All teachers need mentors. This relationship and process starts with student teaching and the neophyte’s professor, but in most cases, sadly ends there. My positive experiences with mentors in my life come from a diverse group of teachers, coaches, and oddly enough, two parakeets.
I play tennis and practice against the wall of a racquetball court. I hit for thirty minutes, starting out slow to find my concentration. At sixty-six I take my time to warm up until I start hitting harder over an imaginary net while keeping my focus and tension level as if it were a real match. Playing inside a cube gets intense, sweaty, and noisy for lone tennis players.
My cube of intensity was broken one day when Al asked if he could come in and play a game of racquetball, a sport I never played. We practiced for ten minutes as I hit the ball using my tennis strokes and loved the freedom the sport offers that tennis does not. I could whack the ball almost recklessly and not worry about clearing a net or keeping it inside the baseline.
Al gave me “pointers” about hitting the ball and where, positioning myself on the court, serving, how to and where to, and the rules of the game, all this in an hour of play and instruction. I became an instant fan of the game and a novice racquetball player.
In a direct, non-judgmental manner, Al became a mentor, teacher, guide, counselor, tutor, and coach. When I think about past mentors, I did not completely appreciate what mentoring really is and how meaningful and expansive it can be in people’s lives, and how empty one’s existence is without having them.
One mentor I can easily recall is my fourth grade teacher, “M”: Why do I remember her? In my graduation autograph book, I re-read her comment: “May God keep you always in the Hollow of His Hand. To my serious one, and fine student: Stay the perfectionist you are, but have fun and relax too. Best wishes for a happy life.”
Nothing has changed since her description: I am still a perfectionist, serious about my work, but have toned down and learned to let some things slide. I can relax and have fun playing sports and in photography, although her comment holds true today, to be honest. Yes, this is who I am now. She had it right when I was only ten.
Why am I reading this autograph album? M knew me. Her perception and love triggered an inner strength to grow and to become a person. Only one year with a compassionate teacher who I connected with empowered me for a lifetime. Imagine that…
I think about my sports coaches who taught me about competing, practicing, hard work, effort, concentration, cooperation, commitment, communication, individuality, responsibility, and courage. When I stopped a second to reflect on this thought, I said to myself: “Yes, it’s true.”
C was an intense, enthusiastic, and smart coach who pushed me to play basketball with older guys: “Come on, coach, these guys are too good and will hurt me. They’re bigger and stronger.” He didn’t listen and played me in a game against them in a gym with dark wooden floors, cinder block walls, and cathedral windows, a perfectly cold setting for my demise.
I actually kept up with the big boys, realizing “I can do it.” C, like M, read me well, presented a riddle to solve, which triggered awareness that there are other possibilities you might not see—but to succeed, you have to that chance. He made me see what I had inside: the self-motivation, self-belief, and confidence that tuned me into what I can do and face my fear. Image that…
Coach B was different: he was a screamer, always cursing at me for making mistakes, trying to make me see my ignorance on the basketball court. He taught me how to play intelligently, to understand and enjoy the game. His language today would be considered verbal abuse, but I did not mind his delivery; it never hurt my self-confidence or self-respect because I was learning how to play, and eventually became a coach myself of boys and girls basketball teams. Look at how much he gave me, despite…
As I search my memory, other mentors come to mind like my high school tennis instructor, “R.” I remember when R asked me to take a practice serve to see if I knew anything. I hit, what I thought, was a great serve. The ball landed in the middle of the service box with little pace on it. His acerbic response: “Flam, that wasn’t too good.” In my mind I said: “You cannot be serious!”
R taught me how to serve by practicing “shadow serving” without a racquet or a ball, to keep practicing my toss (fifty to one hundred tosses daily with and without the ball) and the follow-through on my motion. It worked. Today I can teach kids the hardest skill in tennis. He made me into a player and a teacher. That’s what mentors can do in a helping relationship. Again, I ignored his delivery style and listened to the words, not the tone of voice.
Through each mentor-mentee relationship I discovered a skill and power inside me, which I could, in turn, convey to my students. How effective is a mentor if the mentee cannot pass that knowledge on to future mentees? Yes, pass it on to others so new connections between people are created. I wonder why we don’t take mentoring more seriously, especially when we know how vital it is from experiences described by mentees and mentors.
There are many mentors in our worlds, but, unfortunately, we don’t always recognize them. We just don’t get it, at times. So I would like to finish my tribute to all good mentors every- and anywhere with an ode to budgies—and I’m not kidding you—that is, to Peppy and Skippy:
Peppy was a parakeet I had for seven years before he passed away quite suddenly. Peppy couldtalk. I recall teaching him with a repeating record, covering his cage so he could concentrate on and listen to the words, “Pretty birdy,” for example, being said over and over again.
Peppy didn’t like the record so I began talking to him myself, repeating whatever words and phrases I wanted him to know. He learned to talk even though I ran out of breath and saliva from the repetition. But it worked, just listen: “Pretty birdy,” “Hello Peppy,” “Peppy”…
Now I see myself standing in front of the cage when he first repeated “Hello Peppy” and “Pretty birdy.” His mood changed radically as he hopped back and forth on the perches. I moved closer and saw that he was happy and “peppy” and bursting with love in his domain.
