sarah and her mentor heather

The Value of a Mentor

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

I met my mentor at an important time in my life; I’d just moved across the country, starting a new life in the Virginia suburbs. I was starting my junior year of high school. I didn’t know anyone in my new school, which was four times as big as my last one. Terrified, stunned into silence, I found myself at the desk – front and center – before Heather Curran. She was my AP Language and Composition teacher, and she would later describe my face that day as “deer in the headlights.” Looking up at her, I had no idea how important she would become to me.

We bonded slowly, over the course of the first semester. I sat in my desk right at the front and looked expectantly up at her, like she would deliver the world to me. We both shared a love for writing, and for every essay assignment she handed out, I’d hand in an essay that surpassed page length requirements and the like. I simply loved writing; I got lost in it, and Mrs. Curran could appreciate that. I never spoke much in class because I was intimidated, scared to be recognized as the new girl. Our bond was sealed as mentor and mentee the day she read one of my essays aloud to the class. It was in that moment, hearing my words read aloud with love and a bit of tenderness, that I realized I wanted to be a writer. That I could be a writer.

I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but soon I ended up meeting with Mrs. Curran in the mornings, along with a few other students, to study for the upcoming AP exam. Here, I found my voice, speaking to her about my desire to be a writer. This turned into afternoons spent hanging out with her in her office during her free period (while I was supposed to be interviewing people for the school paper). I’d look at the books and her happy clutter that covered every available space. She gave me a battered copy of the first memoir I ever read, which has proven to be one my favorite books ever (and would prove to move me in the direction of becoming a nonfiction writer).

For Christmas, Mrs. Curran gave me the pen that her mother had given to her just as Heather was going off to college to study writing. It was the pen that launched her literary career, and she gave it to me to start my journey. Of all the books, handwritten thinking-of-you notes, and poems she wrote about me over the two years I was her English student, the most important things she gave me were her words of encouragement. They were constant and they were genuine. Here was a teacher who asked me how my day was and cared about my answer. She pushed me hard, to better my writing, and always she encouraged me to do whatever it was I wanted to do, to never limit myself.

By the end of my senior year, I needed her help. I’d decided on Champlain College, the writing program, but I didn’t get the financial aid I needed. Mrs. Curran told me she’d heard of such thing as an appeals process before, and set to work helping me make my case to financial aid. She wrote me a heartfelt recommendation letter and edited all of my letters. I wanted to go to Champlain more than anything I’d ever wanted before: I knew it was the school for me. I had to do everything I could to go, and Mrs. Curran was right there with me, every step of the way.

When the letter came, I took it to school and showed her. We did it. The appeal worked. I got the financial aid I needed to make Champlain within my reach. Mrs. Curran was so proud of me, of what I’d been able to do with my passion, but most importantly, by working hard for it. Soon after, I entered an essay for a scholarship; it was about Mrs. Curran and her role in my success in my new school. It won. I invited Mrs. Curran to the ceremony, where’d I read my essay aloud to a group of local professionals. She spent the day showered with praise and thanks from community members genuinely appreciating the difference she made in my life and the lives of other students. She told me it was one of the best days of her life, a day that would prove to solidify her course as a high school English teacher. She’d been thinking about making a change because she feared she wasn’t making a difference. That ceremony showed her that she was right where she needed to be.

Heather and I – yes, I’ve called her by her first name since graduating high school – have developed a friendship that goes even beyond a mentorship. We talk on the phone regularly and get together to talk about writing and our lives. She offers advice; she reads nearly everything I write. I’ve edited her novel and read nearly everything that she writes. I still look to her for advice, but something odd has happened since going off to college: she’s started asking me for advice too. She looks to me as an equal, and her respect makes me feel like I’m a writer, like I’ve made it. Her belief in me has been everything.

The point of this story is to show the value of a mentor. Mrs. Curran started out as a mentor, someone who took me under her wing, who encouraged me. Not all mentors come in same shape or size. Some will let you ask them questions, but they won’t take a personal role in your success. Some will cry and jump for joy with you. Others will come down somewhere right in the middle. Heather’s role in my life, first as a mentor and now as a trusted friend, has shaped my life for the better. She dug out the spaces where I’d lay the bricks of my path forward. Without her, I’m not sure I’d even be at Champlain. I’m not sure I would have found my way to the place I’m at now. I wouldn’t be who I am without her.

The moral of this story is: mentors can change your life for the better. If you have one, hold onto to them. If you don’t have one, figure out who in your life you admire and respect. Think about approaching them to ask if they would be your mentor. I never formally asked Heather, but you might need to. People go further when they have connections to other people, and have someone to give them encouragements and guidance. In these ways, a mentor is one of the best connections you can possibly have.

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