Thoughts on Mentorship

Earlier this month, I got a call about a 13-year-old poet growing up in a chaotic, challenging environment in West Philly. The caller was an 8th grade math teacher, an algebra-and-geometry kind of guy. He told me that he didn’t know much about poetry, but he was moved by the young girl’s expressive words and wanted to support her development as a writer. So I shot out an email to the Kelly Writers House community at Penn, where I teach.

Within the hour, I had a deluge of replies from students, staff, and alumni. Victoria, a Penn sophomore, wrote of her own experience as a fledgling poet struggling through a turbulent childhood. “This just touches my heart,” she said, offering to become an informal mentor and friend “who could just read her work and listen to her!” What I loved best about Victoria’s message was that exclamation point at the end of her sentence, emphasizing the energetic warmth of her response.

Why does it feel so natural, even wonderful, to some of us, to take a younger soul, a “protégé”, under our wings? Everyone knows that a mentor can profoundly affect your destiny. This world is no meritocracy. No matter how hard you work, without access to cultural capital, you’ll bump into brick walls. A mentor helps you navigate the maze, and opens doors for you, or better, teaches you how to spot where doors are hidden.

But mentorship isn’t easy. It’s an open-ended investment in the life of someone who is neither a friend nor relative. It’s a commitment with no expectation of compensation, or even a guarantee of thanks. As a mentor, you must give of yourself unconditionally because your protégé needs the freedom to be self-absorbed, to flounder, to screw up, to disappear, and feel secure that you’ll be there for them when they return. And when your protégé succeeds, you must step aside, because the glory belongs to them, not you. What a thing to sign on for!

I didn’t have a mentor, but, somehow early in my career I began collecting budding writers, like puppies who followed me home from school. My roster grows cumbersome: in twenty-five years I have coached dozens of writers, mostly former students of mine, many of whom are now older than I was when I first met them. Hardly a day goes by I don’t hear from one or two, and I’m always glad to know how they’re doing. I’m their sounding board for ideas about craft; I critique their manuscripts; I give them contacts from my rolodex and make inquiries on their behalf. I’m a sounding board their complaints and their cheerleader when things are going well. These relationships sometimes mature to friendship, and occasionally there is some giving back. But not often- that river flows in one direction.

Of course, I’ve encouraged my four daughters to seek out mentors in their own fields. It’s often a frustrating quest. Madeline, a glass sculptor, chose an art school in Cleveland, hoping that a particular professor, whose architectural glass structures she admired, would become her mentor. But he turned out to be aloof and disengaged. Disheartened, she transferred to a Tyler School of Art, where she had no connections– a leap into the dark. Yet, what luck: there she found a glass department shimmering with willing mentors, whose guidance over the past year has helped her focus and evolve her craft in ways she could not have imagined.

You can’t force a mentorship any more than you force two people to fall in love. When a woman I’d been counseling for a decade balked at my suggestion that she help out a younger writer (“This isn’t a paid job, is it?”) I was shocked and hurt. Had I modeled nothing to her, all these years? But then I realized I had it wrong. She didn’t owe it to me, or the world, to help bring the next person along. The best mentorships seem to come about by happenstance, not design. “Pay it forward” is a catchphrase for the trickle-down theory of citizenship. A lovely idea, but mentorship isn’t about repaying debt. It’s a deeply personal experience, outside the sluggish realm of politics and corporations.

Three weeks have passed since the middle school math teacher called me, so I checked back to see how things were going. Had Victoria connected with her young protégé? Did the happily-every-after relationship I imagined take root? Alas, I learned that the emails I forwarded haven’t been followed up, and the young poet is still unaware of all the adults lined up to help her. School administrators explained to the math teacher that, while they grateful for these offers, they want to “scaffold this opportunity”, to move “surely instead of swiftly.” No one could argue against their caution in exposing a minor to adult strangers—let along a bunch of poets. But a month is light years in the life of an 8th grader, and it’s just so hard to be patient from where I sit. Here’s hoping that the young poet will get her chance to connect with a mentor, if not now, then somewhere along the way. As for Victoria, who has the knack for reaching out, I foresee a storied career.

This essay appeared, in a slightly abbreviated version, in the October 28, 2012 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer.