“Me and my friend were talking about what we would get if we were going to get something tattooed on us,” Megan says cheerfully as she tosses a few cucumber seeds in her mouth and continues working to remove the seeds from the vegetable before adding it to the watermelon gazpacho she’s working on with her Big Sister Ann.
Ann’s ears perk up as soon as Megan says the word “tattoo” and she slows down her work slicing the green peppers, to listen more carefully—anticipating what her Little Sister of nine years will say next, mindful of the ever-evolving topics, ideas and challenges that her, now 17 year old, Little Sister brings tot he table.
“I’d get my favorite food as a tattoo,” says Megan, ” You want to know what that is?”
“What is it?” Ann asks evenly, avoiding coming off as prohibitive though she clearly doesn’t like the idea.
“Either watermelon or tacos,” says Megan in her usual bright and uplifting tone, carrying on in her cucumber task nonchalantly , “Or watermelon tacos,” she adds.
“Oh!” Ann replies, attempting to keep an open conversation with Megan, but also hesitating for a moment, apparently weighing whether or not to openly dissuade Megan from imminently putting the permanent ink into her skin that, Ann knows, may only be a temporary fascination. Indeed: what is a mentor to do in such situations?
“Your role as a Big is not to be a parent and tell kids what to do or really to give advice,” says Ann, who has not only served as a Big Sister to Megan since Megan was in 4th grade but also serves as the chair on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Haywood County’s advisory council. ” You’re mostly just listening and reacting and saying: ‘Well, have you thought about looking at it this way’. It’s hard to be a teenager—and the interpersonal agony that you have to go through growing up is difficult.”
Navigating the razor’s edge between listening and advice-giving, after a moment Ann casually responds to Megan’s watermelon taco idea, attempting an equally cheerful tone: “Well, hopefully you won’t get any tattoos.”
Earlier in the evening, Megan had arrived at their weekly match activity with newly-dyed purple hair and matching lipstick. She and Ann were getting together as they normally do every Wednesday for their dinner match activity at Ann’s house—located up at the head of a beautiful horse pasture in Haywood County looking out toward the Blue Ridge in the distance. Normally, the two of them meet at Panacea Coffee in downtown Waynesville first, to catch up over a cup of coffee and segue into discussing what to cook for dinner there before stopping by the grocery store for ingredients on the way to Ann’s. This Wednesday, however, Megan’s hair-dying appointment had taken precedent and thus, this time around, Ann had planned the watermelon gazpacho on her own.
Megan, who is now 17, was raised by her single father who runs a small business in Waynesville. She is now attending Haywood Early College—a program that allows selected high school students to start taking college courses through grade “13” at which point they can enter college as juniors, with all of their basic education requirements taken care of. The program allows students to move right into their major and only spend 2 years at university—significantly fast tracking their graduation and saving a lot of tuition costs int he process. Even with the extra responsibilities she has taken on, Megan is excelling at the program and is slated to graduate with all of the college and high school credits after completing just grade 12—her dream is to go into marine biology at University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
“I’ve always felt more at home when I’m at the ocean,” explains Megan, “The branches of marine biology I’ve thought about a lot and realized that I’d like to work in deal with wildlife and possibly being a veterinarian for wildlife.”
As the two of them weave around Ann’s kitchen, washing and dicing vegetables and pureeing in batches for the evening’s culinary creation, Megan openly chats about the various things that are going on in her life: the upcoming events she’s excited about, the things and relationships that are going well (including her boyfriend whom Ann emphatically said she “approves of”) the theatrical production she’s participating at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre—as well as the challenges that she’s facing.
“During these Wednesdays we spend time catching up,” says Ann, “And normally there’s not much going on in my life, but there’s a whole lot going on in hers that keeps us well entertained.”
As Megan nimbly moves from one subject to another, Ann actively listens, offering encouragement at every step and offering some enriching and broadening perspective when she can get a word in—or alternately offering some words and insights of caution in others—when her Little Sister’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm may suggest that she’s diving headlong into a new adventure without, perhaps, testing the water first.
Megan is describing her challenges in her college chemistry test to Ann—namely stemming from Megan’s hearing loss and the professor’s tendency to speak quickly which is compounded by her thick accent. Ann listens with a concerned look and periodically interjects with suggestions for Megan on ways to advocate for herself to make sure that her learning and grades don’t suffer as a result. Serendipitously, Ann has training and career expertise working with children experiencing hearing loss and has some vitally helpful suggestions and strategies for Megan in navigating her own situation.
Before long, however, we’re on to the next subject: Megan’s imminent venture to Universal Studios with her church’s youth group. On this subject, Megan is super animated and excited—road trip with her friends! The occasion for the trip is “Rock the Universe” a Christian Rock extravaganza at the edge of Universal Studios. The plan for her group is to explore the theme park all day and attend concerts all night, Megan explains to Ann with excitement:
“…and staying up until 1 am!” she emphasizes. “Both nights!”
Ann patiently tries to gather the details of the upcoming trip, making sure that Megan’s got her bases covered, that there are responsible parties involved in the adventure.
“So….you get some sleep before you get in the car to drive back, right???” Ann asks.
“Yep!” Megan says cheerfully.
“And…so: you will not miss any classes???”
“And…how about your homework??”
The unique thing is that, even though Ann checks in to back up Megan on her decisions, it’s not from a place of authority like a parent would—it’s more like a…big sister. She openly asks questions, she offers perspective that Megan may not have thought of. Sure—Ann wants to know that her Little is going to be safe, but it’s clear that she is also touched and enlivened to see this once little kid spreading her wings and exploring her own interests, expressing herself and developing her personality—and having fun.
When asked how she has grown from this relationships, Megan reflects: “My favorite memory of Ann is Wednesdays,” says Megan, “I’ve loved coming here—it’s always the highlight of my week. I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend and I can’t wait to bring him here one day and have him cook with us, because cooking and hanging out with Ann has always been a happy time for me. Even when I’m going through rough rough times in my house or my life, spending time with Ann has always picked me up. I don’t think I’ve had a bad time with Ann ever. In 8 years. She’s helped me deal with different situations…and has just always been there for me to talk to.”
“I think we lift each other up,” says Ann, “Because I don’t get to spend time with people her age very much. She always figures out my phone. All the new apps I’ve have on my phone she’s installed for me. She knows how to pair my phone with my car and make my car’s computerized things work…”
“I think this is a relationship that will just keep on and on,” says Ann, “I know at 18 the match will officially end, but we hope she’ll get into UNC Wilmington—we know that’s where she wants to be and so that’s where we want her to be. And I’m sure we’ll be over there visiting her and will keep seeing her when she comes home.”