In the past couple years, I found myself wanting to reconnect with people who mattered to me from my past. Maybe it’s midlife. Maybe I’ve lost some special people. Maybe it’s because with social media, it’s easier to find those folks. Regardless of the origins, in 2017 I decided to reach out to MY mentors to thank them for what they did for me as I was paying their gift forward in mentorship.
I have recognized over the past few years how critical the concept of mentoring is to growth and success. Sometimes we need that perspective as move into a new area. As Moxie Mama was in development, I had brainstorming sessions with a small and select group of people whose opinions and acumen I really trust, and it circled me back to those folks who embraced the disruptor in me in the past (not always the popular opinion, I assure you). Some people in my life have encouraged my questioning nature and desire to challenge myself constantly (read more about Going Rouge). I hope that I am able to pay their gifts forward, but I also felt compelled to thank them. So welcome to a series on thanking your mentors!
What Makes a Mentor?
A mentor can guide us to better understanding of things, concepts, and teachings. To me a mentor has always been someone who draws the very best out of their student but even more importantly, they show the student that it was truly in them all the time. It’s that Glinda and Dorothy moment at the end of the Wizard of Oz–you know the one:
Mentors challenge us to dig deep and see the lessons in our successes as well as our struggles. They dare us to disrupt and improve.
In the fall of 1986 (my junior year), I lucked into class with the best American Literature teacher a kid in my school could get. Mr. Brosnahan had actually taught the parents of a few kids in my class, so he was a veteran, but still mixing up curriculum each year–nothing stale or predictable in his classroom. Mr. Brosnahan was hilarious, too. He shared stories of teaching CCD with our class, cracked jokes, and had nicknames for everyone–I was the Yuppie. We MAY have even referred to him as “Rockin Bob” once or twice. He used phrases like “whatever gets you through the night” and “whatever blows your skirt up.” (It was the 80’s so that was not even remotely controversial)
We were assigned a persuasive speech early on that year. I remember presenting my topic during a conference and Mr. Brosnahan suggested that I likely had more to say than what I’d proposed. Im certain he said I ALWAYS had more to say. He questioned why I wasn’t pushing the topic more. I responded that I didn’t want to offend anyone by going too far.
He took a moment of pause then looked at me and said words I will never forget:
The next week, I gave a speech to persuade my class that Eve (as in Adam and…) was the first historical feminist. I suggested that Eve was far brighter than Adam and wanted to better herself by seeking knowledge. That she was accountable for her actions (Adam threw her under the bus, let’s be honest) and admitted that she wanted to know more. I espoused that she was more courageous because she was willing to accept the consequences for breaking the rules. Did I also mention that we were required to have a visual aid for this speech? I *may* have dressed Ken and Barbie in leaves similar to this (it is amazing what you can find online):
His jaw fell in the back of the room! He chuckled, shook his head, said “Sam, you DO realize I teach catechism at the church, right?”
When I got a grade back, I had 100% on it. It also had a note at the bottom that I saved for years: “Too far? Maybe. But you sure challenged my thinking and that’s what it’s all about.”
Integrity above ALL
Later that fall, I broke my foot. I’d spent an entire evening getting it casted and (admittedly) hadn’t read the next day’s chapters of LITERALLY THE MOST HATEFUL BOOK OF ALL TIME:Mr. Brosnahan was absent that day, so my dear friends sitting near me made their papers available to peek off. Did it feel good? NO. I was, however, scared and desperate to simply pass the reading quiz.
The next day, he returned and his substitute shared that she spotted cheating. He lectured us. Negated the grades for the whole class. Expressed his disappointment. I was devastated that a single mistake lost me the respect of my beloved teacher. Crushed, I went to his office sobbing (I was SIXTEEN! THAT’S WHAT WE DO PEOPLE!) to beg forgiveness. I didn’t want the class punished for my mistake.
He LAUGHED! The substitute has spotted about five kids on the other side of the room-but not me. UGH.
Once I calmed down he said, “You know Sam, if you live your life always true to THIS level of integrity, you will do amazing things. Keep it FIRST. No one else will come here to apologize and take the fall for the class. I thank you for that, Yuppie.”
A Mentor to Many
Knowing I wanted to write this series, I sought Mr. Brosnahan out. He wasn’t on social media, so it took some finagling.
My voice mail was undoubtedly bizarre, but I said that I was his student in the 80’s and thanked him for the lessons I learned from him. He returned my call and we chatted and planned to meet for lunch.
I posted to Facebook that we’d spoken. The reactions, comments, call to form a reunion all poured in. Seems I am not the only super fan of this man. He is, in fact, even referenced in a YA novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by name. Mr. Brosnahan was author Stephen Chbosky’s English teacher also.
What struck me during our conversation and in these stories from friends was how immense his impact was on us, yet the individual stories, unique to each student and his gifts to us, he didn’t remember. He remembered US. This teacher of thousands remembered how much he enjoyed teaching us. He remembered laughing with us, but none of our failings. What he missed was how very important he was to US and how much he had mentored and impacted us all. Perhaps that is what mentorship does. A mentor gives so much without realizing the impact he or she has on the life of the receiver. How a few words and kindness can change a day, a month, a lifetime.
So here I am, 30 years later, writing a blog. Writing (today) a blog about something thirty years old. Writing about my English teacher (I ultimately majored in Literature in college). Writing about pushing too far, integrity, staying true to your values, living boldly. In part, I have this incredible teacher to thank for laying the groundwork of my today.
Mr. Brosnahan passed away yesterday morning. My hope was a surprise reunion with his fans–we 80’s kids (and some 70’s) impacted by his teaching. I am forever grateful that I did this awkward stalker-level research to find and thank him. In this is one final and powerful lesson to KEEP THANKING AND KEEP GRATITUDE.
Go find your mentors. Thank them. And promise to pay it forward.
Rest In Peace, Mr. Brosnahan. You taught us well.