a lot of movies, we went out to eat a lot. Like I said, I took him with me to hang out with friends. We went to a Halloween haunted house. I did let him come with me and a few of my friends to see the very first Star Wars (the first of the last three released).

Once, I even took Thor and a friend of his to San Diego. We went to help Dicky, a work friend of mine re-locate there for his work. We helped Dicky move, stayed at his apartment and went to the beach. I was supposed to take him to Sea World or something big like that, instead he wanted me to spend that money on this remote control boat that they tried out in the water, I remember feeling very annoyed at that, but why. I should have just went with that. Thor and I did get in one of the only fights I remember getting in with him. Thor refused to take a shower at Dicky’s, something about not feeling comfortable showering in another person’s house. I think I finally relented, but there was some yelling involved, and he felt very bad about it.

I also remember trying to help him in school, working with him on Math, taking him out to dinner as an incentive and then working with him on those problems as we ate dinner. He was depressingly so far behind in school. I'm not sure how well he read. I bought him a book once as a gift, but I don't think he ever read it, he claimed that he lost it. I'm not sure he ever graduated from high school, I lost track of him before I could find out... The thing about school, and I'm guessing this may be a bigger problem for boys than for girls, is that if you fall behind, and especially as you get older, say junior high and especially high school, you're ego and pride get in the way. You simply do not want anyone to know how far behind you really are. And once your ego gets in the way, learning is almost impossible. And even though Thor and I were pretty close, he was ashamed to show me or anyone else (as far as I knew), just how much he struggled. I guess this is why early childhood education is so critical.

The cool thing about being in VBBS is you get a lot of free and discounted tickets to events. Cool, if your little actually likes the events you get tickets to. As I said earlier, Thor hated sports, but for some reason I had this weird obsession to attend stuff that was presented to us as gifts, and Thor (I’m not sure) didn’t always like to tell me no when I asked him if he was interested in something. I took him to a Coyotes game this way (our local professional hockey team). I also tried to take him to a Suns game. We had tickets in the suites, where you get free food while watching the game, but for he wasn’t at home when I drove by to pick him up. I was really frustrated knowing that those tickets could have been given to someone else, but looking back I should have realized he wasn't into the Phoenix Suns.

Thor was active. He liked thrills. He loved roller blading. I went to a few skating rink events with him where he would compete doing these kind of roller blading dance routines with other kids. Kind of hip-hop on skates. His younger siblings also did this. He was good on the ice skates as well. I also took him, multiple times, to the local rock gym to climb, which he really enjoyed, and where he showed some skill.

Also, its funny to say, I dragged him to museums, art musems, a classical music concert (while I was dating Sara), the Arizona Science center. One of my goals was to expose the kid to stuff that he wouldn't get any other way. He went along too, and I don't remember much complaining, but I'm not sure how much of it he was into.

Toward the end, as he was getting older, it got tougher to stay connected with him. We started having less to talk about, and probably I began to be less cool to him. When he was younger, I remember feeling he probably was proud to present me to his friends as his big brother, I wonder if I had that same appeal as he aged. Because I am a lot of things, but cool is not one of them. I made some attempts to do stuff with him regularly. I had this hair-brained idea to build a miniture house, complete with internal wiring, but this time, I wanted Thor to help pay for the materials, but he had no job, no way to do it, so that kind of fizzled.

We did get into a routine where we lifted weights together at a gym near my apartment, this was after Sara and I were married but before we had Elizabeth. I remember we lifted weights without saying a whole lot. It didn't last very long.

Also, I was terrible at getting him thoughtful gifts. His siblings also had various big brothers/big sisters as well. Some had multiple bigs as they inevitably moved on to other things for various reasons. There were a few times where we all would get together to do a gift exchange during the Christmas season, except I would claim I didn’t have mine and I would give Thor’s my gift later. I just couldn't do it, I couldn't compare what I would give Thor to what they would give Thor’s siblings. I think I always disappointed him a little in that department.

