I burst out laughing when I saw the answer Vanessa gave as her top career choice: “famous.” My eighth grade “Dreamers” have been working on career club activities for the last couple of years, and this year, we’re going to pair them up, and allow them to shadow someone at their job.
I’m fortunate to live in a great community and have wonderful friends who have stepped forward and offered to be shadowed.
I was lucky to have had some great mentors and role models as a child. It’s what led me to want to do that for others. But I sometimes worry I’m not doing enough, or get overwhelmed thinking how much support these kids need to overcome the social barriers, challenges and obstacles life put in their way.
But thinking about my own life, I think it’s less a matter of how much a mentor does, and more a matter of exposure. Sometimes a mentor does nothing more than serve as a model for what is possible. Some mentors give advice and direction while others hope and encouragement by showing you what’s possible in life.
I had a wonderful mentor in high school, my English teacher, Mary Curtiss. It was the end of the Vietnam War, and Mrs. Curtiss had us read the anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun and Kurt Vonnegut. She loved Vonnegut. And Shakespeare. She made us feel smart and capable. And treated us like adults. I can’t remember specific advice or direction, but I know this: she showed me what a life of the mind looked like.
There’s much I can write about mentors, but the following story says it better than I can. This is excerpted from the book, The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors, a lovely passage by the activist Marion Wright Edelman who writes about her mentor, Howard Zinn.
I went to Spelman College in Atlanta. It was a staid women’s college that developed safe, young women who married Morehouse men, helped raise a family, and never kicked up dust.
My history professor there, Howard Zinn, taught me the value of questioning the status quo and illustrated the power inherent in an individual. Professor Zinn got us involved in the political climate of the times. This was the South of the late 1950s, where the first attempts at social and political change in the struggle for civil rights originated.
Professor Zinn would take us outside the sheltered stone wall of the Spelman gates to the realities of interracial dialogues and protests. The activism we initially took part in preceded the regional and national movements that are usually referred to as the civil rights era. One of our first actions was to protest the policy of public library segregation. Protesters (predominantly college students) walked into the Carnegie Library in Atlanta asking librarians for such works as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty or John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Some asked for the U.S. Constitution and others for the Declaration of Independence. Using such tactics, the Atlanta Library Board changed its segregationist policy. It was actions such as these that led to further protests, further questioning, and striving for basic American freedoms. It was the beginning of a movement for many of us.
Professor Zinn was instrumental in helping me get a fellowship for a junior year abroad. He had a lot of faith in me as a young girl and felt that traveling on my own would benefit me more than going with the Smith or Sweetbriar groups.
I left the United States in 1958 and traveled through Europe for fifteen months. My year abroad gave me the confidence to take risks and follow my own path. It made me more of an individual; it gave me a sense of myself. It also exposed me to the possibilities of the world. There was so much out there, so much to see and experience. My year abroad was a very special time; it was a time of awakening.
Professor Zinn responded to a yearning in the younger generation to make a difference, and like all good teachers, he brought out the best in people. He was concerned with justice, and everyone around him caught his concern. He was a very special man whose political activities eventually got him fired from Spelman. He went on to Boston University and became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
Well into his seventies, Professor Zinn remains an optimist. He has been a prolific writer of numerous books, including the controversial A People’s History of the United States and You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. He doesn’t teach anymore, but is a very busy public speaker. I am grateful to him for fostering in me the belief that I could make a difference; it is something I have carried with me ever since.
January is National Mentoring Month! Share your story here – Who mentored you?