Season 2, 006: Tell me about a great mentor or teacher in your life - or the one you dream of but have yet to find...
Gerald, of Wakefield.
I watched him through a lens of shyness. But mainly I read, researched, and thought. He made me want to. Back then, I was too busy making teenage sense of Homer, Thucydides and Plato to appreciate his influence fully. It’s so much easier now that I’ve walked in his shoes.
Gerald Thompson was a West Riding grammar school boy, with brainpower that allowed him to enjoy the same sort of mildly intoxicating Cambridge years he helped me to experience. Perhaps his ‘humble’ origins made him more at home in my unpretentious East Riding hometown. Larkin called us a ‘cut-price crowd’, but Gerald didn’t treat us like that. He wanted so much for us. He showed us the beauty of learning, and the narrowness of the syllabus. Above all, he gave us an example in how to live. I’ve never seen a teacher suggest so unintentionally that it wasn’t about money or status. He stood out.
Every boy in the school called him ‘Hermes’. And why not? He might as well have been Greek. In time, that was his identity: citizenship, orthodoxy, ways. He walked away from the unromantic restrictions of a heavy-handed management brigade. I know that walk now…
Gerald lies buried in a cemetery on Aegina, the island that became home for him. Our school trip to Greece in 1979 included a few days there. Remembering how at ease he seemed in that environment, it was no surprise that he settled into a life there so completely. We can all learn something from Gerald about marrying temperament with rhythm and milieu.
It was some years into my teaching career before I realised that I was holding the baton which Gerald had gently passed to me. I tried to grip it firmly and proudly. And I passed it on, Gerald.
Contribution offered by Paul Gamble
The Quieter One
She was the quieter one, kept things turning over in a house with more children than money, scraped mud off potatoes and sliced knobbly carrots while he led us on adventures into the mountains or unexplored corners of the city. “Nice time?” she would ask as, with a toddler in arms, she paddled through soapy puddles - the overflow from the clothes wringer – to put steaming soup on the table.
While we debated politics, music or books, around plates of stew or Queen of Puddings, her fingernails would drum continuously on the tin teapot, her gaze drifting towards the windows.
There were hints that, at one time, she led a more interesting life: a pink silk ballgown in the dressing-up clothes, cracked leather ice-skates in a plastic bag under the stairs, a collection of stilettos and old perfume bottles in the dressing table made from wooden fruit boxes.
“Never let your interests go,” she would softly suggest, as she led me across the peninsula before everyone woke up, to paint watercolours or watch rabbits; “find something you love,” she would tell us as she snatched moments to escape into novels and biographies; “you need to find a way to support yourself for the rest of your life” she would say as we moaned about homework, “you may not have a man to support you.” And as she organised yet another flag day or bring-and-buy she would declare firmly “remember how lucky you are.”
It took until my middle years to understand how effectively the quieter one had led me, from behind; how she lost sight of no-one as she navigated the world she found herself in, least of all herself. In the drifting gaze and the drumming fingernails she was holding on to her very soul.
Maurni - thank you so very much for joining the project as a writer, and with two such fine pieces.I would normally have curated them & given you feedback already but it’s the week of my mum’s funeral service just passed & im only now back home. I will be back here again tomorrow to do both of those things - but I wanted already to thank you. It’s a special thrill each time a new writer joins. Tanya xx
When I think of mentors, teachers ,great bestowers of knowledge I think of Dr Maya Angelou a woman I always have and will always look to, to show me strength in character ,kindness and self respect ,she is the epitamy of self will to be better , to not be the victim of circumstance , that your beginnings do not have to dictate where you will end up.
She did this in so many ways from her teachings ,her activism, poetry and writing. The boom of her voice alone would command my attention .
Dr Maya has been a inspiration to millions now in the age of YouTube and she will continue to ,thank god but this i feel was all started with the simple faith her grandmother had in her and was central to the presence she would later become in the world .
When Maya was a child she was mute for many years after a terrible abuse at the hands of an adult ,it was her grandmother who would speak to her whilst braiding her hair telling her with absolute certainty that she believed in her ,that she was ok just as she was right now in her silence but when she did decide to speak the whole world would listen .
How right her grandmother was ! This taught me the power of having faith in another persons abilities, can help them to move mountains , or simply come home to ourselves when life takes us down strange and unfamiliar paths .
Whatever the results I know the power of an mentor ,a inspiring teacher in life
can change your world and then maybe the world.
I will always thank Dr Maya Angelou for showing me the way , Thank you Maya .
