“Before you get teary-eyed on me …” with these words he interrupted my flow. I was in the middle of expressing my gratitude for his mentoring intervention, which propelled me to earn two graduate degrees from Harvard University. He wanted to put into context a missing dimension in my mentoring journey. He spoke passionately while I listened. “Let me tell you, Sam, I got more out of our mentoring relationship than you did.”
“How could that be?” I wondered.
My mentor shared how our discussions, visits, collaboration and face-to-face conversations had:
a) made him a better father to his three sons. He recognized that in the process of explaining things to me, he honed his emotional intelligence, sharpened his listening skills and became a more mindful dad, and
b) made him a more culturally competent educator.
I first learned about mentoring from him, over forty years ago from a conversation he initiated with me in his Harvard office. He was fascinated that I was in his course. I was a product of the mean streets and poverty. I lacked social graces and came from a racially inferior group. Yet, there I was in his class. I was fully engaged, passionate about reading, working my heart out to meet and exceed the expectations of my professor in a very rigorous, competitive academic environment.
I sensed his genuine interest in wanting me to succeed and graduate, but his first question was troubling. “How did you get in?” I balked. He assured me that he meant no disrespect. “How was Harvard smart enough to know that it’s going to take all of us to move this country forward?”
“Much better,” I reasoned.
I explained how the race riots of the ’60s and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King led Harvard to recruit members of underrepresented groups. I was vetted along with 1,487 minority candidates. They accepted 29. I was one of them.
He couched his concern for my future as a graduate student in a prophetic-sounding statement. “Without a mentor, you will not graduate!” I was taken aback. I did not know what the word mentor meant, let alone that I needed one.
“What’s a mentor?”
“That’s a person who is older, more experienced, wiser and generous.”
He got my attention. I wanted to know more. “So, if that’s what makes a mentor,” I added, “what is the person being mentored called?”
“A mentee,” he answered. “One who is younger, less experienced, but has fire in the belly and is hungry to matter and eager to learn.”
“I want you to mentor me. What now?” I exclaimed.
“You must authorize me to tell you what no one else will tell you. I don’t want to walk on eggshells when I need to tell you something you may not want to hear.” He clarified that I didn’t have to do what he recommended, but that I had to consider available options. That is when I learned that mentors are option providers. We embarked on our journey. I later became an accomplished professional in no small part due to his guidance.
I wasn’t conscious that mentoring was a two-way street until that phone call I made to tell him that I was dedicating my first book to him. That was when I became aware that he too had benefited.
P.J. Palmer’s poetic insight sums up what a good mentoring relationship is all about. “Mentoring is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn.” I have enjoyed that dance with my mentor at Harvard and my mentors and mentees in the decades that have followed.