Coloring and chatting

Names changed to protect privacy.

Jessica colors the page neatly, a yellow crayon held purposefully in her hand, transforming the black-and-white outlines into waves of primary colors. On the table in front of her lies a coloring page with boys and girls dressed as scientists, teachers and police officers.

Jessica takes a few minutes to warm up after learning I'm her mentor, but once she starts talking, her voice grows animated and excited. Jessica tells me she's pretty shy and doesn't like raising her hand in class or participating in group activities.

Her eyes tell me that she's seen a lot in her 11 years.

She tells me her arm brace is from a cartwheel gone wrong. Her brown hair brushes her shoulders and her face is inquisitive. Her quiet demeanor contrasts with the small smiles that occasionally peek out.

In between trading fun facts, she smiles and says she should color the policeman's face green. I know she's kidding because her personality resembles her coloring strategy: Logical, but with bright colors and everything staying inside the lines. With a giggle, she trades the green crayon for yellow.

She rattles off a list of her talents and interests. "I can really be whatever I want to be when I grow up, I'm good at a lot of things," she says.

We talk about her best friend Alyssa, who's sitting right behind us with another mentor. We talk about how she's technically an only child, but has a mess of half-siblings. We talk about her younger sister and how they don't get along (they share a room that she has now divided in half) and we talk about pets. Jessica says she has both cats and dogs. She says the cats at her dad's house make her sneeze.

"Are the dogs at your mom's house then?" I ask, without really thinking.

"I don't know where my mom is," Jessica says to her coloring page. "I live with my great-aunt. She's my guardian." She speaks nonchalantly, simply stating a fact. I take a deep breath, thankful my comment didn't upset her.

The leaders of the mentor program said these kids come from lower-income households, often with a string of siblings, not enough attention and difficult home lives. The mentor program provides a couple hours where life is uncomplicated and organized. The schedule is predictable, the snacks are kid-friendly -- we typically have goldfish crackers, fruit snacks and Pringles -- and the environment is positive and supportive.

The first day of the mentor program, I'd watched a sea of children walk off the school bus, looking just like any other elementary school kids. Hair tied in ponytails, vibrant graphic t-shirts, gym shoes and grins. One little girl showed up in unicorn slippers. Underneath those little glasses, braces and big smiles, what most of these kids experience is anything but typical. Yet despite the difficult circumstances, most of them still behave like your average kid.

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Jessica peppers me with questions about college. She wants to know how many classes I take, when I get to go home, what my major is. She even asks how much time I have for "socializing." I glance at her for a second to see if her thoughtfully posed question is serious -- I haven't ever heard a fifth grader use the word "socializing" -- but her curious expression tells me she's completely in earnest.

I answer all of her questions before the conversation turns back to her sister. As Jessica colors the lab coat of a smiling boy, I ask her why they don't get along very well.

"She stretches out my clothes," Jessica says, pointing to her leggings. "This is the one pair I have because she steals my clothes all the time." Jessica is organized and responsible, but her younger sister is the polar opposite. And they share a room.

We take a break from coloring because the program leaders tell the kids to jot down a short list of expectations between the mentors and "buddies" for the year. Jessica thinks of several immediately and goes back to coloring. But when the leader asks the kids to share, her body language shifts. Her confidence and carefree chatting disappears, and she no longer seems engaged.

"Jessica, you can do it," I tell her. "We've got some good ideas on this list." With hesitation, she stretches her hand into the air and shares an answer. I smile back at her, completely relating to the fear of public speaking, but knowing it helps to get over that fear a little at a time.

I'm thinking about how much this girl and I have in common, how similar our personalities are and how much I can do to help her. I'm not sure if she's comfortable with me yet, and I figure it'll take us a couple weeks to get there. But Jessica surprises me.

A few minutes later, she declares happily, "I like you," while coloring the kitten next to the teacher yellow with red stripes.