Not realising it at the time, my elementary school headmaster was a mentor. He was kind and opened this heart and school to those who did not have a place anywhere else. And he wanted us to learn, experience the things we did not have in our rural households. He opened up our worlds and was a great story teller. He lived his motto, I feel, 'knowlegde and patience is power'. I hope I repay his debt in small ways by helping and encouraging others.
My mentor lives deep inside me. I’ve come to realise that for way too many years I’ve ignored her, overruled her, shut her down, dismissed her. And yet, there she is always loving me, patiently waiting for my silence allowing her to speak. Some days she’s my younger self, the little girl I have a black and white photo of that sits on my desk. That Rebecca is about 3 years old and sits on a swing staring into the camera some distance off with a furrowed brow which I like to believe is a ‘don’t mess with me’ look. I love her, she’s cared for me many times in my life, during post natal depression, during my divorce, during my daughter’s anorexia. She takes no nonsense, she believes in me utterly and completely. She gets me moving when I simply want to curl up in a ball. She strokes my head gently and says, ‘you’ve got this.’
Sometimes my mentor is an older version of myself. A wise woman with a big heart. She holds me closely. She knows me intimately. When times feel incredibly tough and I start to imagine and believe all the wild stories I’m creating in my head, she simply says, ‘No, not now, these are not true.’
They love me endlessly.
They love me unquestioningly.
They’ve been speaking up more recently, in fact since my breast cancer diagnosis in November last year. As my world was shaken to its core, they stepped forward and held me close, whispered in my ear that all was well, that between us we are resilient, courageous, open hearted, in love with life and ready for healing. I know I’m not on this journey alone and that gives me confidence and hope.
I was seventeen; a first-time camp counselor. A cabin had been repeatedly vandalized; we first-years were assigned the scutwork of being belly-down sentinels in the dirt under the adjacent cabin. I witnessed another destructive spree: a girl, far from home and deranged with missing her family, threw other campers' sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, into the lake. I quaked with the shame of thinking myself a snitch as I reported what I'd seen to the camp director, who treated the rager with an empathy that I could not comprehend. Yes, she was to be sent home, and arrangements were made to replace the flung items, but the girl was not punished. She was heard, tended, reprimanded with respect.
I went to the director's cabin that evening, pierced to the core with ethical agony. She, silent and serene, listened to and witnessed me. She assured me that I had done the right thing; that the heartsick girl had been understood.
I could not comprehend such kindness. I felt coated with black tar. My mentor stood in front of me as I was about to bolt from her cabin, opened her arms, drew me in, and simply held me for several astonishing moments in silence. I'd never been held before. I'd never melted into the existential safety of being held; being gently rocked on my feet in a strong, soft set of arms, next to a heart. Never had the nape of my neck cradled.
I skipped from her cabin to mine, electrified by joy.
What did I learn?--that touch could melt a rigid, petrified soul. That joy was a through-and-through truth. That to embrace another can save a life. My vocational path was woven with that wisdom...I know in my marrow what a hand can do with loving intent.
'He’s an ass,' someone wrote on the professor rating website. 'All ego,' wrote another. 'Yes, a dick, but a creative writing genius,' a third.
During our first class reading, I rattled off an embarrassing cliché, more bothered by my fear of public speaking than the mess of words I’d clattered out the night before.
I don’t remember the seconds following my story; I feel them. An edgy, 20-something man sat to my left. Untidy hair, confident storytelling. And to my right, Professor American Book Award.
I finished my short story to silence. Not shuffling papers, not the creak of old classroom chairs. Just the thud of blood in my ears. A sad agreement settled over the story circle.
'Well,' the professor sighed and put down his pen.
My cheeks burned, my scalp itched, pores opening. The rest of the period is a blank. I turned inward, nauseous. My insecurity feasted on my innards.
Another day, another story. With more honesty, as he taught me. I told the story of a young girl who sold her books to help her mother pay the bills. At the shop window, a phantasma of authors clambered to bid farewell. Shakespeare turned his hand with his words, 'parting is such sweet sorrow.'
It all rang true for me – a struggling family, books as living things.
'Well, hello,' the professor smiled. As if to say, welcome to the class.
'What happened?' he later asked.
The worst had, I thought. And it didn’t kill me.
He encouraged me to apply to the university’s master’s program. He pestered his colleague into opening up a study abroad program a month early. And in my signed copy of his novel, he inscribed, 'To a student worth the studenting.'
He taught me that in writerly matters, I could and should.
