Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy

Fellowship Title:

Mentors Can Mean Magic

Colman McCarthy
September 4, 1999

Fellowship Year

Chicago-born and raised, which means a boyhood and then adulthood of rooting for the Cubs, Judge Gregory Mize includes in his celebration of baseball the annual luncheon of the Emil Verban Memorial Society. Last April, some 200 rememberers of Verban gathered at the Capital Hilton in Washington to regale each other with tales–tall and short–about their hapless Cubs and the obscure but good-fielding Emil. A Cub second baseman in the 1940s, Verban was so spectacularly overlooked in his seven big league seasons that it was deemed he should never be forgotten.

Gregory Mize, 51, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge since 1990, brought a guest to the luncheon–Quanique Furline, a 10-year-old infielder and fourth grade student at Garrison Elementary School in the Shaw neighborhood of inner city Washington. Judge Mize is her mentor. Also at the table, festooned with Cub mementos and edible miniature chocolate baseball bats, were six other Garrison students, all mentored either by Superior Court judges or court personnel and all members of Elementary Baseball, a literacy and sports program now in its fifth year at the school.

The outing that day exposed Quanique Furline to a social and cultural world well removed from the blights and dead-ends all too common in the lives of urban minority children. Most adults at the Verban luncheon were baseball executives, politicians, journalists and others who have it made and for whom a couple of hours of good eats and hearing such former Cubs as Andy Pafko and Joe Pepitone reminisce is among the rewards of success.

For Gregory Mize, the luncheon was another bonding moment in mentorship–a stilted word, for sure, but with an exact social and psychological meaning that drew him into the life of a child with educational and spiritual gifts awaiting to be discovered and nurtured.

Mentoring is that. In the legend of ancient Greece, Mentor was the godlike self-giving guardian of Telemachus whose warrior father, Odysseus, was an absentee parent too engaged in distant bloodletting to raise his son. Mentor counseled and inspired Telemachus for some 20 years, building a boy into a man with the tools of moral guidance and disciplined instruction.

Most modern day mentors differ from the Greek original because they first came into the lives of a child as stranger, not as family friends, and not from the same class or background. Judge Mize does not know the father of Quanique, nor does she. When Mize was mentoring another Elementary Baseball child a few years ago, he did know the father. He came into Mize’s drug rehabilitation program as an arrested addict and was helped by the judge to reform his life.

As with many of the court’s 72 judges, much of Mize’s professional work involves the depressing duty of dispatching young black males to prison. Regardless of their crimes, and regardless of society’s scorning them as punks or thugs, each was once in first grade somewhere, and then second or third grade. It can only be guessed how many lives might have been steered away from crime and chaos had a mentor intervened in early childhood. Part of Mize’s commitment to mentoring in Elementary Baseball is to be a positive force in the front end of life, not a negative one in the dead end.

The path that led Gregory Mize to Garrison Elementary and to mentoring Quanique Furline and three children before her is traceable to his roots in a Catholic family that took seriously the Church’s teachings on social justice. Mize entered the seminary at 13 with plans to be a priest. He stayed 10 years, leaving in 1970 before ordination but with a full decade of spiritual growth that would express itself for the rest of his life in personalized service to others. In 1973, he graduated from Georgetown University law school. After 17 years of private practice or governmental legal work, he won an appointment to the court.

On a recent weekend in his Washington home where he lives with his wife, a hospital intensive care nurse, and their four children, Mize recalled one of his earliest experiences with black people: “When I was in the seminary, I worked as a student-minister at an inner city parish in Chicago. I spent two years running an athletic program and doing community organizing among tenants in a high-rise public housing project. I’ll never forget this one family. Over three or four months, I would visit the mother and her two children in their living room. One day, one of the daughters was looking at me intensely. While I’m talking on the couch with her mother, she took my hand and put it up to her face and rubbed her hands on it. She said, ‘I never saw a white person up close until now.’ She was just very much into the color of my skin. This child had never touched a white person before.”

Mize has had flashbacks to that experience: “I don’t know if I’m imagining it but when the Garrison kids look at me, they have this facial expression of wonderment that says, ‘this is a white person and I’m this close to him,’ as if I’m a different species in a zoo and it’s possible to get close to a giraffe.”

At the core of Mize’s mentoring is his belief that it’s crucial for him to be part of the effort to decrease racial division, and to do so in personal ways that go well beyond “the movement” or “the cause.” It isn’t as if his lifelong awareness of racism has turned into a paralyzing self-awareness, and still less that he is racked with white guilt. “I’m glad to be a mentor for Elementary Baseball,” Mize says. “A racial divide plagues this community, like so many in our country. I just know from the looks on the kids’ faces, and the quality of communication between the parents and me, that something valuable is going on when we can sit down together in an unrushed way and an arm’s length away and talk about whatever is important in our lives. That just doesn’t happen too often. It’s important for us of different races to spend time with each other.”

The Superior Court on which Mize serves is known as one of the nation’s most racially integrated benches, including judges and staff. “A lot of opportunities come up for the races to interact at the court,” Mize says, “but it’s all very professional. But through Elementary Baseball and the mentoring, I’m just me. I’m not wearing my robes. I’m in civilian clothes and talking about things that are unplanned in many ways. You can talk from the heart.”

Mentoring has been flowering in the past l0 or so years to the point of fashionability. Check the press releases from corporate America. It can mean anything from dabbling–an adult taking a shine to a poor kid for a few weeks and then goodbye and good luck, gotta go–to a long term relationship through thick and thick. In “The Call of Service,” Robert Coles describes the latter kind of mentoring, which is Judge Mize’s kind, “as one person handing along another until the moment that allows both of them together to envision possibilities hitherto out of sight.”

Sociological researchers are beginning to examine the effectiveness of mentoring. An estimated 7 million l0-to-17 year olds–out of 28 million–are at high risk of hurtling into dysfunctional adulthoods. Of such children, James Comer of New Haven writes: “If you ask most kids why they drop out of school, they don’t tell you about money or those sort of things. They say ‘nobody cares.’”

The Summer 1997 National Dropout Prevention Newsletter tells of the school-based Norwalk (CT) Mentoring Program, begun in 1986. The mentoring students, researchers report, “are showing improved attendance, attitudes, ability to communicate, and are taking more risks. They are improving their interactions with peers and decreasing levels of hostility. Most important, they are staying in school and out of trouble with the help of a caring adult role model and friend.”

In 1989, Public/Private Venture, a Philadelphia group, began a multi-year study of mentoring in the juvenile justice system. Five years later, it reported: “Having passed the midpoint of this research initiative on mentoring, we can conclude that given youth’s need for caring and consistent relationships with adults, and the scarcity of and/or heightened need for such relationships, program interventions like mentoring can meet this significant need, at least in part.”

Another researcher on the scene is Quanique Furline. At Garrison one afternoon, she said that Judge Mize is a fine mentor, especially because he knows Frank Valentine who played for the old Washington Senators and who sat at Quanique’s table at the Emil Verban luncheon. Her talking baseball with Valentine, plus the chocolate baseball bat for dessert, are among the reasons that Quanique has a smile as wide as an infield when she talks about her mentor. She thinks he’s big league all the way.

©1999 Colman McCarthy


Colman McCarthy, a columnist and writer, is examining life in an inner-city Washington, D.C. elementary school.

Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy