It sounds like hundreds of nails on a chalkboard, but it’s a beautiful sound.
It’s the sound of the Clarke Middle School band class learning to play “Hot Cross Buns.” The clarinet section consists of four giggling girls and the saxophone section of three boys. It is in this class that every Wednesday, Landyn Dooley, a senior at the University of Georgia, sits in the back of the room and listens to the notes harmonize, or attempt to harmonize, in the air around her.
Dooley is a volunteer mentor with the Clarke County Mentor Program, an independent non-profit organization that trains community volunteers and pairs them with a Clarke County School District student who would benefit from, or who is interested in, having a mentor. The objective is to better prepare students to graduate, to prepare them for employment or to prepare them for secondary education.
The mentors meet with the students once a week during a shared activity such as lunch, physical education or to Mr. Parido’s band classroom, at 3:15 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.
It is a normal middle school band room. There are fluorescent lights that reflect off white cement walls and signs that say things like, “Welcome to Mr. Parido’s band class!” It sounds like a normal middle school band room, too.
“Is this the bad posture band or the CMS band?” Mr. Parido asks.
Amongst grumbling and murmurs, the students sigh and respond with an unenthusiastic, “The CMS band.” The whole room straightens its posture at once.
Dooley cherishes the afternoons spent at Clarke Middle School, where she meets with her mentee, DeNaya Wray, a sixth-grader who loves Wonder Woman and flag football.
“Looking back at the past few years, my favorite thing about mentoring has been watching someone grow,” says Dooley, “and knowing that I have had a positive impact on a child.”
The Clarke County Mentor Program started in 1991 as a joint initiative between the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and the Clarke County School District with the goal of increasing the number of students who graduated high school. In its first year, there were 30 mentor-mentee pairs. As of today, there are more than 500 mentor-mentee pairs at over 20 schools.
Dooley smiles in the back of the room as Mr. Parido asks the band another question, “Does anyone know the difference between a beat and a rhythm? Maybe a trombone player who’s not paying attention?”
Whispering is heard throughout the room while the trombone section fidgets uncomfortably, trying to figure out what exactly the question was.
In order to mentor, Ashlee Perry, the counselor at Clarke Middle School, explains that potential mentors must first fill out an application and pass a background check to interact with students. After the background check is passed, volunteers then participate in a two-hour training session.
The program requires at least a one-year commitment. Like Dooley, many mentors work with the same mentee for years, following them as they progress from middle school to high school. Some have even mentored the same student for over a decade. Dooley has been mentoring for three years, all of which have been spent with Wray.
Another round of off-pitch screeches from various wind instruments sounds. This time even the students know that they are out of tune.
“It sounds like we’re smacking on some Doritos!” says an energetic boy holding a clarinet in the front row.
School ends at 3:45 p.m. Every Wednesday when Dooley arrives, she heads to either band or gym class to watch Wray participate in a group activity. About 15 minutes before school concludes, Wray will pack up her clarinet or change out of her gym clothes a little earlier than the other children, and she and Dooley will talk for a few minutes before school gets out.
“When I first met DeNaya she was young, so I’ve really seen her mature a lot,” says Dooley. “At first, she was shy and I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries in our relationship. I would ask simple questions about her friends and family. Now there are always things for me to ask her about and things to check up on.”
Today, Wray packs up her clarinet and her classmates wave vigorously as she leaves the room. Wray carries a red and blue Wonder Woman backpack complete with the gold logo on the back. As she strides through the hallway, students run up and yell “Hey Wonder Woman!” in Wray’s ear as she smiles and waves back. For a minute it seems as if she really is Wonder Woman given all the attention she receives in the school’s hallway. She and Dooley talk about her recent band recital.
“I didn’t make a squeak,” Wray says of her clarinet, “I pretended the whole time!”
In front of Wray’s locker, it is clear that she is not the only one who enjoys the company of her mentor. At least seven of her classmates come running up to hug, tap or wave to Dooley. They all voice their jealousy that Wray has a mentor. As the end of the school day approaches, students, some with mentors just like Dooley, start to fill the halls.
As Dooley and Wray begin to file out, one sixth-grader notices DeNaya talking to Landyn and another mentor. “DeNaya!” she says, “You have two mentors? That’s not fair, I want two mentors!”
It seems that all of the students feel this way. According to Paula Shilton, the executive director of Clake County Mentor Program, the program has resulted in students with mentors receiving better grades, having fewer behavioral problems and a higher likelihood of continuing on to higher education. In addition, mentees are less likely to struggle with substance abuse than students without mentors.
“I think a lot of these kids don’t have people to look up to,” Dooley says, “They need a positive role model and having a mentor helps them become aware of what they are capable of.”