My Mentor

Well over thirty years ago, I sat in my high school music class pondering the meaning of why I was there. I had my whole life ahead of me and didn’t know better. I didn’t know better because prior to that, I’d gotten into heaps of trouble with the schools I had attended but not enough to constitute a criminal record. Thank goodness. Had I not smartened up, I’m sure I would have ended up on the street somewhere doing who knows what.

Definition of a mentor.
Definition of a mentor.

I had help. My high school music teacher was one of my mentors throughout the length of my stay there at the insane asylum. He was a bulk of a man, tree stumps for arms and a thick neck. He also was Romanian. Not that it mattered to other students, but it mattered to me, considering I had a huge crush on gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the time, and he came from the same area of Romania she did. So naturally, I gravitated toward his instruction and put him on a pedestal.

His name doesn’t matter either. Suffice it to know he influenced me in ways that even today bewilders me. “Hey, so-and-so used to say that,” I would say to myself whenever I’d do something he would have approved.

His approach to life was a simple one—be the best you can be without being a goof about it. His words. If you expected something dramatic, that’s as dramatic as it got. His intention was to instill courage into every student, and never to be afraid of making a difference in the world.

Before becoming a teacher, he escaped communism from which he experienced firsthand the persecution of his family by those less intelligent than he. When he immigrated to Canada, his goal was to live a peaceable life. Eventually, his reputation as a perfectionist in the field of music preceded him and my future high school offered him a position as a teacher.

Students like me flocked to his classes simply from word of mouth. They were not easy classes to get into, and they were not what anyone expected. His philosophy of marrying music with life lessons made him the most popular teacher in the school. The courses were worth an extra half credit for those lucky enough to have him accept their entrance application.

From the onset of taking one of his classes, he made it plain that students who did not give one hundred percent of their attitude toward the class would not pass. To him, skill wasn’t what mattered. It was attitude. He used to say

“You can teach an ape to do anything, but it is very difficult to teach attitude to a human.”

Many kids came and went through his doors. Those with problems, he personally helped with encouraging words. I landed on the student council believing I was capable of more than what I had shown him.

After graduating high school, I visited my music teacher several times to see how he was doing. He was his cranky old self, teasing his students to sit up straight, and pay attention while I distracted him with simple stories of my effort with living a peaceable life.

Eventually though, we lost touch. However, by that time, I didn’t consider him a mentor anymore but a friend.

I miss my friend.

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Have you had a mentor in life? What ever became of them? What do you think of the mentoring others for their betterment?

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12 thoughts on “My Mentor

  1. Great story, Jack. Mentors are important people. My mentor appeared rather late in my life (just a few years ago), as I was switching careers. He helped me to see clearly how I could accomplish my goals for creative writing. Until that point, no one had taken a chance on me to see what was underneath the impassive exterior. I learned great things from him about writing, work, and the creative process. I credit him with springboarding me into self publishing. He helped me see a ladder that I could climb to reach my dreams.

  2. I’ve never managed a mentor but have had a few people off whom I’ve ricocheted in new directions (teachers, friends, etc.). I have cried to the universe in search of one, but no Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda has arrived just yet.

    Thus, I am my own mentor for now, part of me trying to always keep a broader view on what I am doing while the rest of me is stuck in the weeds.

    I am enjoying life and doing what I love, so I believe it is working…but still, it would be nice to have someone help.

    When I am ready, one will arrive.

  3. Mine was my boss. She was a geriatric nurse for more than 50 years. She directed nursing homes all over NYS. She started up one of the first AIDS clinics in the country. Back in the 80’s, she was one of 5 people who were consulted by the government and ended up helping to lead them in a direction that standardized clinical documentation standards across the country and years later would lead to the creation of the MDS system (Minimum Data Set).

    She was a single mother of 5 kids from the Buffalo area who moved down to Long Island and raised her kids there. Her husband passed from cancer. Her kids are all amazing and accomplished individuals now in their own right now – one is a dairy farmer who has some of the best-rated milk in the country – he studied law and could be a lawyer but prefers to work with his hands, one is a teacher who spent a lot of time in Asia teaching English before coming back home, one rebuilds houses for people – especially storm and hurricane survivors, one implements healthcare systems for hospitals and the last one defends children from being used as weapons against their parents in bitter divorce cases.

    But, anyway, she was an inspiration to me, and still is. She ran 3 companies – a nurse consulting company, a company which created paper forms used by nursing homes across the country and a clinical software company – which I still work for. She was the smartest, most well-written and ethical person I’ve ever met. She loved people and always found ways to encourage and empower them. She had a quiet strength and applied nursing care plan process to everything in life – solving problems for large agencies, small homes, and individual people with the same passion.

    I come from a technology background, and over the course of 14 years working with her, know more about clinical standards than most of the nurses and other clinicians that I now help. That’s all on account of her taking the time to help me be the best I could be for myself and for everyone who we help. She passed from melanoma 2 1/2 years ago… 2 weeks before the birth of my daughter, who I really would have loved for her to meet.

    She never bowed down to political pressures that others in our field exploit. She never took dirty money that I’ve seen others go after – and believe me, I’ve seen Medicare/Medicaid fraud. She forced our clients to remain ethical and practice as they’d been taught. She defended people – both clinicians and facilities as well as families. There was never any question about her aims – she got to the core of right and wrong and took a stand.

    During the last years of her life, no one even knew she was battling cancer. She was absolutely stoic. She endured the chemo and other experimental procedures silently, although she was in her late 70s or early 80s at that point and still working close to 18 hours a day, every day. She lost her jaw and had an artificial one constructed. She lost her hair and got a realistic wig so that she could see clients. She dropped to 1/2 her weight, lost a lot of muscle, and her mind and memory were finally affected. Yet, she continued to work for people and solve problems and speak to us about morality and life lessons until the last days, when she had no strength left and couldn’t get up anymore. Even on her deathbed, she was made of steel. They don’t make people like that anymore.

    But yeah, she was my mentor. Not just in work-related stuff. She got to know about my life. She taught me a lot about right and wrong and effort and perseverance. I think of her as a 2nd mother and I miss the hell out of her.

  4. It is a great thing to have an experience like this. What many mentors don’t realize they gain as much from their mentees. It is great and fun exhiliarating and exhausting but so worthwhile! There are only a few that you will have this connect with as a mentor or a mentee

  5. My Russian professor was…and happily, still is…my mentor. She and I clicked on almost an organic level, and she has believed in me like no other educator I ever had. Interestingly, she and her husband also fled Communism. We’re still in touch, and at least once a year I make the trek to the Boston area to spend a long weekend with her and her husband, where we talk about life and art and music and philosophy. Every time I see her I think I know more about the world, have my creative spark re-ignited, and feel like a better person for it all. Mentors are a blessing. It’s great that you recognize yours.

  6. I had a college professor who was as you describe. He would compel a student to be better than imagined. Good enough was not good enough. Sadly he passed leaving behind hundreds who knew a better way.

  7. Sounds like a teacher I had. Her name was Mrs. Walker, she was from Maine, she had a face like Lorne Greene, & she was a grammar perfectionist. What some people would call a ” Grammar Nazi “. But I learned some lessons about more than grammar from her.

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