I've always craved a mentor, even now. The thought sends contented waves of joy through me. Thinking the word "mentor" makes me believe I could relax, fall back upon the pillows of help and aid and actually figure it all out. In my demented mind, a mentor is a guide, a parent, an air traffic controller of my unruly and untamed emotions. Plus, my mentor has a lot of powerful friends who will help get me what I really need, which is most likely immediate fame and fortune.
My mentor takes calls late at night, early in the morning, and never gets tired of me because I'm very interesting. My mentor is sexy (regardless of gender) and yet, our relationship is platonic but very, very close. I'm invited to all sorts of family get-togethers, usually held in the Hamptons. Even if I've never been to the Hamptons, I want to go. At these parties, I meet life-changing people who change my life.
My mentor rocks.
Of course, I've never had a mentor, not even a dialed back one re: the above description. But if I'm a hero on my hero journey, I've had a lot of helpers, and the helpers who've helped me the most have been real jerks.
One helper I'll never forget was one of my first fiction teachers. I signed up for her class, the first class I'd taken since grad school, which I'd finished five years before. My sister had just died, and I was feeling the need to get something down on the page. So I traveled to the class and sat in nervous fluster at the feet of this writer, whose works I greatly admired. She herself, scared me to death. She was odd, quixotic, and invigorating. She was on fire, and I wished someone would throw a bucket of water on her before the room burst into tempest. She taught and taught, dumping ideas and thoughts on us. The next day, we brought our work into class to read aloud, and somehow, I ended up having to read first.
This small piece was about a girl who was very uncomfortable in her body, awkward and stunned stupid by desire and loss. She meets up with a boy at a party, and an awkward and slightly sexual scene ensues, one where she feels her loss even more keenly though she'd hoped the boy would take some of it away.
After I was done, the class went on a bit about it (I can't even remember if the students liked or disliked it) but then the teacher said a few things, finally transitioning to another reader with this: "Jessica has tried to write about sex. Let's see if someone else can actually do it."
Tried. Actually can do it. Her words rang in my head for the remainder of the class and the whole ride home. I wept. I decided to quit writing. I was a failure, and I basically sucked at not only writing but everything. I used to be that girl! I was still as bad off and awkward and full of loss! I couldn't even write.
But as I neared home, I realized that I still wanted to write. I realized that I was going to untake this teacher's advice (maybe write only poetry) and write fiction. I wasn't going to be the sad transition between workshopped pieces. By gum, I was going to write about sex!
Another helper was a professor I had in grad school. He was--by all accounts--full of himself and in change of an entire department, one that was very important to those who wanted to teach writing. I was on the literature track, but I decided to dip my toe in the composition program, taking a grammar class.
Now, you might think that your basic English literature major would know grammar, seeing as said English major has been writing college essays for six years. Yes, this is correct, but I can honestly tell you that I had checked out of grammar in seventh grade in Miss Tighe's class. She has us diagramming sentences, and I decided that diagramming was too much like math, so I ignored that homework (I ignored most homework). I focused on absolutely nothing. So come grad school, I swear to you I had no idea what an independent clause was. Really. Sad, but true. My mother had to help me with my homework.
Usually an A student, I was getting C's and D's on the tests and A's and B's on the papers. We were studying parts of speech and writing about teaching. The papers were going to save my hide.
Our final paper was about our teaching philosophy. At that time, I had no teaching philosophy. I had a student philosophy of teachers, and I wrote what I imagined I would want a teacher to do for me. My thesis was something to the effect of: I would be gratified if I managed to connect with just one student in a class. If nothing else, I would have been able to help that one student.
I worked really hard on that essay (knowing that the passive voice and verbal phrase test was just around the corner), putting my heart and best sentences into it. But when the grades came back, I opened my essay to find I'd received a C minus.
I was stunned, sitting in class with my mouth hanging open. After class was over, I went to his office, and he sat behind his desk, leaning back in his chair.
"Why did I get a C?" I asked.
"Well," he said. "If I thought about teaching the way you do, I'd have killed myself years ago."
"But that's so subjective!" I said, angry now.
"Everything's subjective," he said, crossing his legs like a cowboy.
Everything's subjective. I left his office clutching my C paper. Everything is subjective, I thought. He's a total ass, my thought with total subjectivity. And I ended up with a B in the class, my only in all my college career.
It took years, but I later revisited both of these experiences (actually, I couldn't stop revisiting them). Each of these teachers propelled me forward in some way. Maybe I was reacting at first, but later I saw that each was flat out right. I needed to dig deeper into the story of the sad girl filled with loss. I needed to find out more about her so that anything she did--sex--would make more sense to the reader.
And Mr. Grammar Cowboy was right too, though for a few years of my teaching career, I did try to reach that one student. Eventually, I realized that if I wasn't reaching more than half, three-fourths, almost all of my students, I needed to change my strategies, shift, turn, try again.
In both instances, the insensitive teachers were right. But they could have been right more kindly.
Mostly, I've realized that I have to take the help that is given me along the way and mentor myself. No amazing parent-god-millionaire is going to descend and do some magic. Now, I don't have to wait whole decades before I'm able to translate help into action on my part. Now maybe a few weeks. Sometimes if I'm lucky, a month. In a miracle, I can take what is given and use it right away.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org