Who are our mentors? Are mentors only for the young and inexperienced? Let’s disavow the old saying, “can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” to state what I’ve learned: mentors come and go throughout your life – if you remain open to discovering those individuals in your professional and personal orbits who can serve as a guide, truth-teller, and, a mentor.
Looking back my teachers made very good mentors. By the time I reached high school, I was working for my hometown newspaper. It was published two times each week. Because of this experience, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. I started to concentrate on my writing skills during high school.
This is where a teacher, Ms. Mildred Moore, taught me some valuable lessons. Moore was my English teacher and an excellent writer in her own right. With my pride in having written some articles that were published in the newspaper, I thought that I had mastered writing. One time I had submitted a five-page paper as part of Ms. Moore’s class assignment. I thought every sentence and every word were perfect. I was sure that Ms. Moore would be amazed at the quality of my work.
A few days later, I was in a state of shock when I received a grade of B+. How could this be? I wrote the best paper of my life! I deserved to have an A on this paper. I met with Ms. Moore after class, and I explained why I was right, and she was very wrong in how she graded my paper. She asked, “Should I regrade it?” Of course, I said. In my mind, I had won the argument. The next time I entered the classroom, she called me over to her desk. I sat down at my desk and slowly unrolled my paper to see my new grade – C! In that moment, I learned another valuable lesson: don’t let your ego prevent you from learning. I met with her again after school and I sincerely apologized for my behavior. She accepted my apology and you can be sure I never got anything lower than an A on my papers after that.
I credit Ms. Moore for teaching me how to write, not only the technical aspects but also how to really develop an idea. I did go on to major in journalism as my undergraduate degree in college, but I didn’t learn to write there. When I think about the process of writing, I think about Ms. Moore. She taught me to love the process and how to appreciate the final product. I will always be grateful to her for her many, many lessons. Most importantly, she taught me humility and that we always have more to learn.
Mr. Wayne Worthy, another high school teacher, also became a mentor to me. Growing up I felt that I had a good foundation in history, but even with that strong foundation, Mr. Worthy brought life all of the events he discussed in class. He helped me see that actions have consequences. Really big actions by a people or country can have lasting effects for generation after generation.
At the beginning of my junior year, Mr. Worthy quickly recruited me to work with the yearbook staff as he was the faculty advisor. Mr. Worthy understood my passion for photography and writing. He later asked if I wanted to be the editor-in-chief of the yearbook as I was a rising senior. I was shocked but honored that he asked me to do this. He would tell me later that I exhibited leadership skills that were rare in most high school students.
As my senior year started with my new role with the yearbook, I quickly began to have some concerns. We didn’t have our page layouts completed, copy wasn’t written, and we didn’t have some of the photographs that were required. I met with Mr. Worthy. I had hoped that he would step in, to come down hard on my editors who were slacking off. In the end, he asked what I was going to do.
As the editor-in-chief, I knew changes had to happen, and those changes needed to happen quickly. I did something no one expected. I turned to my editors, and I said that 6 of the 7 could leave, and that someone else would be taking over their responsibilities. Then, I assigned editor roles to the hardworking underclassmen that earned this responsibility. Did I lose some friendships over these decisions? Yes, some of my classmates expressed disappointment, but I explained that I had to do something, or we wouldn’t have a yearbook at the end of our senior year. Most of them begrudgingly understood and a couple of them even apologized for their severe case of “senioritis” that caused their procrastination.
Mr. Worthy was the first person outside of my family who recognized that I had leadership potential. He allowed me to make mistakes, but he also didn’t step in to solve any problems. He was a great listener. He would give advice if I asked him directly. Not only did he have confidence in me and allowed me to grow as a leader, but he also taught me being a good listener is often undervalued.
As an adult, I’ve had many people who served as mentors to me either officially or unofficially at a distance. However, I have to state a simple fact. I think my life would have been very different if I hadn’t had Ms. Moore and Mr. Worthy as teachers. I don’t think I would have been as successful in life. I feel extremely fortunate to have learned from them at an early age. Both of these teachers saw something in me and challenged me in ways that made me grow not only as a student but as an individual.
I’m thankful that Ms. Moore and Mr. Worthy didn’t traffic in stereotypes. I was a poor, white country boy, and these were the best teachers I could have had; they just happened to be African-Americans. They didn’t look at me and assume anything. They just saw a student with some potential and then worked to help me see the same thing and to believe in my own abilities. I will always love them for that.
Mr. Worthy would often speak of W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous American civil rights leader, author, sociologist, writer and editor. Mr. Du Bois said, “Either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.”
This month, as part of Black History Month, let’s work together to destroy the ignorance that is increasingly becoming more pervasive in our national dialogue. If we don’t, we’ll destroy the potential of so many of our citizens, and with them, we’ll lose the collective potential of our great nation.
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