Mentors

Before I was an acupuncturist, I had a brief and unhappy stint as an English teacher. From the first day, I knew that it wasn't right for me. I had ideal visions of myself as the Michelle Pfieffer of New Haven; the woman who would change countless lives with her selfless idealism and creativity. Instead, I was cursed at and threatened so often that it became a regular part of my day. I hated everything about my job, and it began to manifest into physical symptoms like migraines and laryngitis. The very worst part of all this? The way I felt about myself. I had never failed so miserably at something before. I'm an ambitious perfectionist, and when I start something I'm not happy until I do it well. However, I couldn't even begin to do my job in a place where the students had all the control. I found myself getting more depressed by the way, counting down the days until I could put in my resignation.

In the interim, however, I was still working with various mentors, who would come in every few weeks and observe the classroom. These mentors were teachers who had been in the classroom for years, and wanted to work with the newbies to help them thrive as educators.

I believe that these mentors may have gotten some sort of stipend for doing this work, since the majority of them were fairly useless.They certainly didn't seem to be coming out of a passion for teaching. Usually they would come into my classroom, sit and watch while I was tormented by my students for a few minutes, and then leave. Afterward, they would tell me that my weakness was discipline. Really? No kidding.

One mentor really stood out for me, though. He was an ex-history teacher, in his sixties, with the face of a cuddly Grandpa and the most calm and reassuring manner. Instead of telling me what I was doing wrong, he brought me out for coffee and told me how inspiring I was. He told me that I glowed from my love of teaching, and that he was impressed by the bravery it took to go back into that classroom of monsters...uh, students...everyday and persevere, despite all the abuse. Most people wouldn't, he said, but I was a natural born teacher. I had a gift; I just needed to figure out how to make it work for me.

This peptalk inspired me to stay another year, and to give the job another try. I began to see myself in a whole other light, and I gave teaching a second chance. At the end of the second year, I realized that it truly wasn't my destined path, but at least I had given it enough of a chance to know that for sure. I never forgot that man, though. His words gave me so much inspiration and strength; I almost saw him as some sort of angel. My only regret from leaving the school system was knowing that I wouldn't see him anymore.

Fast forward to a few years later. I was working at a restaurant which had indoor and outdoor seating, and I noticed him sitting outside. Although he wasn't one of my tables, I felt compelled to tell him just what all his words of encouragement had meant to me at a time when I needed it most. I was hesitant to approach him at first, because I hadn't seen him in a long time, and because I felt very odd showering praise on someone out of nowhere. After some interior debate, though, I decided that he should know just how great he was at his job.

His eyes widened when he saw me, and he instantly recognized me.

"Marisa!" he exclaimed. "How are you? Still teaching?"

"No, I'm going to be an acupuncturist instead," I laughed. "I guess it just took me a while to figure it out."

"An acupuncturist? That's wonderful! I mean, it's a pity for the students who won't get to have you in their lives, but you look very happy, so that's all that matters, right?"

"Yes," I answered. "And I'm sorry I can't chat longer, but I need to get back to my tables. I really just wanted to come out here and say hi, and to tell you how awesome you were as a mentor. I mean, I know I didn't stay in the field, but if I had any desire at all to stick with it, it would have had a lot to do with you. You were so kind to me back then, and I felt like you really believed in me. So, thank you for everything...you are really good at what you do."

He didn't say anything for a long moment. Then he said, "You know, it's so strange running into you like this. Lately I've been having sort of a crisis of faith in my ability to do this job. I love it, but I've been going through a hard time with it, and wondering if I still have it in me. I've started to feel as if I've stopped making a difference."

My tables were eyeing me from the inside of the restaurant; I had orders waiting to be delivered; I could see an ocean of empty water glasses waiting to be filled. Nevertheless, you couldn't have dragged me away from that table if my life depended on it.

"Are you kidding?" I demanded. "You were one of the only people I cared about pleasing back then. I hated every minute of my job, but you made it feel worthwhile to me. If I...me, who hated every single second of being in that school, could be inspired to stay an extra year in that hellhole just because of your faith in me...just imagine what you are doing for those teachers who have actually found their calling? This is what you were meant to do!"

His eyes misted over slightly, and he searched for a handkerchief. "Thank you so much, Marisa. You have no idea what this means to me. I feel like our meeting was far too fortuitous...like something brought us together here today. Is that strange?"

"Not at all," I said. "I feel the exact same way."