I’ve stood (secretly) open since memory first came to me, open souled, open handed, open eyes, waiting, wishing, hoping. Rocks unearthed, trees felled, relationships excavated, letters written, windows watched from. I’ve looked, searched, scoured, begged, whispered, pleaded, first feet, then hands, then knees, until I’ve found myself laid upon the floor in recent life with little search left in me. An only, of a single mother, unrooted to place, running into stories, books, movies, a screaming scared child asking, waiting, watching, a mother now, and wife, hoping, and looking and yes, still asking in cities, fields, oceans if there was one, just one who would stop and look and take my hand, and lead and help and guide. So I stumble, when feet are once again found, and I make my own way while (secretly) waiting, and yes, still I wait. And yes, I hope. That just maybe.
From a time many years ago...
I knew my mentor was close by. In the field where the black knapweed grew, at dusk, where the fox cubs fell over themselves to tear at the sole of an old shoe, and a roe deer looked me in the eye, she was beside me. Her hand on my shoulder told me not to move. Her whisper in my ear slowing my breath, and I clung to her signs, desperately wanting to understand the nature she was showing me. If I devoured every morsel, I was sure I’d find an inner peace, could cope better in a world turned upside-down. But peace was fleeting. Soon, inevitably, I’d need to leave. But for a few precious minutes each evening, my mentor would sit with me, and life seemed a little easier to bear.
Ironically, she was a nun. I have since turned my back on that institution that caused me much pain as I navigated childhood and belonging. She was a standout for me. As a timid and reluctant teen, with a mayhem of 6 older siblings whom I perceived to always be finding me an annoyance. I had little idea that I was ‘good’ at anything. Yet somehow, I knew I was smart. She took me under her tutorage and fostered, rather, fanned the fire, of my love of language. She spoke six languages herself and instilled in me a respect for the magic and wonder of language and communication. I was studying French and Italian at high school – the only student to want to study both – and her faith in my ability led her to manipulate the whole timetable so I could follow my passion. She made me feel worthy of my intellect, important. She shared her life stories with me. She was gentle and kind, ever smiling, reverent, yet quirky and bold. A character. Others feared her, but she was my friend. I don’t recall her words as such, just an overall knowing that she thought I mattered. That was new for me. Life took me in another direction until the year I turned 47 and began to fly. At the age of 50 I graduated with a BA(Languages) with a Deep Major in Italian, a Minor in French and Linguistics. My degree took me to the University of Bologna and Firenze, where I studied and became immersed in the culture on which the language is dependent. Sister St.B was instrumental in that, there is no doubt. She saw me and showed me my worth. I wish so very much I could thank her. An ordinary human with an extraordinary impact – a mentor.
Every day she would cut through the park that ran between the back of our house and the main road through the village. Her beautiful, polished prancing Red Setter was the size of a pony next to her because she really wasn’t very tall. Trailing behind was an old, battered cloth shopping trolley full to the brim with produce and colourful flowers from her allotment on the other side of the path that edged the playing fields. A bright coloured headscarf adorned her grey curls, a gay beacon next to her very old and worn looking drab raincoat. She must have been close to the age of my grandmother although her spritely steps, smiling face and twinkling blue eyes gave her an air of youth that would have had most people guessing she was much younger. She had a way of making you feel as though she really saw you and that you were as important as a grown-up when you waved and said hello, and she never forgot to wave back.
Apart from my lovely grandmother, who they said was an old witch and who moved away when I was still quite young the grown-ups in my life didn’t smile and certainly were not magical. Their faces were heavy and dark with eyes that only saw what was wrong with everything. The dogs in my house didn’t smile like the sparkly shiny Red Setter who shone like burnished wood in the sunshine, and they definitely never pranced.
The little old lady was magical in my young mind and one day I knew I would be like her. I would have a big shiny red dog that smiled, and I would be always smiling too. I would grow lots of vegetables and bright coloured flowers and I would be happy.
Seeing the Big Man
Serial killer eyes someone said the other day.
I always thought those worries of yours were too heavy, even for that big brain of yours.
Had to come out somewhere.
Larger than life, with that tatty blue duffle coat, the one I bought you that lint brush for.
“What’s this, care in the fucking community?” you shouted “Thought this was a cafe, not a bleeding care home.”
I remember the flush of embarrassment when those customers looked around.
I shouldn’t have shushed you, I should’ve whacked you over the head with the bloody thing.
The truth was that I was your carer, and you mine.
Anyway, I could tell you never used the brush. I saw that same string of cotton stuck on the shoulder every time you wore it, reminding me of a wonky treble clef.
Talking of which, I had to get rid of that Spongebob Squarepants guitar you left at mine.
The bloody strings were upside down. Took me a while to figure that one out.
