In Praise of Good Mentors Everywhere and Anywhere

Jan 4, 2016 by

jeffrey pflaum

Jeffrey Pflaum

All teachers need mentors. The relationship and process start with student teaching and the neophyte’s professors, but in most cases, sadly ends there. My positive experiences with mentors in my life came from a diverse group of teachers, coaches, and oddly enough, two parakeets.

Tennis, racquetball, and a “walk-on” mentor

I play tennis and practice against the wall of a racquetball court. I hit for 30 minutes, starting out slow to find my eyes and concentration. At 70 I take my time to warm up until I start hitting harder over an imaginary net while keeping my focus and tension level as if it were a real match. Playing inside a cube gets intense, sweaty, and noisy for lone tennis players.

My cube of intensity was broken one day when A asked if he could come in and play a game of racquetball, a sport I never played. We practiced for ten minutes as I hit the ball using my tennis strokes and loved the freedom the new sport offered that tennis didn’t. I could whack the ball almost recklessly and not worry about clearing a net or keeping it inside the baseline.

A gave me “pointers” about hitting the ball and where, positioning myself on the court, serving, how to and where to, and the rules of the game, all this in an hour of play and basic instruction. I became an instant fan of the game and a novice racquetball player.

In a direct, non-judgmental manner, A became a mentor, teacher, guide, counselor, tutor, and coach. When I think about past mentors, I don’t completely appreciate what mentoring really is and how meaningful and expansive it can be in people’s lives, and how empty one’s existence is without having them.

An elementary mentor

One mentor I can easily recall is my fourth grade teacher, M: Why do I remember her? In my old graduation autograph album, I re-read her comment: “May God keep you always in the Hollow of His Hand. To my serious one, and fine student: Stay the perfectionist you are, but have fun and relax too. Best wishes for a happy life.”

Nothing has really changed since her description: I am still a perfectionist, serious about my work, but have toned down and learned to let some things slide. I can relax and have fun playing sports and in my photography, although her comment still holds true today, to be honest. Yes, this is who I am now. She had it right when I was only 9.

Why am I reading this autograph album? M knew me. Her perception and love triggered an inner strength to grow and to become a better person. One year with a compassionate teacher who I connected with empowered me for a lifetime. Imagine that…

Sports coaches, inner resilience, and courage

I think about my sports coaches who taught me about competing, practicing, hard work, effort,

concentration, cooperation, commitment, communication, individuality, responsibility, and courage. When I stopped to reflect on this thought, I said to myself: “Yes, it’s true.”

Coach C was an intense, enthusiastic, and smart mentor who pushed me to play basketball with older guys: “Come on, coach, they’re too good and will hurt me. These guys are bigger and stronger.” He didn’t listen and played me in a game against them in a gym with dark wooden floors, yellowing cinder block walls, and cathedral windows, a perfect setting for my demise.

I actually kept up with them, realizing “I can do it.” Coach C, like M, read me well, presented a riddle to solve, which triggered awareness that there are other possibilities I might not see—but to succeed, you have to take that chance. He made me see what I had inside: the self-motivation, self-belief, and confidence that tuned me into what I can do and face my fears. Imagine that…

Coach B was different: he was a screamer, always cursing at me for making mistakes, trying to make me see my ignorance on the basketball court. He taught me how to play intelligently, to understand and enjoy the game despite his antics. His language today would be considered verbal abuse, but I didn’t mind his delivery. It never hurt my self-confidence and self-respect because I never took it personally, and learned how to play, eventually becoming a coach myself of middle school boys and girls basketball teams. He gave me a lot, even with all that screaming, I endured…

Other mentors come to mind like my high school tennis instructor Coach R. I remember when R asked me to take a practice serve to see if I knew how to serve a tennis ball. I hit, what I thought, was a great serve. The ball landed in the middle of the service box with little pace on it. His acerbic response: “Flam, that wasn’t too good.” In my mind I said: “You cannot be serious!”

R taught me how to serve by practicing “shadow serving” without a racquet or a ball, to keep working on my toss (50 to 100 tosses daily with and without the ball) and the follow-through on my motion. It worked. Today I can teach kids the hardest skill in tennis. He helped make me into a player and teacher. That’s what great mentors can do in this vital helping relationship. Again, I ignored his delivery style and listened to the words, not necessarily the tone of voice.

Through each mentormentee relationship I discovered a skill and power inside me, which I could, in turn, convey to my students. How effective is a mentor if the mentee cannot pass that knowledge on to future mentees? Yes, pass it on to others so new connections between people are created. I wonder why education doesn’t take mentoring more seriously, especially when we know how vital it is from experiences described by mentees and mentors.

