Small steps, big rewards

Every week, a busy professor finds time for a young student.

Every weekday morning I dutifully go off to work, teaching biology at a small university in Maine. It is a pleasant enterprise – I explain things to my students, give them assignments, and they usually do what I ask of them. But it is also a wholesale affair – an attempt to get 30 students of varying ages and abilities to rise to approximately the same level of understanding. Inevitably, their grades, at the end of the semester, run the spectrum from exemplary to – "sigh" – execrable, and I often wonder if I am making a difference.

However, there is a small, redeeming coda to my week. On Fridays at noon, I leave my desk and drive eight miles to a nearby middle school. I check in at the main office, don my "visitor" tag, and hover as the bell rings and masses of young adolescents swarm from their classrooms. By the time the flood has ebbed, one student remains. My mentee.

We walk together to the school library, find a comfortable, quiet spot, and for the next hour I do what a mentor does. We chat for a bit, do some homework, chat some more, then maybe play a game of chess or some computer-mediated activity. All too soon the time is up. The young man, prompted by yet another bell, hurries off to class, and I, too, go on my way.

I have been at this mentoring business for some 10 years now. I remember the early September day it started. I was lying on my sofa, reading. The phone rang. It was one of the teachers from the middle school. She wasted no time in getting to the point. Would I be willing to spend an hour a week with a young man with no father at home, help him to stay on task with his homework, and generally encourage him? I couldn't think of any reason not to, and so my mentoring career began.

Eleven-year-old "Josh" was a challenge. He had almost nothing to say. His grades were in the basement. He had few friends. And, most striking, he never laughed. I realized right away that his needs went well beyond his homework. For example, no one had ever shaken his hand, so our first lesson was: "Take my hand and squeeze. Not too hard. Count to three and then let go." On those rare occasions when he did speak, he stared at his desk, so I would place a finger under his chin and gently lift his head. "Look at my eyes," I'd say. "Why?" he'd ask. "So I know you're really there." And so it went. Although there was little emotional return from Josh, I enjoyed working with him. And by the end of the year his grades were marginally better.

Since Josh, there have been several others, and I long ago came to anticipate Friday afternoons when we sit together and try to complete at least part of a homework assignment. And there are ample times when my mentees make me smile, as when one 12-year-old asked how old I was. "What do you think?" I asked, bracing for an unflattering answer. My charge wrinkled his nose and suggested, "Eighteen?" (Full disclosure: Eisenhower was president when I was born.)

And so the semesters, and the years, roll by, with mentoring a reliable constant in the shifting landscape of my teaching life. When I lecture at the university, I sometimes feel that my students leave the classroom in some vague, common cloud of understanding (or misunderstanding). I almost never know if I've had any impact on any of them. But mentoring is nothing if not Socratic. And that's the thing: It gives me a sense that, if my mentee has inched ahead some iota in his "command" of Spanish or ability to calculate an angle in geometry, I see myself reflected in that effort. In short, mentoring is as close as I can come to being the teacher I always wanted to be.

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