I could hear you when I realised, “Yer fingering the wrong frets, Yer daft bleeding cow.”
Nice to finally meet Simon though. Saw him at the bus stop loads when you were here, no excuse to talk to him then though.
Well, I saw him again afterwards and I introduced myself as a close friend.
I hope that was true.
We sat on the bus together and I pretended he was you.
Had that same look-life weathered genius, too cynical for this world anymore.
Yeah, It was you sat next to me, all the way from Hebden to Callis.
Just sat silent, looking out the window, feeling your arms pushing against mine.
I turned around at Callis though and saw the denim jeans.
That’s when I felt it.
No midnight purple, crushed velvet pants, too short to hide those size clown feet.
No mass of wily grey curls, reminding me that foist was one of my favourite words.
He was nice though. Met up again and give him Spongebob. His eyes welled up a bit.
Mine haven’t yet.
You’re in my mind, sitting on table four, legs bunched up like a clumsy giraffe, under that ‘ornamental bloody table.’
They tried changing it-said it was past its best, but I convinced them to keep it-it was always the best one we had; the wonky one, full of character, sitting in the corner.
My dad died on January the 8th, 22 days exactly before I would be 18. Life really changed in a moment. I don't know quite how I got through all the crying, no the wailing and all the pain. Pain like I'd never ever known and hope I will never know again. It was the suddenness, I think. No planning, no goodbyes except the one in the mortuary, a place no child should have to visit like this.
I did get through though. And I never really thanked some of the people along the way.
Maybe this short tale will go part way to a thank you to Miss.Bliss.
I'm nearing the end of my A ‘levels but I have my geography course work to complete. Not too much to go but I can't fathom where to begin let alone how to meet the 3 week dead line. Time's gone weird on me. Everything looks, tastes, feels, sounds different.
My "Project “is all about towns and people, roads and shops and the routes taken over and over again. It's human geography, the stuff I like best. But I'm struggling to get out of bed, to function, to take the routes I've always taken. To the park to walk with the dog, on the bus to cook at the care home or to college with friends. It's all so difficult and all so filled with random tears.
Until Miss.Bliss helps. I'm at sixth form college and we're on first name terms, Sophie Bliss turns out to be just who I need to pull me through the next month.
Come to mine she says, on Saturday morning, we’ll look at your course work together. Can you get there for 10? Really? She's going to give up her own time to help me? How does she know I just can't do it on my own? How does she know how broken I feel?
It doesn't much matter. But it matters that she asks and that she's noticed me. I'd never been to a teacher's house before, but then Dad hadn't died suddenly on the way to hospital before either. Like I said, the world was altered beyond recognition.
I arrived at her flat at 10 am. Walked up the steps and rang the doorbell before she opened the door to let me in to her neat little grown-up space. I sat at her kitchen table, and we looked at my project so far. Diagrams, tables, results and conclusions. It could be salvaged. Her voice encouraged, and I managed to put it in order, to make sense of it and get it into the WHSmith folder I'd bought especially.
Miss. Bliss had shown me it was all going to be OK. Not straight away, not really for some years. I would need others to notice me, others to listen as I retold the trauma I'd lived through and others to be kind. But she was the first and I will always remember her.
Thank you very much for reading Tanya. I’ve just finished the book and thought it was brilliant!
She used to read Thomas Hardy while drying her hair. A nugget I still remember fondly as I blitz my own with an empty left hand. A love of ink on a page that seemed out of reach.
Structured, unrelenting and purposeful in her teaching, there was no immediate rapport. I cannot pinpoint a specific moment of inspiration but can retrieve the sensation I started to feel that summer; to be engaged, enthralled and excited by the world and texts surrounding me.
As she introduced me to the Brontë sisters, her favourite Mr Hardy, and Much Ado about Nothing. As we argued for hours over her love for John Donne sat in the relic classrooms of my comprehensive. By now, reading constantly, I was relishing in the sunbeams that she emitted; soaking up every last inch of sunlight from her lessons.
As a teacher myself now, understanding the sacrifices it takes to be a good one, I walk into my local swimming pool. It’s six am. There she is, almost a decade later, in the changing rooms. I greet her as if no time has past and I can see her struggling for my name. We have an amiable conversation but I arrived unprepared for such a rare opportunity; blurry eyed and tired from a week of school.
You showed me how to love books. You showed me how to be a woman living on her own, divorced and real. You helped prepare me for a life of One’s own.
None of those words came to me as I stood on the tiled floor in the chlorinated changing rooms that morning. But, as I left, like exiting the airport and arriving home to British rain, I was rejuvenated once more, by the simple presence of her rays.