“There they are!”
I watched an eight-year-old pointer finger shoot toward a cloudless sky. Squinting with 57-year-old eyes, I spotted two bald eagles soaring high above the Stone Arch Bridge. The Mississippi, swollen from spring rains, flowed in grand splendor below.
We’d been here before, sitting on the puffy green hillside next to the Guthrie Theater. Last year, in nearly the same spot, my Little Sister Jasmine—as in Big Brothers Big Sisters Little Sister—spotted the birds for the first time.
Naturally, the eagles needed names. “That one there is ‘Candy,’” Jasmine said just as the eagle swooped low. A second later, another magnificent display of white crown and tail feathers followed.
“’Hot Dog,’” she proclaimed.
With that, it was official.
Now we were back, year two of a special friendship and bald eagle watching.
We were doing it in grand style, too. Jasmine held a melting Izzy’s mocha and chocolate ice cream cone. I had a couple licks left to a monster-sized chocolate chip cookie-ice cream sandwich.
It was all quite wonderful.
I became Jasmine’s Big Sister by accident. There’s a push to increase diversity in Minneapolis’ legal ranks; one initiative is a “pipeline” to help inner city youth become more interested in legal careers. The plan is to mentor to high school students as they finish secondary school and go on to college.
I was told I’d be the first transgender “Big” that Big Brothers Big Sisters would ever match with a “Little.” The agency would need to find the right child and family, people open to someone who appeared feminine but sounded like a man.
When I got the call from the agency, it wasn’t about a high schooler at all, but instead a seven-year-old girl. “I think you’ll really like her, Ellie,” the woman on the other end of the phone said. “She likes to go to museums. Plus, she needs someone strong like you.”
Not what I had planned age-wise. I asked whether being a transgender woman would be a problem.
“No, not all,” the agency person said. “Mom and Little are open to you.”
On a cold snowy evening in December 2012, I met Jasmine for the first time. She held a drawing of a tall woman with flowing blonde hair. “Ellie” was written in glitter on the woman’s dress.
“I knew that you’d be beautiful,” Jasmine said.
This kinky-haired cocoa-colored angel of a human made me smile for what would be the first of ten thousand smiles. I was hooked.
In 18 months, we’ve done the gambit—Chuck E Cheese, movies, an afternoon at Lake Calhoun (“watch me stand on my hands underwater, Ellie!”), the aquarium at the Mall of America, gutter ball bowling at Bryant Lake Bowl.
One day Jasmine asked, “Can we go to the Walker?”
It was music to my ears.
A half-hour later, Jasmine bounded up steps to an exhibit of a twenty-foot tall table and chairs. From there, we went room to room as she commented on funny or odd art pieces, mainstays of the Walker’s permanent collection.
As advertised, Jasmine’s a museum junkie. We’ve been to the State History Museum twice and the MIA once.
By now, you get it that for a (now) eight-year-old, Jasmine’s pretty darn smart. She reads billboards as we drive from point A to B. Time and again, she nails it.
We play our own game, “perception.” It’s about connecting dots based on bits of information and then inferring how they’re related—for example, whether certain styles of gift bags sitting on tables at Chuck E. Cheese are for boys or girls. Or that the rainbow flag five houses down means that a GLBT family lives there.
Yes, I’m working on honing Jasmine’s legal deductive reasoning skillset already. Please don’t let her know that.
One Sunday Jasmine and I toured Augsburg College with my daughter Lily, then an Augsburg student, as tour guide. I watched saucer eyes grow bigger and bigger as we went from dorm room to student union to cafeteria and then library. By the end of the tour, I heard, “This is where I’m going to college!”
My question: “What will it take for you to get here, Jasmine?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Hard work. It will take hard work, Ellie.”
At that point, Lily (who’s long heard such things from me) turned and gave Jasmine a high five.
For me, it was a moment of sheer delight.
When I went through “Big” training, I repeatedly heard how I’d be giving a child the gift of my time. They praised us for volunteering; I’m sure so that we would stick with the program.
What the agency didn’t mention was how my life would be profoundly changed by an eight-year-old kinky-haired girl. I hadn’t ever experienced such complete acceptance by someone so young.
Jasmine doesn’t care that I’m a transwoman.
She only cares that I show up in her life.
It’s exactly as Jasmine said to me the other day. “We’re on a journey together, Ellie, you and me.”
What a beautiful journey it’s turning out to be.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also reminds readers that Big Brothers Big Sisters is a nation-wide organization that encourages all adults to apply to be mentors, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.