My mentor, who was most responsible for getting me into Harvard, told me that he regretted having done so. He felt that I betrayed his purposes for mentoring me in the first place. Considering how we met and the positive interactions which followed, it was hard to imagine that our relationship would end on such a disappointing note.
I was drawn to him. He was an impeccable dresser. It was awesome to be in his presence. I listened to him lecture. I saw him affirm and empower his admirers. Through humor and wit he disarmed his critics.
Being a shrewd communicator, his manner of speech and facial expressions framed the logic of his intellect and the power of his convictions. He skillfully promoted his beliefs and persuaded his listeners. The miseducation of Black youth had to stop. He led Black educators to organize and promote meaningful change.
I always admired a powerful speaker, who had something transformational to say. Ministers were the only ones I thought could do that. I was wrong. Educators could also move crowds, as they seized opportune moments to expose educational malpractice.
He epitomized the type of person I was trying to become. Witnessing his success inspired me to become an educator and advocate on behalf of youth from book-poor homes. The pulpit lost its allure. The racist religionists, who rejected me, no longer resided rent-free in my head.
My new hero ushered me into classrooms and teacher-training events, where he would arrange to have me deliver a keynote, inspire, inform and motivate. He heard me lecture, assessed my talents and sought to tap my potential.
The fact that I embraced my Afro-Puerto Rican identity, was very significant to him. The racially mixed Hispanics he had met, typically fled from, rather than claimed, their black identity. I was different. This piqued his interest.
On the day he heard me speak, he took note and invited me to enter his private space to talk. I was awestruck, humbled by his gesture and curious as to what he wanted to discuss with me. Clearly, I was not his equal. Yet he treated me with deference and attention.
Something that I said, and the way I said it, fascinated him. He invited me to teach a graduate course for Chicago school principals at the Center he led. I only had a bachelor's degree. Our subsequent exchanges led to our creating and fostering a mentoring relationship.
His activism on behalf of urban students from poverty earned him repute in schools of education all over the country. After the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots that followed, Harvard University decided to recruit students from underrepresented groups. He was contacted. He recommended me to the reps. They agree to speak with me. I was summoned, then vetted. I earned two graduate degrees while at Harvard and my career took off.
My mentor wanted me to do more than advocate for social justice on a broad scale. My passion for educating and graduating students from poverty and dual language learners and teaching race relations, was not enough. “You owe me,” he said, “for my contribution to your success.” He became disenchanted with my choices. He wanted a surrogate for his particular cause. But I found my own voice instead.
It is easy to become caught up in the personas of charismatic speakers and teachers. Having taught in a university setting for decades, I have witnessed faculty members entice student leaders to their causes, all too often with disregard for their perspectives and dreams.
Those of us who mentor must understand our role as gatekeepers to opportunities and the responsibility that brings. We must address the issue of legitimate payback. My own experience has taught me to guard against co-opting the voices of those who are eager to be on the right side of history. For me, it is never a question about whose side does one take. The success of those I mentor is more than enough!