Can a budgie be a mentor? Sounds crazy? Yet he educated me about wanting something real, a genuine experience, a human touch and feel, not something mechanical, a voice coming from a piece of plastic, from an unknown, unseen voice. He wanted to make eye contact, from budgie to human, desiring a real feel of life, to talk to a person, to connect with me, not with some other.
How did Peppy become a mentor bird? He taught me about my own motivation to be real, to discover what is real, my need to teach, create, and help others, to search for meaning from the inside out, and to practice this approach to life daily. I followed the prescient ways of Peppy, the guru in a cage, and used them to teach children to find their creativity, identity, and inner reality through natural ways of being. In this way they would feel connected to and embrace their worlds and existence.
The journey of praise ends with Skippy, my wife’s parakeet. He became a mentor during my sabbatical from teaching. I was home for many hours writing and took lots of side-trips through streets that funneled their way into Skippy’s life:
Skippy hopped back-and-forth all day in his tiny cage, and then was given a free ride when I opened the cage door and let him fly where he pleased. The minute it opened, Skippy flew like crazy, going straight into the white walls of the apartment and crashing into mirrors and windows because he saw trees outside and yearned to perch in one. Who knows? I spent my breaks from writing watching him hop around the cage, go to his dish, eat some seeds, and drink water to wash it all down. I remember bringing him to our summer house and leaving him on the deck. How he loved the fresh country air. Ahh, what a simple life he led, not a worry in the world as compared to mine…
I would observe Skippy in his cage, meditating on him, losing track of time and forgetting about the mounting tensions from writing. I focused totally on Skippy. If I got distracted, I re-directed my attention on him. Meditation emptied thoughts and feelings I wanted out of body and mind. Skippy became my natural, guided budgie meditation that led me to an inner landscape of peace.
Picturing him right now, I see that little yellow pinhead and tiny charcoal eyes looking at me eye-to-eye without flinching for a second. Skippy became a symbol of a quiet, calm, free, open contemplative life, and re-connected me to my self through this easy meditation.
But there is more to Skippy’s tale, because, as a symbol, he also became the “Phoenix,” who resurrected himself from his own ashes: One day, my wife found Skippy at the bottom of the cage with feet up, lying there, and seemingly dead. The house had been recently sprayed and he might have inhaled too many fumes, so she put him in a shoebox all stiff and took him to an animal medical center on the eastside of New York City.
There was too much paperwork and a long waiting line. She left the center and went across the street to a heliport where she planned to bury him in the East River. A security guard noticed her and asked what she was doing there. When he heard her story, he suggested giving Skippy brandy to revive him, however, this still left her uncertain, and she decided to take him home and bury him.
On the ride home she kept opening the shoebox and noticed he righted himself and was lying on his stomach. She peeked again and this time he stood up with eyes closed. She looked inside the box yet again and he jumped up and perched on her finger, but his eyes remained closed. My wife took him, perched on her finger through the streets on a ten-degree, windy, winter night to her apartment, and put Skippy on the bottom of his cage. He did not move when she covered the cage and had no idea of what would happen to him.
The following day she found him standing on the perch and whistling like nothing had happened. Skippy was ready for action: the dawning of a new age for him, this budgie and mentor. Like the Phoenix, Skippy resurrected himself, and was born-again in the shoebox and now in the cage. He became Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by a miracle and went on to live thereafter…
Why does Skippy’s tale of regeneration and renewal keep circling in my mind? What does it suggest about a mentor’s effect on a mentee’s life? What are the connections here? I think the answer lies in our consciousness and unconscious, where the life of a mentor moves in and out of awareness. How much can a person impact our own life? A lot. We tend to forget their influences as these memories come and go in our mind. If you ruminate on the definition of a mentor, you begin to see how you have been affected and how they have created noticeable changes in you and your life…Imagine, yeah, imagine…
Roll through your memories: Visualize images and experiences accumulated in your life. See what this mentoring world has given you. Recapitulate events that have made you, you, and discover your forgotten, and unrealized, mentors like I have in my reflection. And then, think about a crucial issue we face in education today, the teacher-in-the-classroom, and how she will be the great teacher we all want. One road to our destiny is mentoring every teacher who walks in a classroom as an apprentice, working her way to becoming a dynamic communicator.
To conclude my praise of all good mentors—whoever, whatever, and wherever you are—check out samples of my students’ original “word-a-thon,” haiku, and short poetry. These are the effects/affects of, connections to, and reasons for great mentors and mentoring everywhere:
I’m on your side
in every way
I’ll grab the Earth
and the great book
that leads to
We’ve got each other
The whistle of the
winds, me alone
I shall stand
buzzing in the night
I can hear
the wind of a
big rotating earth
The Turning Point
Face the clouds
of the future ahead
Release your dream world
You will show no fear
The New World is waiting for you
your entire life
Soft beautiful and free
You care more to future days
Bold speed flies to celebrate
our golden mystery
Born to think of the world
called imagination, the young great
spirit world spurring before your
in the darkness