Soon after that, we had our first baby. Things got busier for me, and when I did try to call Thor, he stopped returning my phone calls. I think he moved out of the apartment at about that time. Soon after, I stopped calling at all, but I had Thor’s mom's phone number memorized, so I knew I had some way to reconnect if I wanted to. Some time later, I tried to call it, but the number was out of service. Thor and his family were out of my life for good.

So, Thor was twelve when we first hooked up in 1996, and the last time I've seen Thor was shortly after we had our first baby was born in 2001. So, we saw each other at least 3-4 times a month for a solid five years.

I'm terrible at taking pictures, and I'm sad to say I have so few pictures of him. One picture I do have of him, though, is a picture of him holding our baby Elizabeth shortly after her birth. It was probably one of the last times I’ve seen him.

I have had various attempts to do volunteer work in my life, in an effort to fill this internal need of mine to make a difference. I have learned through some of these experiences, that is enough to have a desire to serve, but it really helps to have skills. Good intentions are not always enough. Sometimes, I wonder if in your attempts to make a difference in another person’s life, how much do you let your own personal baggage get in the way. I know I try to give gifts, but sometimes, sadly, those gifts come with strings attached, and so they aren’t received with as much appreciation, and they aren't really as helpful as they could have been.

Mainly, I became a big brother to learn how to become a father. I am a father now, although my kids are now much younger than Thor was when he was in my life. I’m finding that a relationship between a father and his children are much different than the relationship I had with Thor. Something about being with your own children every single day, having your DNA in them, I think it makes the bond stronger, the connections easier to make because I think you have some understanding of them since they have a little of what you have. Some of the problems I had with Thor is that we were probably a little too different. I know he had his own issues, some of them major. His dad’s abandonment, his crazy apartment that was often very chaotic. His problems with school. He had no perspective, he knew nothing about money or what it took to make it. Most of these problems I really couldn't really relate to, and I did not have a good strategy on how to help Thor work through them.

But, Thor was very good-hearted, very generous (the television we owned for the first 6 and a half years of our marriage came from him), very self-confident, and in many ways, he was talented. All things considered, I really appreciated all of those experiences. I must say, though, every time I see that picture of Thor holding my baby daughter, I feel sad he is no longer in my life.


Julie said...

Scott, this is a wondeful essay, nearly publishable really, and I was very touched by it. I had no idea your big brother experience extended for that many years. I, too, have had that impulse to make a difference, but I'm never sure what it should be. I guess I'm making a difference as a mother, but that seems too easy, too comfortable.

Maybe I can do something as a librarian.

Monique said...


I really enjoyed reading about your Big Brother experience. It was really touching. Maybe you can look for him on MySpace or something...easier to find people know a days...I am sure that he thinks of you often.

It is amazing how much often we tend to see past the importance of things as we live it and can only see it when it is over.

tempe turley said...

Julie, you are way too nice, you're giving me a big head, making me think I can quit my day job or something...

You're right being a mother and a librarian will put you in some very good positions to make a difference. I wonder, though, if being a parent is the only way to truly make the most difference in someone else's life. Other than that you're just giving someone else little helps a long the way, as they are largely responsible to work their own way through life.

Monique, I actually tried looking for him on MySpace and Facebook, but I couldn't find him. I would think Thor would definitely have a presence on social network sites.

Anonymous said...

There has to be a way to find Thor. I wonder if that people finder thing would come up with any clues. I'm sorry I never met him. Very touching essay Scott.

It would be interesting to hear Thor's memories about you.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

For a first-time Big Brother, you did the best you could. I know your expectations for yourself were probably unrealistically high. Those Hollywood movies where one person radically changes one troubled child into a Harvard scholar make it look so easy. It takes a village to raise a child, and Thor simply didn't have enough support from the other key players in his life. It is quite possible that much of what you did for him or say to him will register someday and help him turn out quite well.

-David G.