There have always been mentors — people who take a younger or less experienced person under their wing and provide encouragement, information and support. I’ve had several such mentors in my life. I will always be grateful for their belief in me and their willingness to offer their wisdom in exchange for enthusiastic engagement and gratitude. Several of those relationships have lasted for over 30 years, evolving from mentor and mentee to colleague and friend.
Having reached senior status, I’m now enjoying the simple pleasure of sharing what I know with eager and interested young people. What’s more, I have a new understanding of why some of my teachers put up with my younger self. It’s exciting, gratifying and even heartwarming to be in regular contact with smart and talented young people with whom I share mutual respect and fondness. As their skills and knowledge grows, so do the relationships.
“Mentors” often are presented in media as lifelong or at least long-term teachers and colleagues who make a difference in a person’s developing career and sense of self. But not everyone has the time, the opportunity or the skills to be a long-term coach. Not every mentoring relationship can be maintained over years. Sometimes the best we can do is be a “momentary mentor” for someone who needs or wants a little extra support.
The importance of such moments is not to be underestimated. Sometimes they have a huge impact on another’s life path. Sometimes we don’t even realize when that moment of mentoring has made a difference.
A young man I know, let’s call him Raff, had a grim upbringing. His family lived in the government projects in his city and was often desperately poor. His father was an alcoholic who would disappear for months at a time. His mother was often depressed. None of his six siblings finished high school or have regular work. Some are in prison. Others have been battling substance abuse. But Raff? He has a college degree, a solid job and has never, ever gotten caught up in substance abuse or petty crime. I asked him why.
“My fourth grade teacher told me I was smart and that I needed to know what was in the library,” he said. “She introduced me to the library aide who showed me the biography section. I read every biography on the shelf. A lot of those people had it tough too but they became doctors or scientists or artists, even president of the U.S. I figured if they could do it, I could too.”
Raff’s teacher’s belief in him and her decision to take him to the library sent his life down an entirely different path from that of so many others. She was a “momentary mentor.” In the few moments that it took to tell him he was smart and to write him a library pass, she changed his life forever.
I suspect his fourth grade teacher doesn’t even know how important she was and is to his life story. She’s had hundreds of kids in her classes over the years. She may not even remember how helpful she was to one poor kid named Raff who excelled in her class 20 years ago. It doesn’t matter. She looked at him one day, saw potential and told him so. She took the time to send him down to meet the library aide — another momentary mentor who introduced him to the biography shelf. The teacher and aide may not remember him. But he sure remembers them!
Carly is a direct care worker for four adults with moderate to severe intellectual disability who live in a residential program. She does her work with an infectious can-do attitude. When asked why she is so enthusiastic when the work can be so hard, she credits her first supervisor. On a particularly difficult day when she was only in training, her supervisor noticed that she had a talent for working with the residents and told her so. She’d never thought of herself as particularly sensitive to others but the supervisor gave her several examples of when she had picked up on a resident’s distress when other staff didn’t. For Carly, it was one of those ‘ah-ha” moments. “Oh,’ she thought to herself, “this is what I’m meant to do.” Her supervisor’s positive feedback at just the right moment brought out the best in Carly — a best that has only gotten better.
More than a minute, less than a lifetime
Sometimes “momentary” means more than a minute but less than years. Camp counselors, teachers, coaches and relatives can have enormous impact even though their contact with a mentee is limited to days or a season or intermittent visits. Yvette’s story is a good example.
Yvette’s father was distant and critical. Her mother couldn’t stand to be touched. So why is she the accepting, affectionate adult I know? She attributes her warm approach to others to a loving grandmother.
When Yvette was a little girl, her grandmother would visit for a few days each summer and during the winter holidays. Unlike her parents, Grandma was generous with hugs and listened lovingly to whatever Yvette had to say. To Yvette, those visits were like finding cool water in a desert. She soaked up her grandmother’s style and has made every effort to be just as warm and supportive of others. Her grandmother was just doing what came naturally. But for Yvette those few days a year with her grandmother have made all the difference.
Be a Momentary Mentor
Not everyone can offer to be someone’s long-term mentor, but we can all be momentary ones. It takes only a moment to give positive feedback to anyone we come into contact with who shows talent or effort or who goes the extra mile. It takes but a moment to encourage the beginner at work who is struggling to learn the job, to thank service providers when they give thoughtful attention, to hug those we love when they have been considerate or to praise our kids for getting along, for trying something new or for developing a talent or skill.
Momentary mentoring, whether for a minute, a few days, or periodically over years just takes the willingness and commitment to open our eyes and see when someone has promise or has done something worthy of appreciation or recognition. By taking the time to comment on it, we offer an alternative, perhaps more positive, reality or encourage potential that might otherwise be unrecognized or untapped.
At the library photo available from Shutterstock