As we travel through life there always seem to be people who help us to become better versions of ourselves. Sometimes it is their job to mentor us and sometimes they simply impact us by example. Few of us become who we were meant to be without other people leaving a positive mark on our souls. We are constantly learning from others in ways both big and small.
I was recently asked if I’d ever had a mentor and as I considered the query I realized that there had been many individuals who had changed my life for the better because of the interest that they took in my welfare. I don’t know if all of them purposely set out to help me but somehow they did.
Back in the long ago we had a neighbor named Pat Wright who had the artistic flair of an Auntie Mame. She was a free spirit who turned even the furnishing of her home into a work of art. She often invited me to spend time with her learning how to draw and create images of the world around me. I was so young at the time that I recall few details of those events other than the feeling that I adored everything about Mrs. Wright and the environment she had created for herself. She always made me feel important and appreciated and she encouraged me by nurturing my creative talents.
We moved away from the neighborhood where Pat Wright lived when I was only six years old and I never had an opportunity to see her again. Somehow her influence on me was so great that in all the years that followed I never forgot her. Such is the importance of small gestures of kindness.
Many years later when I was in college at the University of Houston I was slated to take a required class from Dr. Howard Jones. Reviews of his course were varied with many speaking of his zaniness and others suggesting that he was far too tough. I was a bit worried but dove into the inevitable. By the end of the first class I knew that I had found a kindred spirit in Dr. Jones who had asked us to call him Howie. He indeed had high exceptions for all of his students but that was because he understood the difficulty of the careers in education that lie ahead of us. I clung to his every word and when it came time to graduate he offered to help me find a teaching position in a year in which there was such a glut of jobs that few schools were hiring.
I only saw Dr. Jones once after I threw myself into teaching. I was in the process of applying for graduate school when I encountered him in the parking lot of the university. He looked old and a bit feeble. His energy appeared to have dimmed but I knew him right away and so I introduced myself since I had changed even more than he had. His eyes brightened with recognition and he told me that he had kept the note of gratitude that I had written to him inside one of the drawers of his desk. He admitted that he had read and re-read it many times whenever he felt a bit discouraged and worried that he was not adequately helping his students. It made me feel quite good to know that I had somehow returned the favor of touching his heart the way he had burrowed into mine.
There would be other remarkable individuals who took the time to guide me in my journey as an adult and a teacher. Joyce Eversole spent countless hours patiently showing me how to understand and inspire the children who came to my classroom. Lucas Vegas invested time and funding in my continued development as an educator, encouraging me to expand my repertoire of best practices. David Kendler saw my leadership abilities and went an extra mile in using them by creating a special role for me as a facilitator and mentor of other teachers. Ken Estrella allowed me to share my humble expertise with my peers as the Dean of Faculty. One by one these remarkable people took the time to help me to become more than I had ever thought of myself as being.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one more very special person who literally changed my world. When I was taking courses for my advanced degree I encountered Dr. Roger Durand in yet another required course called Public Administration. He was as fascinating to me as Pat Wright had been all those years before. He came to class elegantly dressed and he explained the politics of the public sector and for that matter everything in the world in ways both amusing and insightful. I felt as though his class provided me with an insider’s view of reality. I literally learned more from him than virtually anyone I had ever before met.
Dr. Durand taught other classes that were not required for my degree but I enjoyed his knowledge so much that I signed up for every course that he taught. I became a familiar face to him, so much so that he recognized my section of writing on a group project that clumsily cobbled together the work of six people into a single rather wretched paper. I was the only one who received an A for the effort because he had discerned that I had also been the poor soul who had tried to make some sense of the messy contributions handed to me just before the paper was due.
When I was about to finish all of the requirements for my Masters degree I received a notice indicating that I was short by three hours of coursework. I did the math and knew that this was incorrect. Sadly no amount of proof satisfied the clerk who stood in my way of graduation. When my exasperation grew to desperation the young lady told me that the only avenue left for me other than taking another course in the fall would be to find a professor willing to sponsor me in an independent study. I immediately thought of Dr Durand but I would have to work quickly because the university was about to shut down for an extended summer break so I sent Dr. Durand an email in a time which such communications were still mainly the quirky domain of universities. I described my dilemma and mentioned that I would be on campus taking a final exam the following day. I somewhat sarcastically suggested that if Dr. Durand agreed to help me I would be certain that there is a God.
The next evening I was just finishing my test when I heard a booming voice float over the classroom like a miracle. “Sharron Burnett,” it said “God is here.” I looked up to see Dr. Durand smiling mischievously at me in the doorway. He pointed in the direction of his office and I understood that he was going to help. Indeed he had already filled out the paperwork to make the independent study possible and he walked me to the office where we all sealed the deal. A few weeks later I received a grade of A+ for the paper even though I had not yet sent it to him. I finished the project anyway and thanked him profusely for taking such an interest in my future.
There are angels out there who pass our way and even change the trajectory of our lives. They are people who see what is special about us even when we may not see those things ourselves. They go an extra mile in helping us, saving and guiding us to places of which we have never dreamed. Sometimes they even seem like the earthly incarnation of God.