Parakeet mentor #1: “Peppy, The Pretty Birdy”

There are many mentors in our worlds, but, unfortunately, we don’t always recognize them. We just don’t see it, at times. So I would like to continue my tribute to all good mentors every- and anywhere with an ode to budgies, Peppy and Skippy (yes, you heard that right):

Peppy was a parakeet I had for seven years before he died suddenly. Peppy could talk. I taught him by repeating phrases like, “Pretty birdy” and “Hello Peppy,” over and over again. He

learned to talk even though I ran out of breath and saliva from the repetition. But it worked, just listen: “Pretty birdy,” “Hello Peppy,” “Peppy”…Peppy never liked records with repeating words, especially when I covered his cage, it just scared him more than anything else, so I dropped the record and bent my vocal chords to get him to talk.

Now I see myself standing in front of the cage when he first repeated “Hello Peppy” and “Pretty birdy.” His mood changed radically as he hopped back and forth on the perches. I moved closer and saw that he was happy and peppy and bursting with love in his domain repeating, “Pretty birdy, pretty birdy…”

Can a budgie be a mentor? Sounds crazy? Yet he educated me about wanting something real, a genuine experience, a human touch and feel, not something mechanical, like a voice coming from a piece of plastic, from an unknown, unseen voice. He wanted to make eye contact, from budgie to human, desiring a real feel of life, to talk to a person, to connect with me, not with some other strange voice.

How did Peppy become a mentor bird? He taught me about my own motivation to be real, to discover what is real, my need to teach, create, and help others, to search for meaning from the inside out, and to practice this approach to life daily. I followed the prescient ways of Peppy, the petite guru in a cage, and used it to teach children to find their creativity, identity, and inner reality through natural and organic ways of being. My students, in this manner, would feel connected to, and embrace, their worlds and existence.

Parakeet mentor #2: “Skippy, The Phoenix”

The journey of praise moves on to Skippy, my wife’s parakeet. He became a mentor during my 14 month sabbatical from teaching. I spent many hours at home writing and took lots of detours down side streets that funneled their way into Skippy’s life:

Skippy hopped back-and-forth all day in his tiny cage, and was given a free ride when I opened the cage door and let him fly around the apartment. The minute it opened, Skippy flew like crazy, going straight into the white walls and crashing into mirrors and windows because he saw trees outside and yearned to perch on one. Who knows? I spent my breaks from writing watching him hop around the cage, go to his dish, eat some seeds, and drink water to wash it all down. I remember bringing him to a summer house and leaving him on the deck. How he loved the fresh country air. What a simple life he led, not a worry in the world as compared to mine…

I would observe Skippy in his cage, meditating on him, losing track of time and forgetting about the mounting tensions from writing. I focused totally on Skippy. If I got distracted, I re-directed my attention on him. Meditation emptied thoughts and feelings I wanted out of body and mind. Skippy became my natural, guided budgie meditation that led me to an inner landscape of peace.

Picturing him right now, I see that little yellow pinhead and tiny charcoal eyes looking at me eye-to-eye without flinching for a second. Skippy became a symbol of a quiet, calm, free, open contemplative life, and re-directed and re-connected me to my self through this real meditation.

But there is more to Skippy’s tale, because, as a symbol, he also became the “Phoenix,” who

resurrected himself from his own ashes: One day, my wife found Skippy feet up at the bottom of the cage, just lying there, and seemingly dead. The house had been recently sprayed and he might have inhaled too many fumes, so she put him in a shoebox all stiff and took him to an animal medical center on the eastside of New York City.

There was too much paperwork and a long waiting line, so she left the center and went across the street to a heliport where she planned to bury him in the East River. A security guard noticed her and asked what she was doing there. When he heard her story, he suggested giving Skippy brandy to revive him, however, this still left her uncertain, and she decided to take him home and bury him.

On the ride home she kept opening the shoebox and noticed he righted himself and was lying on

his stomach. She peeked again and this time he stood up with eyes closed. She looked inside the box yet again and he jumped up and perched on her finger, but his eyes remained closed. My wife took him to her apartment, perched on her finger, through city streets on a 10-degree windy winter night, and then put Skippy on the bottom of his cage. He did not move when she covered the cage and had no idea of what would happen to him.

The following day she found him standing on the perch and whistling like nothing happened. Skippy was ready for action: the dawning of a new age for him, this budgie and mentor. Like the Phoenix, Skippy resurrected himself, and was born-again in the shoebox and now in the cage. He became Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by a miracle and went on to live thereafter…

Why does Skippy’s tale of regeneration and renewal keep circling in my mind and imagination? What does it suggest about a mentor’s effect/affect on a mentee’s life? Are there any connections here to my life as an educator? The answer is “yes” because I came back from “the dead” after suffering burnout in a difficult inner-city school where I had classes of 37 kids (on the average) for four years straight.

