Heroes or mentors?

Every young child has his or her hero — often a celebrity. That’s okay…everyone needs a chance to dream. But at some point those heroes get moved to the back burner and a more realistic mentor/hero takes his or her place.

My husband’s childhood hero was the Lone Ranger. I’ve never understood that, but of course, the Lone Ranger was a male and I’m not. Besides, the Lone Ranger was before my time. In my early years, I worshipped Peggy Fleming. Skating was one of my passions and I dreamed of the day I could do a perfect camel spin. I never got to that point, but I did finally learn to do fake figure eights. You do the first half on one foot, and the second on the other foot. Looks pretty on the ice.

By the time I reached high school, Peggy was a distant memory, and I became too realistic to imagine I’d ever be anyone but myself. During my freshman year of college, I declared myself a music major. That didn’t last because the idea of spending my days practicing piano and vocal music scared the bejeebers out of me. Still, I continued taking voice lessons because I loved my voice teacher, Phyllis Ehrman (now Moser). It wasn’t until later that I realized it was her constant encouragement, praise, interest in me, and wonderful sense of humor that kept me returning to her studio. She was my first true mentor. Was she my hero? Sure.

Sometime in my sophomore year, it occurred to me that my strength was writing. I’d had a passion for writing since my childhood. At the time, the obvious choice of a major was English. Thus began an intense few years of studying grammar, the English language, and literature of a wide variety — all of which I — gulp — loved.

Along the way, I was required to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, the biography of Maya Angelou. It is a biography of her early years, a coming-of-age story that shows how a love of literature can help a young woman overcome the trauma of racism. Angelou quickly became the Peggy Fleming of my early adult persona. I eagerly awaited subsequent books and read her poems despite the fact that I really didn’t like poetry. I simply wanted to better understand her style.

At that time, there were few female professors at Bluffton, but the English department included two — Linda Suter and Mary Ann Sullivan. For the next three years, I spent hours in their classrooms, improving my own writing skills under their tutelage. Along the way, the two of them became my mentors. They would probably shudder to hear that they’d become my Peggy Fleming. 

By that time, I was realistic enough to know that what I’d considered heroes in the past, had actually become — and would continue to be — my mentors. These are the women I looked to for guidance as I began to move toward entering the “real world”. Unlike them, I had no interest in teaching. But I did want to write, although at the time I had no idea how that might become a career.

Over the years, I’ve moved from newspaper journalism to freelance writing to the latest venture of starting an online news source. Blogging allows me to keep my writing skills from getting rusty. Those two women have never left my mind; in fact, every time I write, I envision Linda Suter reading the final product, see her smile and imagine her making a few, well-placed comments. And always, I hear her encouragement.

A few days ago, I visited Linda at the rehab center where she is recovering from hip surgery. I found her in the dining room, waiting for “those nice guys” to bring her supper. Her first comment to me was a whispered, “Mary, you could write some interesting stories about these people,” as she nodded toward her table companions. 

For the next 30 minutes, her food grew cold while she asked about our adult programs, numbers of students, expressing amazement at how many off-campus sites we now have. Since her most recent position at the university was closely involved with our department, she was interested in hearing about change and growth.

This is the way most of our conversations go. She asks questions. I answer. She makes suggestions and I have to figure out the solution. Still the teacher and the student. And that’s fine with me. Although she is now retired, she’ll always be the one person I can talk to about how to improve something — from writing to teaching. Because along the way, her subtle mentoring skills convinced me that not only was I a decent writer, I could also share some of those learning experiences through teaching. 

So sorry Peggy. You’ve been replaced.

2 responses to “Heroes or mentors?

  1. Mary, I just love reading your blogs. It amazes me how anyone can put down words and come up with anything so expressive and interesting. Please keep on sharing. Joan

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