I knew I wanted to write about mentoring this week, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. This was a big week for my mentoring relationships: my high school students are struggling with transitions, my college students are coming home after a year of growing, my sweet and strong intern is having her own struggles in Oklahoma, my “personal hero” is visiting from Seattle, and my “first born” is coming home from Minnesota for not nearly enough time. It makes me think about how I built all of these relationships and what I have gained from having them in my life. And, it makes me appreciate what I’ve learned from the mentors I have had and what my varied mentees have taught me.
Mentorship is extremely important to me, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But, I didn’t realize how hard it is to put what I’ve learned into words. It’s so a part of my soul, that I’m really struggling with language to define it. Maybe it’s because what I do is organic and I run on instinct, or maybe it’s because I’m not sure if I’ve truly figured it all out yet. I’m sure I didn’t do it justice. But, I would’ve hated to shirk from the challenge just because it was hard. Just another “teachable moment.”
When I first became a mentor someone should have been mentoring me. I was 23, still in grad school, and feeling pretty professional. I’d been working with adolescents for two years and I was young enough to think that I knew what I was doing. I mistook my good instincts for expertise in the field. And, someone needed my help. So, I stepped in and took on way more than I should’ve. Seventeen years later, after many ups and downs, I’m still mentoring this (not so) young man. Our relationship is one of the most important to me and my family and I wouldn’t undo any moment of it. Yet, I wish someone would have given me some mentoring tips along the way.
I’ve learned so much over time about expectations, and boundaries, and ego. I’ve learned when to push those little chickadees out of the nest and let them fly, and I’ve learned when someone just needs to hear that they are loved. I’ve learned a lot about listening and I’ve learned about saying the right thing (and saying “I’m sorry”, when the wrong thing was said), and about saying nothing at all. And, I’ve learned about honesty and about how actions often speak louder than words.
The most important part of these relationships and the thing that holds them all together is love. It has to be unconditional. It has to be regardless of whatever craziness transpires. A mentor has to ooze acceptance and the mentee has to be sure that no matter what they do you will always love them. More than once, I’ve received phone calls that start with, “Ms. W, I really screwed up.” I can hear the tears in their voices, and I can hear the courage that it takes to admit their mistakes, and my heart stops for a moment. And, then I tell them I believe in them, and then I show them how much.
One of the hardest things to learn is that the mentoring relationship is never about you. You must put your ego aside and ride the wave whether it goes the way you plan or not. And, it rarely goes the way you plan. Whether it’s unexpected moves, or questionable life choices, or just not the direction you see it all going, it’s your responsibility to always look forward with your mentee, and to support them as they develop in their own way. Your job is not to build another person in your image (pure hubris), but to help your mentee to develop their own sense of self and grow their ego so that they can be strong in their conviction.
All through these relationships, I’m teaching because I’m still learning. I’m modeling behavior so that they know that I “walk the walk.” For me, it often starts with study skills and time management; but then it develops into how to do what you love and how to be a good friend; and then it sometimes morphs into how to bring wine to a party and how to be a fun date. I want my mentees to know that I’m still growing and I want to model a life that is forever developing. And if I learn something that’s important, I want my mentees to know it too, because I want us to be forever moving forward without fear. I want for my mentees the things I want for myself: to be fulfilled, to love, and to develop with courage.
Because, my mentoring relationships last a long time. I don’t quit you. If you’re in it with me, your in it for the long haul. And, if you make a mistake, if there’s a bump in the road, I will always be there to support you as you build yourself back up.
It’s all about consistency. If I’m interested in your development when you’re 14, it’s not going to stop when you’re 24. When your internship is over, my job isn’t over. Even when I’m not there, when we’ve both moved on, I still believe in you and root for your success. And, it’s of the upmost importance, that my mentee know it, and that I tell them whenever I have the chance. Because, every person needs to know that someone is in their corner, and is looking out for their best interest, all the time.
Sounds like an awful lot of give and not a lot of get. Mentoring is hard, and risky, and unselfish, and not for everyone. But, when I look back at all the wonderful people who are in my life, I can’t say that I regret any of it. To see these people grow and develop is the biggest reward. Because, eventually it does all come back to you. To be able to write a med school recommendation, or to sit in the crowd as he becomes a US citizen, or to hug each and every one of them as they cross the stage at graduation, that’s what it’s all about. The love and support that you put out there is returned ten-fold. I’m immensely proud of the people I’ve mentored. I’m often surprised about how the littlest things have had a lasting impact on the most unexpected person.
And, every once in a while, quite unexpected, and totally unsolicited I get a very special thank you. Whether it be a text of a college transcript, or a message on Mother’s Day, or a little private shout out on Facebook, it is all very appreciated. But, my most fervent hope is that, someday, when they’re each grown in some fashion, they’ll take someone else under their wings and show them the way.