Hank Lazer, Afaa Michael Weaver, Lucille Clifton, Maggie Anderson, Sonia Sanchez, Elizabeth Alexander , David Lynn—and that distinguished gentleman on the left? That’s The Man, the renowned literary scholar, Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
All of those people whom I just mentioned are my mentors, some for a really long time, and others for a short time, but I would not be anyplace without them.
I wouldn’t own a car or have a job. I wouldn’t own my own home. I wouldn’t have one book, much less three. I’d be living in my mama’s basement, if it weren’t for my mentors.
You think I am exaggerating, but this is the truth.
As I move into middle-age, one of the issues that I’m wrestling with—along with the fact that my metabolism has slowed way down—is mentoring. Younger writers are now looking to me to be a mentor, and what’s becoming apparent is that mentoring someone is hard work.
First, let me be blunt: a lot of young folks need to remember their home training. I know they have it. They just sometimes forget where they misplaced it.
I’d like to think I never lost my home training when I was younger, but I’m starting to suspect that was not the case. Pay back is an [insert expletive noun], as you know, but I am not going to take this lying down. I have decided to let the young folks know that you need to be good to your mentors, because your mentors don’t have to be there for you. I’m trying to tell you what I know.
Look, there are only two people who really have to be there for you when you break fool: God and your mama. And neither one of those people can write you a letter of recommendation.
Your mentors are there for you out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t get paid for advising you or writing you letters of recommendation—in fact, that would be unethical. Since I bet you don’t even remember their birthdays and send cards, then you should assume mentors are there for you out of love and a sense of responsibility—and your short, jenky emails every once in a while.
Mentors stay strong with you even when sometimes, you act stupidly. They will tell you—sometimes gently or sometimes not—when you need to get yourself together.
Like, if you need a letter of recommendation, please don’t ask your mentor three days before the deadline. Or, lose the sky-blue resume paper with clouds printed all over and buy you some professional twenty-five percent cotton at the Staples. Or, don’t wear low-rise jeans to work, and please don’t wear a shirt that exposes your “Woman’s Gotta Have It” tatoo because Bobby Womack is your favorite singer.
Tangent: there’s a difference between a mentor and a friend who writes you letters of recommendation. Sometimes, a friend who is at a different–let’s say higher— place in her career can get a bit pompous and claim the title of “mentor” when really, she’s just a good friend who does you a solid on a regular basis. I’ve made that mistake myself–being pompous– and I’ve had a friend who got high-handed with me, too. Let me say that pomposity can ruin a good friendship, and so, you need to be really careful asking friends for letters if you think they don’t know how to handle that sort of power.
But the key to knowing the difference between a friend and a mentor is that, every place you’ve been in life–emotionally, professionally, and probably even geographically–your mentor has been there already. There may be deep, profound love between you two, but you won’t ever be equals. You have to understand that and be okay with it.
As a mentor now myself, one of my biggest pet peeves is when some youngun that I’m mentoring asks for my advice, I give it to him or her, and then he or she wants to argue with me–in other words, tries to talk to me like an equal. That burns my biscuits, for real, because if you knew what I knew already, you wouldn’t have to ask me in the first place.
And further, if you don’t want my advice, what are you bothering me for? Do you think I am staying up nights, taking No-Doz, just hoping you are going to call me up with some foolishness?
About three out of four times when a someone starts “changing words” with me (to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston), I will take the high road. But that fourth time—Shazam! (“Shazam!” is my word for when I go off and get very gangster. It’s not pretty. That’s why it’s italicized with an exclamation point behind it, ok?)
Dr. Ward was my very first mentor, and now, I understand all of his patient sighs over the years and his courtly, methodical way of speaking. He was trying to keep his cool. He was staying strong with an ignorant, cocky, insecure kid who really, really, really needed his help but didn’t have the sense to know it. His voice would soothe me and calm me down, and then, he would drop the serious science on a sister. (It was so deep, I needed all that alliteration I just gave you to let you know.)
So, this is an open love letter of gratitude to Dr. Ward and all those mentors of mine who have been there for me through the years, waiting for me to finally get some sense. I think I have some now. (At least, I hope I do.) And I’m trying so hard to make y’all proud.