When I was twenty-one, I listed every mentor I’ve had. The list totaled over thirty names, and it has grown in the four years since then. My life has been white lady hard, which is to say that not everything has been easy, but I’ve navigated the world at large with little to no resistance. The struggles were always internal. When drowning from the inside out, it requires a perceptive person to see the damage. The other issue with looking completely ok and always struggling to feel ok is that everyone thinks you’re fine. My mentors have known when I’m not fine. They’ve been my jaws of life through the wreckage, advocates when I was too proud to ask for one. I’m alive because of my mentors, and this essay is a thank you note to all of them.
Karlene Wilson was tall, in her late forties or fifties. She wore a fluffy bob with chestnut bangs that framed her narrow face. Unpopular with the close-knit community of Calcutta, she was utterly disinterested in catering to popularity politics. Mrs. Wilson was my second-grade teacher. I wanted Mrs. Hall, a sensitive and soft-spoken pastor’s wife with black and gray stringy hair, but I, in a spectacular stroke of luck, was assigned to Mrs. Wilson’s class.
Mrs. Wilson was the first person to translate my energy into success. She was my first mentor. She recognized my ferocity as a strength rather than a liability. Her classroom laid an open plane for me to be bold and creative. My previous experiences tried to splinter my schoolwork from my personality– the issue is that these entities are roommates in the same brain. And my head is not a cafeteria. You don’t get to pick the things you want. I think she viewed herself the same way– that her teaching results couldn’t be divorced from her unapologetic demeanor. Mrs. Wilson made me feel like I wasn’t bad or defective. She inspired me to envision my passion, sensitivity, and energy as assets instead of albatrosses. In such transformative thought, she remapped the architecture of my future education.
Fast forward to eighth grade. A pair of ruthless hip injuries stunted my cross country and dancing careers. Without social currency or endorphin release, I spiraled into suicidal depression. Peers send me MySpace messages, encouraging me to kill myself– I’d stopped hiding the scars on my wrists so it was more obvious how little I wanted to live. They heard me in the bathroom when I’d purge after lunch, and I couldn’t win through recovery because I gained weight. I coped with Sylvia Plath and The Cure, further drifting me from the MTV zeitgeist enthralling my peers. The last thing you want to be at thirteen is different. I was hella different. And so, my otherness relegated me to the role of social pariah.
There wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t hurting throughout days. When I wrote, I felt like I mattered. I related more to words written centuries before my birth than to the conversations my peers were having at the lunch table. Words sheltered me. I could stabilize my racing thoughts sentence by sentence. I would survive my teens in paragraphs and narratives.
Dr. Mary Schwartz was my eighth grade English teacher. In the spirit of Mrs. Wilson, Dr. Schwartz was not popular. She didn’t feign positivity to be likable. She was there to educate, not placate. She believed in me and my talent as a writer. Dr. Schwartz pushed me, like all good mentors do, to be my best self. And when, in March of 2007, a group of kids at the lunch table exiled me by telling me why I didn’t belong, when I heard my worst insecurities aloud and had to return to class, Dr. Schwartz pulled me into the hallway. With one hand, she wiped off my tears. Cooly, she stared at me and said, “You are smart and you are beautiful, and whatever happened to you before this won’t mean a damn thing in the long run”. Eighth grade wasn’t the last time I was bullied. I am reminded how I am different more than I feel like I belong, but, there is only forward in life. And if life is about the long game, I can choose to define myself by what I can control, what I can offer, the good stuff. The long run is a race where we shake off the weight of what hurts, and although we can’t unhurt, it loses its sting among the good things.
Then came the college years. I confided in professors about abuse and neglect and all the things I struggled to say before. The words felt safe to come out of hiding. They weren’t stuttered or stifled by the threat of a bruise. I could just talk. My college mentors made me free, made me feel that, perhaps, there was a future where things didn’t hurt as much.
I lacked the tools to reduce pain until I met Emily. Emily was my co-worker at KPMG. I’d survived twenty-three years by performing normalcy. The surface gleamed with accomplishments and distracted from the gritty undercarriage of anxiety and uncertainty. Early on in our friendship, Emily said, “You’re in your twenties. Stop acting like you’re in your forties.” It never occurred to me before that moment that I could be a fuck-up, maybe I am messy and unsure, and all of that is inherent to my growth, not hindering it. Shielding myself and others from what constitutes my humanity doesn’t conjure admiration but separation. Emily was the first person to teach me how to advocate for my mental health, rather than hide it. “It doesn’t have to be this hard”, she reminds me. There is always another choice, another path, another chance. “Most things,” she tells me, “are fixable”. And if most things are fixable, I probably am too.
Positivity is a match. That match seems meaningless inside the matchbox. Yet, in the darkness, a single flicker of light becomes everything. My mentors have been matches and torches and bonfires for me. They’ve shown me my potential and what to do with it. My mentors are a chorus reminding me how much I matter on the days I feel like I don’t. I don’t believe in positivity culture. I reject this notion that all must be sunshine and rainbows in order to be seen. Just as relentless happiness is unrealistic, dire pessimism is equally unsustainable.
I don’t think institutionalized learning is the metric for intellect. I grapple with this when I contemplate how I attracted my early mentors because I’ve always been a good student. I wasn’t obedient, but the coursework was easy for me to learn and apply. What if my intellect flourished in something outside of school work? What if my learning style was different or I struggled to communicate? I don’t know the answer to this. In this way, as well as many others, I am the beneficiary of an unearned blessing.
Unpacking the privileges connecting me to my mentors is an unavoidable truth of these dynamics. I met most of them through school or work. I encountered them in white and privileged spaces. It’s easy to find the gem when society polished me so well. Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys and Girl’s Club combat this. It’s not that I feel guilty so much as I never want to elevate myself where it was privilege, not potential, being my spotlight.
I’m not being dramatic when I tell you I wouldn’t be alive without my mentors. This remark lacks poeticism. I write this because there were years I didn’t want to be alive, and there are still days when I wish depression would swallow me whole. Living inside this head is exhausting, Reader. Why can’t I give myself what I shower the world with? But the world gives back. The world has gifted me so many amazing people to show me the way through life. I am a dramatic person. You’ve probably figured that out by now, Reader. I’m not religious either, but I cannot phrase the phenomenon of mentorship outside of an act of God. That is how profound their time and efforts and generosity have impacted me. It is nothing short of immaculate.
Reader, I want to be a good person. I want to be a do-er. I’m here to do the work and leave the earth better than how I found it. Mentorship is frequently gilded in glorification. We canonize mentors, pushing them further away from personhood. Let my mentors be people. Let them be flawed and grow and show me that you can be imperfect and still make an impact. I have no interest in saintly leadership. As a mortal, I cannot reciprocate heavenly gestures. But I can do good. That is my responsibility. For their time and effort invested in me, my magnum opus is how I treat others and use my talents. I say thank you in doing the best that I can. That won’t always be enough, but it has to be.
To my mentors: grateful doesn’t begin to convey how I feel for you all. I’m still young, aimless, overwhelmed by the shoulds and woulds of this one wild life. But I’m doing the best I can. I want you to know your efforts haven’t been squandered, that I cherish every second you spared for me, every gesture of kindness in my direction. Every name I listed when I was twenty-one was a miracle, a lifesaver, a raft guiding me somewhere safer when I forgot how to swim. There are still days I can only doggy-paddle. But when my strokes have full gusto, I want you to know that I pay it forward. Mentors, I want you to know that your work ripples beyond your deeds, and in that way, your legacy is infinite. Because I can’t say thank you enough, but I can do more for others and be good to myself along the way.