The Hunt for Red Jobtober 3: White & Nerdy & Inner City Youth

I watched Mary Poppins for the first time. It was a prerequisite of sorts. See, my wife and I we’re going to see Saving Mr. Banks at the cheap theatre, and though I grew up watching TV with a cupboard full of VHS tapes, Mary Poppins never once stopped by my house. “A spoonful of sugar” is a lot of sugar. That’s all I’m going to say.

Okay, I’ll say a little more. While watching Poppins, I realized that I am a Bert of sorts. In the film, Bert (Dick Van Dyke) never seems to be doing the same thing twice. He has four different jobs: one-man band, chalk-artists, chimney sweep, kite salesmen. He’s an unpredictable cockney, and I couldn’t help but love him.

SIDE NOTE: Saving Mr. Banks was a wonderful picture. You see it?

As the blog title suggests, I’ve had another “vocational realignment.” I’ve pulled a Bert (awkward), working where I never have before: the inner-city.

White Boys Can’t Hump

Last semester, I had a job at Wegmans (a New York grocery store chain) making coffee in their “Buzz” cafes. Wegmans is a great place to work and shop. There’s a strong sense of local pride that permeates off the walls, and it makes you feel like you’re apart of something special. While the coffee itself was not very good (Northwest coffee snob, ova-heer!), the job was a good one.

A new job opened up in a social program that works with inner-city youth, encouraging them to graduate high school and go to college. Yes, coffee can be a worthwhile vocation, but bad coffee is bad coffee, and I needed something a little more meaningful. So I learned about the program. I realized it would be like mentoring, like working in a youth group again (which I loved!), minus the cheesy Christian songs and dealing with “visionary” pastors and elders. Sounded absolutely wonderful to me.

Only one problem. I’m horribly nonathletic, white and nerdy, and one of the first events we did was a basketball game: high-school guys vs. college guys. My wife laughed when I told her: “Do you even know what a basketball looks like?”

“It’s round and ball-like?”

Every new job comes with its struggles. Usually, there’s a hump to get over. You know, “the hump.” The awkward time when you don’t know what you’re doing, you walk in circles or follow your supervisor like a shadow; you hide in the cubicle because it’s safe in there.

Well, my hump came in the form of getting over myself. Yes, I’m white and nerdy (need proof? I started this blog talking about Mary Poppins!), and yes, the kids are of color and have a “street” mentality. But what I realized while eating a meal with them was that none my preconceived racial dividers really mattered. They’re just teenagers. They’re goofballs and hilarious and more respectful than I was at their age.

Some didn’t talk to me a whole lot, at least at first. One case in particular, after ten minutes of sitting together without a successful conversation, the kid finally stood up and left the table. I sat with myself and felt I had failed. But he came back a few minutes later with big plate and a smile on his face. He talked for five minutes about his favorite type of food. Awesome.

I ended up not playing basketball. I got to watch comfortably from the bleachers with a few new friends who forgot their permission slips.

Social work is new to me. Any advice for the new job? I’d love your input!

Check out the previous Red Jobtobers:

Part 1

Part 2



  1. Congrats on the new job! I’ve never worked in a position like you have, but my advice to you is ‘follow your gut’. Like the story of the cop that got called to arrest a shoplifter, but instead gave the ‘criminal’ $100 and let her go, and the store the woman was shoplifting at actually gave her a job. Because the cop followed her gut.

    You’ll be fine, and it could be a learning experience for all of you. (It sounds like it already has been for you.)

    1. Thanks! And, so far, it has definitely been a learning experience. Whenever I “follow my gut,” I usually end up at Taco Bell. This is a risk I’ll just have to take.

  2. I love this. Not just because I loved Saving Mr. Banks (though really didn’t like the original, though I watched it 100 years ago).

    I think the thing that helps the most when I work with my own batch of ‘at risk youth’ is knowing myself and not being afraid of honesty. If you’re white and nerdy it doesn’t work well to try and be someone you’re not…BUT stepping out of your comfort zone shows them that ‘failure’ or trying things doesn’t mean the end of the world or the end of their self. I recently had a sitdown discussion with my afternoon class saying that I had no idea how to teach them. That nothing prepared me for working with that particular class dynamic and asked them their advice. My honesty really helped.

    1. You watched Mary Poppins 100 years ago? How old are you!?

      Seriously, though, thanks again for your wisdom and encouragement! I love how open you are being. The idea, I’m assuming, is act like a human, treat others like humans, and they’ll see you as the same. Great stuff.

      1. As an Amazon, I am immortal, and so age is totally relative.

        Though in this lifetime I flit about as a 31 year old white female.

        Totally just being a human with them and seeing them as humans. Because I’ve noticed that once the ‘at risk’ label is slapped on them (usually starting pretty young) they get trapped in this box and all their behaviors/thoughts/interactions are filtered through that dang label. But most of my students are very kind individuals…yes, even the guy who was in Walla Walla Penitentiary for 5 years (I don’t even WANT TO KNOW what he did. eek).

  3. I’m only commenting on this months after your job began. As far as I know, it may have come to an end by now. I suspect, no matter how long it lasted, or will last, you had much to offer. Authenticity and a good sense of humor goes a long way on the streets.

Don't be bashful (reply!)

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