A few weeks ago, my husband and I were discussing teachers who have had an impact on our lives and he said he had a hard time naming more than one. I was surprised. I had several teachers who were amazing and really influenced me over the years. I realized how lucky I was to have that because it’s apparently not a universal truth. The idea of impactful teachers and mentorship came up again this week and it really got me thinking about what an effect certain people have had on my life.
Mentorship is something that is so essential to not only success, but personal growth. When I was younger, the idea of a mentor was a wise, older person who would open up doors for me. And while I have had very wise, often older mentors, the greatest gift they’ve given me has been being able to see me in a way that I couldn’t see for myself.
My career mentors have been essential in making me the writer I am, not only by providing firsthand knowledge and insight into the business and creative process, but by becoming invested in me and thus showing me that I was “worth it.” The idea of being someone that people saw something in began in my high school yearbook classroom.
My junior year, my best friend and I decided to take Yearbook together. I loved to write and she loved to take photos, so we felt like yearbook would be a match made in heaven. Plus, we were excited to use Yearbook as an excuse to leave 4th period early and take an extended lunch (the yearbook kids had a pass that allowed us to go pick up photos at Costco. These were the olden days before everything went completely digital). I remember walking into Mr. Partain’s class and being struck by how vast the students were. There were jocks, nerds, popular kids, burnouts, and honors students all in the same classroom. I was a cheerleader and felt very much like that was my sole identity in high school. But, in that classroom we were all able to be who we wanted to be — not the “roles” assigned to us. That was the environment Mr. Partain created.
Mr. Partain was cool. He talked to us as adults and would tell us stories about his life and the struggles he faced. Franz Ferdinand, The White Stripes, and U2 would often be playing in the background as we worked on our sections and pages. Up until that point I was solely a Top 40 purist, but he opened my ears to this whole other genre of music that is now my favorite genre of music. To this day anytime I hear “Seven Nation Army” I think of his classroom (and it’s still my go-to pump-up song). Mr. Partain was also the first adult who didn’t laugh at me when I told him I wanted to be a screenwriter. He said that career seemed like a great fit and was looking forward to watching the shows and movies I would write. He was practical and sincere. That was a huge gift.
Perhaps the greatest thing he did, however, was not dole out sage advice (which he often did) or expand my music tastes (thank goodness for that), or make me feel like my dreams were invalid or out of reach (amazing), but provide his students with a safe space; a haven we could all go to and shed our perceived identities for a few hours. The chance to be ourselves and figure out who “ourselves” actually were. And when I got myself into trouble by ditching school, which resulted in a ruined reputation and potential detention, Mr. Partain’s classroom was the solace I sought. I don’t think we ever talked about what had happened, but he allowed me to sit in his classroom and cry. And by letting me do that and providing that safe space, he taught me the biggest lesson of all: people could make mistakes and the world would still go on. What a gift to give an insecure sixteen-year-old girl.
Having a teacher like that can change your life, which is why educators are so important. I try to pass on the gift I’ve received by mentoring college students who are about to graduate, and being available to any young assistant looking for advice. Maybe in doing so, they’ll pass on the favor someday, as well. And we can all work together and boost each other up to make the world a little more manageable.