I once heard it said that there are two great learning institutions in Belfast: One being Queen’s University; the other Queen’s Island – the East Belfast shipyard megalith that built the likes of the “Olympic” and “Titanic”. However, if you are a young Protestant man, the door to both institutions seems difficult to push open. During the same week in April 2014 that the latest peace monitoring report from Community Relations Council highlighted that Protestant boys from poorer households are chronically falling behind their female and Catholic male counterparts, posters appeared in the shadow of the shipyard fuelled by outrage that foreign workers were being employed seemingly at the expense of locals.

Why are the boys falling so far behind? It’s easy to blame the politicians. Amongst the main Unionist parties there has undoubtedly been much energy expounded on maintaining the status quo of academic selection, instead of addressing the underlying reasons behind educational failure. And when you drill down into the new jobs created by the much-heralded inward investment, you realise that these jobs are largely for well-educated graduates and not for those with low academic achievement. However, laying the blame solely at the door of the politicians conveniently lets us off the hook. Maybe it’s time for us men to take a serious look in the mirror.

Time and again my experience as a social worker to adolescent boys has taught me that having an older man who genuinely takes an interest in a boy’s life can bring about so much positive change, increase self-esteem and open doors of opportunity. Yet often when I refer underachieving boys to a project where a volunteer can actively befriend them, I have been told “sorry, we have no male volunteers; only females.”

I believe that one missing piece of this puzzle might be a rediscovery of the concept of mentoring. Our word “mentor” comes from Greek mythology. When Odysseus went on a long journey, he trusted his son, Telemachus, into the care of his friend Mentor. Mentor took on the role of an older, faithful and wise advisor to the boy.

When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of encountering a man who had a profound impact on my life. His name was Jim. Although in his eighties, he was still full of vitality and young at heart. Our meeting was by chance, when I was asked by my parents to help find Jim a suitable mobile phone to use in emergencies. At the time, I had no idea of the impact this man – whom I had previously ignored – would have on my development. Visits to Jim became a regular feature of my life. Jim would always ask me about what was going on in my life. He would listen intently and provide some counsel and words of encouragement. After each visit, I left feeling heard and affirmed as a person.

Benjamin Franklin is noted as saying “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Jesus formed his disciples over three years, giving them not so much his time, but his example and his energy: “Come and see” and “follow me” are the invitations he makes to potential disciples. Jesus knew wisdom was passed not primarily through speeches and sermons, but by relationship and presence.

Many of our struggling boys will have experienced people telling them how to sort out their problems, how to pull their socks up or what they need to do to improve. These same boys need men to be relational, not informational. A true mentor will guide the boy – often on a circuitous path – into his problems and through them. He will provide reassurance as someone who has walked the journey ahead of them and affirms that their fears, frustrations and self-doubt are normal. This type of involvement will at times be messy and often involve one step forward and two steps back. Any true investment in relationship doesn’t come quickly but requires commitment and time. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says “Boys need a man to be in solidarity with them, so that they can be in solidarity with themselves.”

Is there a Telemachus you can be a mentor to?

Jonny Watson

Jonny is a social worker, photographer and father. He facilitates groups in male spirituality and is involved in bringing the first ever “Mens Rites of Passage” to Northern Ireland in June 2015.