Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
June 14, 2017
“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you,
than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”
Canadian author, speaker and mentor
While campaigning in Virginia in 2008, President Obama said, “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Later, in the same speech, he did mention the need for individual initiative. While Mr. Obama stated his belief that government is instrumental in individual success, he was also referring to the roles mentors play.
A mentorship can be defined as a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. Young people who do well in school and in sports often attribute their success to the dedication of a teacher or coach. The same can be said for those beginning their careers, and it is true even for old goats who, late in life, take up writing essays. Mentors help turn doubt into determination, aspiration into accomplishment. Earlier this year, in the Harvard Business Review, Anthony Tjan wrote that “mentors need to be givers of energy, not takers of it.”
Mentoring is a way of giving back. Five years ago, I was invited to join a small group of retirees in Old Lyme, people who realized their experiences and talents could be of use to those in need. While I was not then retired, I was spending most Fridays in the country, so Friday morning meetings worked. We called ourselves Mentoring Corps for Community Development (MCCD), a 501(c)3 organization. Our website speaks to the “sparkle” we try to add to our town and the region – Old Lyme and southeastern Connecticut. Over the years, we have worked with schools and students, with families who have experienced natural disasters, and individuals who have suffered hardships. We have aided non-profit organizations and helped small businesses. We try to abide by advice Robert Frost once gave: “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
We all have had mentors in one form or another. Mistakes are a form of mentoring. Certainly, that has been true for me. While I was not smart enough to learn from them all, I have learned from some: my rudeness, when I was fourteen, to a young girl who was not very popular; a wise man who gently advised my 16-year-old self about the risks of speeding on back roads; a group of construction types who separated me from my paycheck when I was seventeen; I learn from my grandchildren who chide me when I mess up.
But, I also benefitted from those who mentored me: a teacher of English at Williston Academy, Horace “Thugsy” Thorner, whose class on Macbeth and Hamlet I have never forgotten; an instructor in journalism in college, and the editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, NH, for whom I wrote a sports column. I recall being told by my first real boss – Jim Donnelly of Eastman Kodak – that, if I set my mind to it, I could achieve anything. I was taught the basics of selling equities to institutional investors by Andy Monness, who thirty years later encouraged my fledging writing career. He often disagreed with my opinions, but liked the way I expressed them. As important as anything, in terms of my writing, have been the hundreds like you who have corrected me when I was in error, challenged my opinions when yours differed, and emboldened me in offering praise, not all of it deserved. I consider you all mentors.
It is when we are young, and not fully formed, that mentorship is most effective. I think of an experience in mid-summer 1960. I was a member of a prospecting team in the Northwest Territories of Canada, along the Nahanni River. It was 3,000 miles from home and about 200 miles from a road, not to mention a village. I was nineteen and lonely. There were twenty people in the expedition, most of whom were at least twenty years my senior. In mid-July, we were to move the base camp about 100 miles further north. I told the manager, a man named Doug Wilmot, that I wanted to go home. He said fine, just help us move the camp. He said nothing more, nor did I. A week later, once the camp was moved, we prospectors were ordered back to the field. I joined the others without hesitation. I have always been thankful I did. Quitting would have been something I would have regretted the rest of my life. I am grateful that Mr. Wilmot handled me as he did – no arguments, no recriminations, no attempts to convince me of the error I would have made by leaving betimes, and no smugness at my decision to stay.
When thinking of mentoring, we typically think of bright, talented, but reserved or introverted students who come to the attention of an observant, caring and capable teacher. A January 2014 report titled The Mentoring Effect, commissioned by the National Mentoring Partnership, found significant positive outcomes for those who had a mentor: They were more likely to aspire to or attend college; they were more likely to participate in sports or extracurricular activities; they were more likely to assume leadership roles in school, and more likely to volunteer in their communities. While the political focus is on funding underperforming schools, the greater need is finding teachers, coaches and volunteers who will give counsel and care to students navigating the shoals that separate childhood from adulthood. Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”
But, as important as I believe mentoring to be, it is no guaranty of success. It is not a magic elixir. In cannot substitute for a lack of aspiration and initiative. It cannot compensate for those who do not work hard, or who do not show fortitude. We all know the adage of leading a horse to water. Mentees, like Dickens’ Barkis, must be “willing.” Good mentors, as Mr. Proctor notes in the rubric at the start of this essay, see a spark that just needs igniting. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch wrote, as a lesson to both mentors and mentees: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
Looking back on my life, I count myself lucky – fortunate to have been born into the family I was, and lucky to have been born at the time I was. I was fortunate in the woman who agreed to be my wife, in our children, and now in our grandchildren. I have been fortunate in my friends, both new and old. I was lucky to have served in the military when I did, after Korea and (just) before Vietnam. I was fortunate to have a career and a job that I loved. I have been lucky in my health, and thankful I was blessed to find an avocation as a writer. I was fortunate to have been endowed with an optimistic outlook. And I was fortunate to have had help from so many people over the years.
And, now, as age creeps up and I think of the past seven decades, I am thankful I can give back something through groups like MCCD. Mentoring is partial payment for all I have received.