Day 7: Crossing the Streams – An Interview with Tommy McClam, Director of YouthBuild Mentoring

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Image by Michael Murphy via stock.xchng

At the risk of “crossing the streams” and causing an irreparable breach in the time-space continuum, I would like to use today’s post to give you a peek into my “day job.” While my work in the non-profit world focuses on youth mentoring, and my writing is generally more about arts/culture/poetry, this peek actually makes sense.

You see, All Nine is about “collaborating with the Muses to inspire, create, and illuminate.” Every day in my work with the YouthBuild USA National Mentoring Alliance, I am inspired by my colleagues, I get to do creative work, and I find that yet another aspect of this crazy world is lit up for me.

I think the time-space continuum is safe. For now.

Following is the content of an interview I conducted with Tommy McClam, Director of the YouthBuild USA National Mentoring Alliance (and my boss), as part of the facilitator notes for Finding Mentors, Finding Success, a guidebook that is intended to help prepare YouthBuild students for mentoring relationships once they leave the program.

Where were you at in your life when you found your mentor? What were you struggling with/needing support for/unsure about?

I was in high school when I first met Audley McLean, a successful businessman (which I didn’t realize at the time) and neighbor who lived down the street. I was struggling with direction in life, and growing up in a community where I had to make a decision between gang life, drug life, and “doing it right.” This was a difficult decision for me to make on my own; everyone around me was doing what they had to do to survive.

How did you meet your mentor?

Audley lived down the street, the fourth house from the corner. He lived there for a number of years before I even noticed him. I had to walk past his house every day on my way to school, the store, and to the playground. One day, he just started talking with me. On that day, I was on the way to do something with some other guys that would have changed my life forever (not in a positive way). Later that evening, craziness broke out in the neighborhood, and I was spared from all that, because Audley took the time to talk to me. Maybe he knew something was up, and saw something in me that I did not see in myself. I don’t know but it changed the direction of my life.

From that day on, Audley trusted me to protect his first grade daughter by walking her to and from school. He trusted me enough to take care of someone he valued, his daughter, and this allowed me to give something to the relationship. I believe it is important that a mentee be allowed to give something back to the mentor/mentee relationship.

How did you form a relationship with Audley ? How did you go about engaging him?

I didn’t go out and ask him to be a mentor. I don’t remember that conversation ever happening; it developed naturally. Over time, we both knew where we were in the relationship, but we didn’t call it “mentoring” back then. Only when I started mentoring young people (“formal mentoring”) in my early twenties, I began to understand that I had been in a mentoring relationship with Audley for five or six years.

But early on, Audley just took an interest in me and directed me. Then I began to see the value of having him in my life. What he did was push and encourage me in areas that I would have never been aware of without his help and guidance.

For example, he told me one day to meet him at an event at a hotel. He gave me a 3X5 card, with about two lines of text to read when he called on me. He told me ahead of time to wear a button down shirt and pair of khaki pants. He gave me a coat and tie when I got there.

He then had me go into the ballroom area and there were about 3000 people in the ballroom. He told me to go out and recite the lines on the card and introduce him. He told me that he would be standing on the side of the stage and if I needed him, to just look over and he would come out and help me. I had a very bad stuttering problem, but he said to me, “Just slow down and let your mouth catch up with your brain.”

I wanted to do well because he wanted me to do well. When I stepped out on to the stage I had never seen so many people in my life. It’s something I’ll never forget – he pushed me past my fears and stuttering problem. It was the most important two lines I ever read in my life.

One day many years later I called him – I was getting ready to speak to a large crowd in a stadium. He asked me if I was scared. I said, “No, I just have to let my mouth catch up with my brain.” We laughed and I hung up before addressing an audience of over 20,000 people.

What did your mentor provide to you? Did it match your expectations?

Early on, we met once a week. We went to the same church in those days, so we would naturally see each other at least after church on Sundays, but usually more than that.

As years went by, we would talk weekly by phone, then met monthly. He was one of the top sales people for New York Life Insurance and later a VP at HSBC, so he moved around a lot. Eventually, we moved into a regular check-in call (at least monthly), even to this day, forty years later!

My expectation was someone to help me find my way and someone I could talk to; someone I could be myself with and not be afraid to do so. His presence gave me an excuse to not do what everyone else was doing growing up in the ‘hood. He gave me high cover to make different kinds of decisions. He made it normal to be abnormal. I believe he gave me that responsibility to take his daughter to school to make sure I went to school.

We had nothing in common (on paper) – he grew up in Jamaica, I grew up in Buffalo; he liked cricket, I liked basketball; but he did have what I needed in terms of encouragement and direction for life.

At times I struggled with balancing time with my own family and with my mentor. I wanted to make sure my family did not feel overshadowed by a mentor. I didn’t want anyone to feel slighted. I don’t know if they ever felt that way – my father and Audley got along very well. But even back then, when I was a teenager, I felt it was important to not attach too much to my mentor and throw away all those who helped me get to that point. I needed my mentor because my family didn’t have the life experiences to take me where I needed and wanted to go. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t love and care about me.

I believe Audley and my father talked with each other about me. Between the two of them, I was able to make the difficult choices. Audley was reinforcing what my father already told us we should and should not do.

How did the relationship change over time? Is the relationship ongoing today?

He’s helped me through education decisions (college was mandatory!), job changes, and the loss of our first child, and more recently, the death of my mentee who we lost through cancer. My mentor played an extremely important part in my personal development. He schooled me in business, and I have an inclination for accounting because his background is accounting. I thought if he can do it I can do it. He was not only a mentor but became a role model.

Over time, Audley moved from being a mentor to more of a friend and confidante. He’s almost 80 now and calls me to give me advice and ask me for advice on financial matters, life changes, etc. I still respect him as my mentor, and I still need to see him at least once a year, no matter where I am. Since 16, every year I get a birthday card (40 cards!), and every year my wife and I get an anniversary card. This year, we will be celebrating our 33rd anniversary with Audley in Orlando.

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