On Being Found by a Mentor

Cast Photographs | Oliver! | Oliver twist, Nancy oliver twist, Theatre geek
Well of COURSE that isn’t me at the age of 14 playing Nancy in Oliver! Don’t be ridiculous…

How do you get from singing along to the Broadway station on Sirius XM to reviewing your professional mentoring history? I’ll tell you how…

I was on the way to work, distracting myself from some major worries with show tunes. Love me, don’t judge me! On came a song from The Pajama Game, the musical that my junior high school produced when I was in the sixth grade. THAT brought me to the next year’s musical – Fiddler on the Roof. I played Hodel, the political activist daughter who follows her man to Siberia for love, and eighth grader Mark Adams played Tevya, my father. The NEXT year we did Oliver! I had my heart set on the female lead role of Nancy — the saucy, gutsy, abused girlfriend who is bludgeoned to death. (I could NOT make this UP! And, for what it is worth, I have no memory of any “listen kids, abuse is wrong, please don’t be traumatized, we’ll help you through this” talks from any adults who were connected to the show. That is perhaps another blog piece.)

Anyway. What I remember about the audition is that for some reason, Mark Adams, last year’s leading actor, now a high schooler, was present for the auditions. Maybe he was invited to “help”? And before I brought my small self up to the front of the room, he handed me a notecard. On it were some notes, some tips, written just for me. I think there were some vocal suggestions, but the specific comment I remember was: “Don’t play around on your clogs.” (It was 1980. We wore lots of clogs.) I didn’t. Maybe in part because of Mark’s tip, I stood firmly and confidently, sang my heart out, and got the role!

Ok, so WHY in the world do I remember that? I am pretty sure it is because it was my first brush with mentoring. In a very small way, Mark was mentoring me. Here’s the deal… this high school boy had no designs on me. I don’t think he was asked to hand out notecards (I didn’t see anyone else get one.) I think he saw something in me, and wanted to help me along. I remember the moment because this older person, someone I admired, showed me that I was worthy of his time and attention. Mentoring.

My next mentoring memory? I was walking down the stairs at my friend David’s house. He and Andy and I were all teachers, and David and Andy were just finishing a principal preparation program. The two of them were trying to convince me that I should pursue the role, too. They told me that I would be an awesome principal, and probably told me why. I hadn’t been thinking about that path, and then suddenly I was. And I did it. Now, many years later, I am a school superintendent. In this case, mentoring was just a gentle push, again coming from someone seeing something in me.

(Please keep in mind that all of this thinking is going on with The Broadway Station playing, while driving on autopilot, early in the morning…)

After that came, I think, a bunch of No Mentoring. Or, at least, I don’t remember anyone taking me under their wing for a long time. I could have used a mentor as a young teacher who could not find my place on my teaching team. I could have used a mentor as a beginning principal who went right from teacher to principal. (Yes, now that I think of it, I did have a wonderful formal mentor who was paid to work with the new administrators. She was a retired principal, and excellent, and I was grateful to learn with her. But — that is different from having someone see something in you and say, “Yes. Of my own volition, I want to help this person. I want to help her develop into who she can be.”) Anyway, teacher-to-principal is pretty difficult, and I could have used someone around who voluntarily filled my bucket.

Indeed, I do believe in formal mentoring programs, and in fact built one for a statewide professional association when I served on their executive board a few years back. Participation was voluntary for mentors and mentees, and I feel that we helped people. Still, though, not the same as someone specifically selecting you, helping you to find your greatness. There is, I believe, a vast difference between being assigned a mentor, and being found by a mentor.

Kate was also my mentor. She was my superintendent for four years, and she made it very clear, very early on, that she was invested in me becoming a superintendent. She was there to listen and advise and question and gently push. I came to her undecided. By the time our working relationship ended, I was decided. I am so very grateful for all of her words of wisdom. Now, every once in a while, I will think or say something, and realize: I am channelling Kate.

This brings me to two amazing mentors. The first is my husband, who is currently in the other room blogging, too, and does not know that I’m writing about him. Many years ago, Larry was a youth group advisor and religious high school principal, and the connections that he built with his high schoolers most definitely surpassed the typical student/advisor relationship. And it wasn’t because he was a friend. He was a mentor. He pushed his kids, he asked them questions, he expected things. He gave each of those teenagers all of the time that they needed. He helped them find their truth. All these years later, he still gets invited to weddings, is sent baby pictures, schedules coffee dates with his former students. I feel very sure that many of them have paid it forward, going on to become mentors themselves.

This brings me to Rabbi Mark Shapiro. Rabbi Shapiro was my rabbi growing up, and Larry worked for him during that advisor/principal period of his life. There is a Facebook Group called “I Am a Jewish Leader and Mark S. Shapiro Was My Rabbi!”, and there are 127 members, some of whom are pictured above in a photo from… probably the early ’90s. I know almost all of the people in this photo, people who looked to this magnificent rabbi as their mentor. Those people became who they were professionally at least in part because Rabbi Shapiro watered that seed for them. He let them know that they could and should do it. He let them know that they were needed. He mentored them. When this great leader passed away a few months ago, everybody who knew him had a story of how they were touched by him, how he made them feel special. And those who were truly mentored by him know that it is their duty to go out and find heart and talent and beauty in others.

Of course, writing all of this, I have thought of many others who have played mentoring roles for me. I won’t write about all of them here, as really, this isn’t about me. It is about our collective responsibility to find greatness in others, to invite, to suggest, to give of our time. I am committed to this concept, and feel confident that it is a moral imperative for each of us to let others know that we see something special in them, we see something that maybe they don’t see themselves yet. This is work that should never be finished. So, I’ll leave it here:

Thank you Mark. Thank you Andy and David. Thank you Kate. You probably don’t remember any of this. But I do, and I’m trying to pay it forward, feet solidly on the ground, not playing around on my clogs.

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