Shortly before my husband and I welcomed the birth of our first child, my Cousin Mindy invited us over for dinner. “You might want to bring a notepad along,” she advised. “to write down what I’m going to tell you about setting up a nursery.” Mindy’s unfiltered directness always made me smile. I was never offended by her recommendations because they always came from a caring heart.
I did take notes that evening as Mindy “counseled” me on what I should include in my baby registry. “You have to get some mesh laundry bags,” she said. “Attach a ribbon to one end, hang it in the bathroom and toss in dirty baby socks. You’ll never lose them in the wash.”
More than 20 years after our dinner at Mindy’s, we still use mesh bags to launder small items. Good advice is timeless, and so are mentors. The truly great ones are honest enough to meet us where we are, see through our shortcomings, and push us beyond our self-imposed limitations. Mentors come into our lives at critical times, helping to shape who we are today.
Most people consider parents, teachers, and coaches among the earliest mentors in their lives. When I was born, my Mom and Dad were 37 and 47, respectively, making them older than most of my friends’ parents. As I grew up, I began to see this as a benefit rather than an obstacle. Having older parents reinforced the principles of practicing a religious faith, getting an education, and taking care of family. I can genuinely say that the root of my achievements in life happened because I am their daughter.
My former teacher and ninth-grade youth leader, Phil, is a mentor whose devout faith and gentle humility quickly garnered my respect. He was my Confirmation sponsor, and we remained in contact after I left for college. I was a naive, 17-year-old freshman struggling with self-confidence when Phil came for a visit. He helped me understand that what others ridiculed in me were the very qualities that made me strong. He encouraged me to defend my beliefs against a bullying roommate and be assertive in peer relationships. Phil saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.
My very first job in the field of journalism brought another strong mentor into my life. That summer after my freshman year of college, I was desperately looking for a job in the communications industry. I had been practically assured a DJ job at a local radio station, but management didn’t follow through with the offer, leaving me feeling exploited by the whole experience.
Shortly before the end of the school year, I made the rounds of our local media outlets, hoping to get a summer job. My last stop of the day was at The Observer Catholic newspaper office. I mustered up a positive attitude despite being rejected at every other place. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that the editor would see me.
Armed with a typewritten resume that was more academic accolades than actual work experience, I nervously made my way into Owen’s office. He took a quick look at my “resume” and asked if I had any writing experience. I proudly showed him a few of the articles I had written for my high school newspaper. He looked over the features and asked, “Can you take photos?”
Yes, I can,” I lied. Owen reached under his desk and pulled out a 35mm camera, bag, and reporter’s notebook. “I have two assignments for you this weekend,” he said. “And take some pictures too.” I could hardly believe that after a 10-minute interview, I was getting the opportunity to work in a field that would eventually become my life’s vocation.
Owen took a chance on an 18-year-old rookie reporter. He saw potential in me, and he gave me the tools, confidence, and encouragement I needed to start my career. Now, 34 years later, I still work for The Observer and have additional freelance photojournalism pursuits all because of Owen.
Have we been in situations where a less experienced co-worker, friend, or family member could have used our expertise? Have we failed to be that lifeline for someone in a distressing situation?
I would have welcomed a mentor during my first year of teaching. I had a class of 34 students, most of which had behavioral or academic issues. I had broken off an engagement halfway through the school year but returned for the second semester, still enthusiastic about positively impacting my students.
That spring, one parent-teacher conference crushed my good intentions when a student’s mother unleashed a tirade of false accusations against me. My colleagues and the principal, also present at the conference, remained silent even as the student’s father tried to quell his wife’s complaints. Consequently, I had little opportunity to speak during the meeting.
A good mentor uses diplomacy to maintain the line of respect in a tense situation. A good mentor shows support by celebrating the successes of others and sharing the burden of unexpected setbacks. A good mentor knows how to impart knowledge while empowering others. Whether personal or professional, long-lasting, constructive relationships are built and maintained by good mentors.