It was a windless summer day. I was eleven years old, hair long and braided. I sat on a ragged old bench at my team’s softball field waiting for my teammates to arrive. I felt the curling green paint cracking under my legs.
Coach Williams knelt down in front of me and said, “We’re going to play in a tournament where people have to try out. I want you to play. You’re the best second baseman I’ve seen.” I was speechless. I’d never received such high praise before. My heart raced with excitement as I shyly thanked him.
I’d played for him since I was about 8 years old. He made us do push-ups (20 to be exact) whenever we missed a ground ball, and we practiced well past dusk many times until we got it just right. As a result, I rarely missed a ground ball in a game, AND I can still do 20 push-ups today without much effort.
He expected a lot from me. And lo and behold, he got it. I was stronger than I thought! A life lesson I would learn over and over again. Often with Coach Williams in mind.
One thing we know about great mentors is this: They don’t tell us what to do, they show us by example. And in the meantime they magically unveil our strengths to us as if they’ve known them all along.
Miss Judy was my 4th grade reading teacher. She had long wild hair, wore flowing clothes (ok, it was the 70s), and had a huge, wide smile. I longed to just hang out with her and often wished I could go to her house on the weekend.
She introduced us to linking verbs as ‘weird verbs’ instead. We were permitted to yell, “Be! Am! Is! Are! Was! Were! Been!” in escalating sound levels until we all fell over laughing. (Much to my daughter’s annoyance I was yelling that mantra as she studied linking verbs yesterday.) Miss Judy made us participants in, rather than just recipients of her teaching.
For once I was glad my last name (at the time) started with a B. I got a front row seat in her class everyday.
Miss Judy took us to the library frequently (the REAL one, not the school one). It was during those trips with her that I began to love books – the smell of them, the weight of them, and the way the Laura Ingalls Wilder books crinkled when opened.
Miss Judy frequently asked me how many books I’d read lately, and waved her arms in dramatic surprise when I told her how many. Always.
She made me believe I was smart. That I really ‘got’ this language thing.
Eight years ago I found her and sent her a book of poetry I wrote and published. The card she sent back was just like her. She’d made it herself, violets from her garden pressed on the front. Her note was brief, sincere, loving, memorable. I was touched by the care she took in creating it. She was mentoring me even still.
What Coach Williams and Miss Judy taught me is this:
You are always mentoring someone.
Even when you’re just doing your job well. Especially when you’re doing your job well.
Whether you know it or not, whether you intend to or not, someone is looking to you – yes you – for guidance.
Inspire them. Infuse them with encouragement. You can even wave your arms in dramatic surprise when they do something well!
See who they are, and help them clear away the clutter that’s distracting them from being that person you see inside. Doesn’t everyone need someone who can see them this way? (Maybe for fun you can even make them do push-ups!)
Being a mentor may even be accidental. We might not know who looks up to us. But why not make it intentional? Why not support someone in honor of your best mentors, in honor of your awesome self. Why not change a life?
And if you feel especially grateful, send a note (or this post!) to someone who has been this person for you. Someone who may not realize the impact they’ve had on your life. How cool will that be for them?
As for me, I’m posting this poem I wrote for one of my most awesome mentors. Some of you may know her. ☺
In the light of possibility
And though I saw you clearly
with your half smile
and knowing eyes
I wasn’t quite sure
why you cared.
Now I realize
you lead from a place of
I see how your gifts,
because you have been a traveler
on this very road
you unselfishly guide.
I experience your strength as you hold
my best self for me
even when I’m a flightless baby bird.
You know the depth but see the buoyancy,
know the doubt but see the hope.
You show me through your life
that the road is winding, imperfect,
and every step of the way
worth the journey.
Sue Ludwig is the President and Founder of the National Association of Neonatal Therapists. She is a consultant to neonatal intensive care units around the country, a national speaker, and a published poet. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.