The people in one’s neighborhood sometimes know sketchy details about each other’s occupations. They may know that one neighbor is a lawyer—even what her specialty is, or that someone sells cigarettes, cuts lawns, is a police officer for a particular municipality, serves cocktails, takes xrays, teaches math, scans groceries, is a writer, marketer, or runs a pond supply warehouse. Neighborhood children are most likely to know the adults around them by their parenting roles—oh Mrs. Lima—she’s Sarah and Andy’s Mom. So when a neighbor, a recent college graduate that I’d known since he was 9 or 10 called and asked if he could shadow me at work, it was unexpected. The back story is that his parents had encouraged the call because their son was already disenchanted with the career path for which he had studied at the university. Knowing their son’s skill set and interests, they wondered if he would be a good fit for my own profession—that of an orthotist--a person who makes orthopedic braces for most external body parts like backs, necks, heads, arms and legs. I was taken with the idea of a neighborhood friend being interested in a field I loved—orthotics—and welcomed the chance to spend time with him.
All summer, this guy traveled to my office every work day and we got to know each other beyond our neighborhood roles. It’s possible that the hardest thing my young friend had to learn that summer was how to call me by my first name, but I demanded it as a requirement of his internship. I learned that he was quite good at communicating with the patients we saw—especially the children—and was more talkative than I’d known previously. He was quite focused on what the profession was about. He tried to understand the body of knowledge as it compared to his previous experiences as an athletic trainer, what opportunities he might expect, how much more education was required, and how long the work days would be. He gave his work time 100%, and expected that it would fall within a certain time frame (perhaps unrealistically) and could reap financial rewards that exceeded what he could expect as an athletic trainer.
He and I saw most all my patients together that summer, and in the process he learned the pluses and minuses of the profession. He already had a fine work ethic—he’d been working since he was 16, and was raised by hard-working parents. I was able to give him a very gritty and realistic view of the profession without any glossy embellishments. He personally experienced the satisfaction and joy of creating an orthotic device that improved people’s function and the stress of deadlines, long hours, and hospital calls. Personally, I got to shine a bit, and show my professional self which was previously non-existent to my younger friend. In addition, I was able to positively influence my chosen profession with the introduction of a rookie—one who brought an ideal skill set into a little known health care occupation.
After that summer, my young protege went on to get some paid experience working in a local orthotic and prosthetic lab. He was accepted into Northwestern’s Orthotic program, earned awards, and went on to work for the most prestigious orthotic facility in Chicago. He then continued beyond orthotics and also acquired his certification in prosthetics. With that accomplished, he surpassed the credentials of his mentor and he continues to succeed brilliantly in his career.
We occasionally run into each other at professional meetings, and also at more personal neighborhood events like barbeques and baby showers. We always have something to talk about because of that summer and the very unusual profession we share. I’m still Sarah and Andy’s Mom to most of the kids (now adults) that grew up with my children. In one little corner of the neighborhood, though, someone also knows my professional side with all its rigor and uniqueness. I appreciated the opportunity to expose the content of my work hours to his scrutiny and drew just as much benefit from mentoring this bright young man as he learned from his summer's efforts at my office. By taking the time to mentor someone, I tagged the next generation. I did not expect how much I would gain by being tagged right back.