Have you personally thanked your mentor or mentors for the encouragement and support they gave you, for investing time in your life?
That’s the question I ask at the end of an activity when I train volunteer adult mentors before they embark on the unknown mentoring journey with a teenager.
It’s a question that led me to contact Dave many years ago to thank him for being the wise guide on the side, my mentor, during some of the most formative years of my life.
His reaction surprised me.Let me explain.
Dave was a Cricket Coach of mine for a while and then taught me History for the final two years of my school career, during which time my sporting interests took priority over my academic endeavors.
I was getting away with the minimum amount of work and hoping to get by.
At some point early in my final year, Dave walked past me one day at school and simply said, “Robin, if you don’t do some work, you’ll fail.”
I was a Student Leader at the time, expected to be a role model to the younger students. I smiled, felt embarrassed and rather sheepishly responded, “Yes, sir.”
That one sentence spoken into my life by someone I respected, and was also a little afraid of, became a turning point in my academic journey.
Not only did I set out to prove Dave wrong, but I had also heard his message loud and clear and knuckled down to some serious work, developing more effective planning and organisation, as well as management of my time.
I passed at the end of the year, thus being able to continue on to University, and gained my best result in History, eventually going on to become a History teacher!
And Dave’s role?
Well, clearly he would not accept a second-rate effort and believed I had the ability to do better.
Soon after I left school I had my final operation, the final part of a 10 year journey working through the effect of Cancer. The operation involved plastic surgery and, while I was recuperating at home, there was a knock on the door. Quite unexpectedly Dave had turned up to enquire of my health.
About a year later Dave approached me and asked if I would be interested in being a stooge in the boarding house he was in charge of while I was completing my University studies. This role involved doing a certain number of duties and, in return, I received free board and lodging. Wanting to become a teacher, I jumped at the opportunity.
Dave always stretched people and moved them out of their comfort zone. He gave me a dozen young men aged between 13 and 16 to mentor. By so doing, Dave not only introduced me to mentoring, but he also lit the spark that became my passion ie, encouraging adolescents to become the best they can be. Dave mentored me through the process, guiding and encouraging me as we discussed how best to deal with issues I faced as a mentor of these young men. Through our discussions, unbeknown to Dave, he was teaching and coaching me how to use some key mentoring skills like empathy, goal setting, effective communication, developing a positive self-image, developing resiliency and so much more.
In addition, Dave mentored me as a teacher. He role modelled the best teaching practice, allowed me to teach some of his classes, trusting my integrity to be alone teaching the students, yet was always available to chat about the true meaning of the holistic education journey and how History teaching fitted within that.
I would discover years later that Dave’s teaching methods were way ahead of his time. These were the days before the arrival of the Digital Age – photocopiers were all the rage 🙂 Dave used research, inquiry, empathy, learning to play the role of Devil’s Advocate to encourage deeper thinking and so much more and he role modelled the meaning of tolerance and respect for the opinions of others.
So, many years later when I wrote to Dave to thank him for mentoring me and believing in me, as well as sharing his education experiences with me, his reaction surprised me. Typical of the humility of the man, he wrote: “If I had not been sitting down, I might have fallen over. I had no idea I had made such an impact on your life …”
Dave and I stayed in touch over the years and met up from time to time when I was a School Principal in Cape Town. I sought his opinions and thoughts on a few occasions during that time, always knowing that he would be a confidant and loyal friend.
When I moved with my family to New Zealand we obviously had less communication. However, when I returned for family visits, I always gave him a call and popped around for a chat.
On my last visit to Cape Town Dave insisted on me joining him and his large family for an evening meal at a local restaurant and refused my offer to pay my way, such was the generosity of my mentor.
As we farewelled, I told him I was unsure if we would meet again face to face, as I no longer had family in Cape Town. We shook hands warmly outside the restaurant and went our separate ways.
A few years later one of his daughters kindly emailed me to tell me that Dave’s battle with Cancer, which I did know about, was coming to an end and he did not have much longer to live.
I immediately sat down and wrote him an email to let him know he was in my thoughts and prayers – one of his fun ways of communicating with me was to call me ‘Reverend’ – and I thanked him again for the powerful impact he had had on my life as a mentor and a friend.
I also told him that his teaching methods were so far ahead of his time, as I was listening to colleagues talking about innovative teaching methods in the 21st Century, which Dave had role modelled to me about 30-odd years earlier.
Dave’s daughter again emailed me to thank me for my message to Dave and to say that, when Dave read the email, his spirit visibly lifted and he smiled.
Within a week of receiving that email Dave passed on.
What I have learnt over the years is never to underestimate the power of a few words of gratitude to those who have stood by me through my life journey at different stages and who, like Dave, displayed the non-judgmental, empathetic Cheerleading role embraced by a wonderful sense of humor, just when I needed it.
Dave willingly shared his life experiences with me and I have passed on his mentoring legacy to the next generation. When Dave reached out to me at a vulnerable time in my life, he was to make a significant difference, as is echoed in the The Starfish Thrower story by Loren Eiseley:
The Star Thrower
A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a boy who was reaching down, picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean. As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing?” The boy looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean”. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the man. “The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”
I love that in the USA they have a Mentoring Month. How good it would be if there was a global Mentoring Month and we all paused to reflect on our Mentors, the impact they have had on our lives and how we can pass the mentoring baton on to make a positive difference in a broken world, sowing messages of HOPE and HEALING.
Do you have a mentoring story to share?
About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook (where you are able to join a closed mentoring group) or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website Robin’s free Mentoring Matters daily podcasts (each podcast between 1.5 and 3 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available here.