How much can a person, or even a parakeet, impact our own life? A lot. We tend to forget their influences as these “symbols” and memories come and go in our minds. If you ruminate on the definition of a mentor, you begin to see how you were affected and how “they” created more than just slight changes in you and your life…Imagine that…

Search for, discover, and visualize your mentors

Scroll through your memories: Visualize the infinite number of images and past experiences accumulated in your life. See what the mentoring world gave you. Recapitulate events that have made you, you, and discover your forgotten, and unrealized, mentors like I have in my reflection. And then, think about a crucial issue we face in education today, the teacher-in-the-classroom, and how she will be the next great teacher we all want, and hopefully, stay in the profession. One road to a positive destiny is mentoring every teacher who walks in a classroom as an apprentice, and working her way to becoming a dynamic educator-communicator.

As I scan my memories I realized at least one missing person: our parents, and in this case, it’s my mother. One anecdote will tell the tale of my mentor-mom:

I was driving to school on a brutally cold day, so I kept turning up the heat in my car until it felt like summer inside. But the strange thing was that I didn’t stop shivering. I thought I was going

to freeze to death. The drive to school passed my mother’s house and I swung over for first aid of sorts, although I wasn’t quite sure what she could do for me.

I walked inside the house and stood in front of her shivering out of control. I asked her as she looked on not exactly knowing what was happening: “What is this? I can’t stop shaking. What’s wrong with me? It’s warm inside but I can’t do anything to stop this? What’s wrong?”

It was amazing because she knew what was going on with me: “You’re feeling very nervous, but it will stop. I know from my own experience because the same thing happened to me when I was 19. The shaking will stop…you’ll see…”

And yes, it did stop. I finally relaxed and put an end to this never-ending anxiety attack. It would not be the last one I would have, but the courage she showed, facing me in a stressful and out-of-control situation, gave me a handle for future attacks because I never felt “alone” when they occurred.

And yes, she mentored me in a scary circumstance, one I never experienced before in life. My mom gave me a lesson in emotional intelligence: how to deal with, get a handle on, my emotions when they start running away from and getting the better of me, to the point where I felt like I was disappearing.

To conclude my praise for all good mentors—whoever, whatever, and wherever you are—please check out samples of my students’ original “word-a-thon,” haiku, and short poetry. These are the effects/affects of, connections to, and reasons for great mentors and mentoring everywhere:

Passion

I’m on your side
in every way
I’ll grab the Earth
and the great book
that leads to
tomorrow’s trial
We’ve got each other

–In memory of Sheila Torres

The whistle of the
winds, me alone
I shall stand

–Leilani Rivers

An insect
accompanies me—
buzzing in the night

–Glen Chapman

I can hear
the wind of a
big rotating earth

–Glen Chapman

The Turning Point

Face the clouds
of the future ahead
Release your dream world
You will show no fear
The New World is waiting for you

–In memory of Ronald Johnson

Great Peace

Crystal love
Open night
You sleep your entire life
Soft beautiful and free
You care more to future days
Bold speed flies to celebrate
our golden mystery
Born to think of the world
called imagination, the young great
spirit world spurring before your

Life

–Dennis Berrios

Spirit

You are a healthy
LIFE
Create the sunrise and dream
ON

–Joel Rodriguez

in the darkness stars sing a lullaby

–Ariana Flores

EPILOGUE

For those who are motivated educators, I don’t think you’ll ever be disappointed with what the potential results of teaching-with-your-heart might bring into your life as a teacher and person.

And if you should watch the following TV show about one great teacher-mentor, try to re-visit and re-imagine those people and “others” who made a difference in your teaching and everyday life. Start off 2016 with a reflection, blasts-from-your-past that include some obvious and some not-so-obvious mentors. You might be surprised at who or what you will find and thank your lucky stars they helped make you better…

Please check out the episode of The Twilight Zone: “The Changing of the Guard” (duration: 25 minutes) to see where your role as a teacher and a mentor can lead to in your life at:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/440841.

Keep in mind that in the electro-techno age, with social media such as Facebook, we all can re-connect with former students and see the fruits of our teaching-and-learning. I know that after many years as an inner-city elementary school teacher, my life in the classroom has come full circle in a positive way as I now communicate with my “kids,“ now adults, in their 40s and 50s. How sweet it is to feel the good vibes from students after 45 years…

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