In autumn of 2006, I unknowingly first walked by a future mentor in a hallway in midtown Manhattan. I was seventeen, and I was touring the liberal arts college that would soon become home for four years. The woman who walked past me was a small, dark-haired European professor, and someday she would become a beloved pedagogical mother to me. This friendship bloomed right after undergrad, when I became a teacher at her daughters’ school. She would come home after 12-hour days with faculty and students, make me a cup of espresso (no questions asked!), and proceed to energetically ask me how my first year as a teacher was going. I opened up rather quickly–not only was teaching a steep learning curve, but I was a full-time graduate student with many recent changes in my life. Over the next several years this generous New York Mom would cook me dinner, hand me books, and tell me stories that would deeply shape my life as a teacher and a human being. Thanks in large part to her, I would grow from a bewildered first-year T.A. into someone who cannot imagine any other vocation for herself but teacher. I knew I could learn how, because I saw it in her.
Years later, in 2017, a pack of wild-haired middle school girls passed me in the hallway of the school where I teach. Instead of the usual, Hi, Ms. Brown, I heard a chorus of, Hi, Mom! This greeting began because I was briefly mistaken as the mother of one of them after good-naturedly reprimanding her at a school event (it helped that we also slightly resembled each other). This group of girls welcomed teacher-student mentorship from not only me, but many other teachers, as well. As one who continued to need and receive that kind of relationship myself from my friend back in New York, I began to get to know the students better. We went on many field trips with the school hiking club, where we climbed mountains and shared discussions about books and history. My other teacher friends and I walked alongside these young adults as they asked earnest questions, grew, suffered, and became high school students.
Within the next few years, a handful of these students joined our high school leadership program. Some of them traveled as student chaperones with me on a bus full of loud and sleepy seventh graders all the way to Catalina Island for a three-day snorkeling field trip. At some point as I sat on the boardwalk pouring saltwater out of my flippers, and I saw a small hoard of twelve-year-old girls in wetsuits following one of my high school leaders around, shouting after her, Mom!
On that island in the Pacific, I was experiencing an early, small taste of the legacy of mentorship. Mentorship is anything but new in the world of the liberal arts; the word itself harkens back to Telemachus’s advisor in Homer’s Odyssey. While the western world today often places little emphasis on the value of virtuous relationships between the old and the young, the classroom continues to provide an opportunity for this to happen daily. Kristján Kristjánsson writes in his book Aristotelian Character Education that Aristotle considers character education, particularly between those of varying maturity levels, “a life-long process towards excellence…whose most realized form can be found in the interactions between mature ‘character friends’.” Aristotle details at length the possibility and desirability of “character friendships” specifically between the old and the young, as it is the young who need it more than anyone else.
Minister Chris Coursey points out in his book Transforming Fellowship that mentorship can deeply change the life of those who receive it: “In the presence of this secure bond with someone we admire…We duplicate part of their identity as our own. We become one of their people or ‘tribe’ and they become a sort of parent to us.” In short, be around those you want to become. This simple advice has brought more joy into my life than perhaps anything else I have been told as a student and a teacher.
I have found that much of my moral development with older, wiser friends happened for me in two contexts: dialogue and play. Kristjánsson in particular writes about the value of this, as well, calling dialogue “the essential medium” of character education. My mentor and I can talk for hours about everything from philosophy to church history to neuroscience. And yet, just as much of who I am today is because she also roped me into learning Albanian dances and insisted I spend full days splashing around in the pool with her kids. While it will be years before I am as wise as she is, I’ve taken this mix of conversation and play to heart. I have learned by example to take time to talk to my students, whether it be about what we are reading in class that week, or questions they have wrestled with for years. But equally formative are those times we have played volleyball or scrambled over rocks together. In the words of John Bosco in his letter to his Salesians, “How are we to go about breaking down this barrier?…By a friendly relationship with the boys, especially in recreation. Affection can’t be shown without this friendly relationship, and unless affection is seen there can be no confidence.”
Mentorship thus requires a sacrifice of time. I think back to the first night my friend in New York made me coffee when she was most certainly already tired and worn-out, and I wonder where I would be today if she had not taken the time to do that in the midst of her busy life. She is a mother of three biological children and many more pedagogical children. She still, years later, generously listens and gives of herself each time I call or visit. She is a seasoned mentor. I, on the other hand, could still pass for sixteen years old from across the campsite; yet the job of mentorship has already been thrust upon me, as well. In small but significant ways, this responsibility has even already been given to my own high school students as they model joy and wisdom for their younger schoolmates.
This kind of mentorship Bosco describes ideally begins in the context of the family and spirals outward from there, but in reality there are many students for whom a teacher may be the only healthy and trustworthy adult in their lives. For students like these—and others simply hungry to ask more questions—mentorship can shift the course of an entire life. It did for me. In short, mentorship is a matter of love. It is a virtue-centered relationship that for teachers often begins in the classroom and ends outside of it. It is a matter of both heavy discourse and light joy. It can, in Bosco’s own words, make the life of an educator a small “foretaste of heaven.”