Daily Prompt Mentor Me Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?
At the top of the third flight of stairs was an office looking out on the campus. An arched window faced west. The floor was piled high with neatly stacked punch cards and books. In front of a big desk, also piled high but this time with papers, books and a pair of large Wellington clad feet sat a lanky red-haired man with a very British/Nordic face (kind of like the real Lawrence of Arabia), a large nose and very blue eyes. He looked to be in his twenties — but to me at 18, he was a GROWN UP a PROFESSOR, a little scary, even. I’d never sought out or spoken to a professor. Hell, I’d only be at college two days.
“Excuse me. Are you Mr. Preston?”
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“I want to take your class, Middle English Verse Romances, but I don’t have the prerequisites. I’m just a freshman and I haven’t taken Intro to British Literature.” Already at 18 I had a resistance to survey courses…
“Do you have your paper?” He swung his feet off the desk and turned around in his creaky old swivel chair.
“Yeah.” I handed it to him.
“Why do you want to take this class?” he asked as he signed it.
“I’m interested in Middle English Verse Romances.”
No I wasn’t. I wanted to take the class because I didn’t think I needed any freshman courses. I was the shit. I was smart and advanced and perceptive and a great writer and I didn’t need to jump the hoops. I could take a senior level English class my first semester of college and ace it.
“OK,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading. So who are you?”
“I’m Martha Kennedy,” I stuck out my hand to shake. He took it in his giant paw.
“All right, Martha Kennedy. You’re in the class. Go turn this in.”
Thinking back on that moment now, I also think of the innumerable students who walked into my classes over the years. I remember uncountable first days. I remember the shining eyes, the undaunted expressions, the certainty that they’d ace my class and go on to the next thing NO PROBLEM. I don’t know how many times I warned them, “Don’t set your sights on an A. Set your sights on learning something. You have no idea what’s going to happen during the semester. I do. Some of you are going to lose interest — you’re sophomores and there’s a verified phenomenon known as ‘sophomore slump.’ Some of you are going to have skate-boarding accidents and break something. Some of you are going to fall in love and some of you are going to be dumped by your lovers. Some of you will have family problems. Some of you will get mono or something.” I know somewhere inside I was remembering my first and second (and third and fourth) years of college and university.
I didn’t know how I would be my first time away from home. I didn’t know I’d miss my family, that dysfunctional assemblage that I had been so eager to escape. I didn’t know I’d get a very dangerous case of bronchitis and need to be in the health center hospital for almost a month. I didn’t know that my heart was still broken from the summer before. I didn’t know that rebelling against everything was stupid. I didn’t know I’d have horrible roommates (I did). I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…
Mr. Preston was always there, in that office with the afternoon light, the books on the floor and the computer punch cards. He was in the process of making the first ever computer generated index to a literary work — he was compiling a concordance to Chaucer.
At a certain point in the semester, realizing I was lost, I started following him around and he let me. When I was in health services, he was alerted to the fact that I was missing class because I was desperately ill. It was he who was there when I was discharged and took me for coffee, sitting and talking with me about my life and my family. That afternoon — blustery and Novembery — I went with him to the biology lab where he picked up a dozen pullets that he’d be taking to his farm between Longmont and Boulder. His black jeans were always covered with cat hair and feathers and now I understood why.
We carried the chickens to his car and he said something useful to me that I no longer remember, but it had something to do with ignoring everything that didn’t really matter. What might that have been? I’d just been in a play and gotten the only mention in the local paper for the role I played. I’d declared an art major, but wasn’t doing very well in that area, in fact, my first sculpture project had ended in my being pulled into the president’s office to give an explanation. I’d taken on an immense project for anthropology, one I couldn’t possibly do. I was always trying to find marijuana because I was determined to be a hippy. I wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t want to sleep with anyone. I yearned and yearned and yearned in vague and inchoate yearning, but? I was pushing the envelope as hard as I could without knowing why. If I had seen myself as the teacher I became, I’d have been Mr. Preston, too. In fact, I can think of several students to whom I was “Mr. Preston.”
Mr. Preston was somewhat like my father. He was brilliant, individualistic and iconoclastic. He respected things done well. He was too alive to be called an intellectual, but he definitely had an intellect. He taught class sitting on the back of a chair, his feet on the seat, a cup of coffee sloshing as he gestured. I thought he was wonderful.
I couldn’t really read Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight or anything else assigned in the class, but I managed to write a decent final paper and Mr. Preston let me take his next senior class, Restoration Drama. Second semester was somewhat better. Going home for Christmas helped; not smoking pot helped. I was a more sober and focused girl than I’d been in fall, but I was also sad and scared. My dad (who had MS) wasn’t doing well. My brother was not at home much, even though he was only sixteen. My mom? All I can say is we fought constantly and viciously.
My dorm mother (who’d decided I was anti-social, depressed and insane) had the college send me to see the school psychologist. He was a nice man and he asked me concrete questions about my life and my family. At the end of the session he said, “I don’t think you need to come back. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your family has some real problems. I think you’re scared for the future and sad for your dad. I think you’re worried about your little brother and you’ve been carrying a big load on your shoulders. You need to take advantage of being here and not at home. You have an opportunity here to learn and you should use it. Come back any time you want to talk.”
He was right, of course. I immediately went to see Mr. Preston and told him about it. He nodded in agreement through my whole recitation. He said, “Your dorm mother thinks that because you’re young you can’t have any real problems. But you have some real problems. Next year, find another dorm.” I did find another dorm, but I also remembered that being young doesn’t mean “trouble free.” That right there made me a better teacher when my turn came.
I discovered that at my school (Colorado Women’s College RIP) I could take any class I wanted. All I had to do was find one other student who wanted it and a professor qualified to teach it. I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Homer in the original language. I found another girl who wanted it and I went to Mr. Preston who said he’d teach it.
Back then, photocopies DID exist but they were expensive and the machines were few and far between. He had his text from the Jesuit school he’d gone to as a boy, and had three copies made.
“I can only do this at 8 am.”
“OK,” I said. He knew I slept until noon.
“You’ll have to be there because it’s going to mean I have to get up at 4 to take care of the animals before driving in from Boulder.”
“I can do it,” I said.
“XXX (the other girl) said that works for her. All right. We’ll meet Mondays through Thursday mornings at 8 am.”
Looking back, I know Mr. Preston was — among other things — trying to get me to learn self-discipline, to put learning something above staying up all night and sleeping half the day. I also know, now, that that those habits seem to be a common among post-adolescents. Most of the kids I taught over the years thought a 1 pm class was a morning class…
Fall semester rolled around and I moved into a new dorm, which I loved, had my own room, which I loved. Other things had happened over the summer and I was a more settled girl, more focused on learning something, more focused on the future that was becoming clearer — my dad was now in a nursing home and that meant that however much longer he lived, it would not be long. MS is not a deadly disease, but it does weaken the body and the immune system as organs and muscles stop functioning as well as they should. My mom no longer had a burden heavier than she could carry. I could only hope she’d begin to build a life of her own because she’d need one soon.
Greek was great — though very difficult. We read the Odyssey. We didn’t study grammar or vocabulary, we just read Homer. It was a good way to learn. It was the way Mr. Preston had learned. Every day I went back to my room and translated Homer. I liked my classes that semester, I made friends, and moved quickly along toward that vaunted goal of graduation. By the end of my second year, I was classified as a second semester Junior.
My father died in February of that school year. After the funeral I kept to myself. I studied a lot. I spent time with Mr. Preston and quietly digested these events that most people at age 20 have not experienced. I don’t remember anything Mr. Preston said to me, I only remember having lunch in the cafeteria with him and other teachers and some of my friends, of listening to them debate ideas and laugh, of following him to his office and sitting in a comfy chair and trying to read Greek.
He was my mentor, but he did his mentoring by being himself and never closing the door to me. I am sure he gave me good advice and useful life lessons. I’m sure I used them for my own well-being and later for the well-being of the students who came my way, equally fucked up, confused and scared. The one thing I can say for sure is that his presence in my life during those troubled years was a beacon of light flashing the words, “Be yourself” against the uncertain firmament of my dark sky.