Writer learns that to be a mentor, half of the battle is just showing up.
Story by Tom Chiarella
Photos by Frank Espich
When I was 15, my high school guidance counselor pulled me aside on a Tuesday and asked: Are you interested in being a leader? He was a priest. Father Carrierro. Nice enough guy, who’d been helping me get through my sophomore year without my knowing it. And I did not particularly want to be a leader. I wanted to be invisible. So I looked at his shoes. He reminded me to make eye contact. We were working on that.
I really didn’t have to think about it. No thanks, I said. I can’t do that. Leaders were recognized. Leaders cut ribbons. Leaders gave speeches. At the time, I didn’t like speaking. I mean, I didn’t like speaking aloud. I wasn’t giving any speeches. Ever. I ached to disappear, fall back into the day-to-day rhythm, to settle in as an example of nothing, to no one.
But there was no quit in the priest, who then asked: “What about a mentor?”
“I was the delinquent who drank beers on the roof of my neighbor’s garage, the kid who filched Playboys from the local deli magazine rack.”
At the time, I had the dim sense that a mentor was a kind of obsolete house part, like a milk box or a coal chute, some part of a door frame. But suddenly, on that rainy day, in that smallish city, in that one particular hallway, “mentor” sounded like a career choice. And I froze. Because I truly felt that I had just been asked to join the priesthood.
I was the delinquent who drank beers on the roof of my neighbor’s garage, the kid who filched Playboys from the local deli magazine rack. Mentor. Like him? And, for what may have been the first time in my semi-adult life, I spoke my mind: “You gotta be kidding me, father,” I said. “I’d be a terrible mentor.” That was all I really believed in that very moment.
Father Carrierro reassured me. It turned out he was looking for a few high school students to spend an afternoon or two a week with a few younger kids from the local children’s center. Being a mentor, he told me, meant just showing up and showing your best self. Best advice any priest ever gave me.
Years passed, and I came to know what we all know: Being a mentor is nothing at all like being a priest. And it isn’t being a parent either. It’s not a mission, or even a calling. Done well, mentoring ought not be a means of holding yourself up as a particularly good example, much less a paragon of virtues. Being a mentor is simply a matter of showing a younger person how it’s done—how to survive, how to thrive, how to do it right the first time and how to get through it when the second and third tries come up, as they often do. A mentor shows up. Then a mentor shows you the way.
I’ve found mentors in every sphere of life. A carpenter, a lawyer, an English teacher, a Political Science professor, a bartender, a judge, a janitor, a painter, a printmaker, a four-star Army General, a retired Army Colonel, a college dean, an aluminum siding salesman, a professional card player, an editor, three writers, a coach, another coach, a locksmith, numerous fellow professors, a second lawyer, a talk show host and my own father and mother. Sometimes it was a formal thing; there might be an introduction, some sort of agreement for them to provide time for me, to set aside hours, to provide the occasional critique of my work, my habits, my thinking. Sometimes they simply agreed to listen. We had lunch. They sat and explained. They drew on cocktail napkins and gave me rules to live by. There were ballgames. Sometimes they just called and asked how it was going. They heard me. My mentors showed up. In so many ways. Even when they were not there, I knew they were with me.
I came to perceive their habits, their discipline, their kindnesses—even the mistakes they made. I learned to take note. To emulate. The precision of the carpenter. The tireless focus of the painter. The ritualistic excellence of the janitor. The rigorous schedule of an officer. The relentless curiosity of the talk show host. The fiercely contrary opinions of the editor. I learned from every one of them. Mentors to me. Each and all. And I am ever thankful.
In my late 20s, I took a job as a college professor at DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. I was to teach creative writing, along with some literature classes, and like all professors at the school, senior and junior both, I was handed a list of new advisees at the beginning of every school year. At first I thought I would, at the very least, mentor these kids. But they drifted toward their ultimate majors, quickly, and on to careers that impressed, and sometimes, mystified me. I learned quickly: A mentor is far more than an advisor, and only in small part a teacher. I’m certain for every good word, and every clear piece of advice I ever came up with, that I missed the opportunity for a dozen more. Even with bright, motivated students like the ones who passed my way, a certain amount of what I taught fell on deaf ears. In mentoring, there are no guarantees. I was always delighted to be heard, to be respected, to be listened to, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a certain amount of this did not come with the job. It’s what I was supposed to do. My job description said: Teach. It strikes me as important to state: A mentor doesn’t have a job description.
“I learned quickly: A mentor is far more than an advisor, and only in small part a teacher.
I’m certain for every good word, and every clear piece of advice I ever came up with, that I missed the opportunity for a dozen more.”
Over the years, many students were kind enough to call me their mentor. And I’ve only agreed to the mantle when our relationship extended beyond the skeleton of the class structure, once we were beyond the rewards and confines of grades, evaluation, even graduation. A true mentor has to affect the habits of a life, more than the details of a given profession.
Naturally, names come to mind. You teach long enough and you remember hundreds of kids who passed your way. For me, none more than James Bell, who came to my college in Indiana by way of his boyhood home in Birmingham, Alabama. He walked in like any boy at all, jeans, T-shirt, who knows what on his feet. College kid. He was part of a smart pack of students who passed through my classes in the mid ‘90s, but James, or “Bell” as everybody called him then and now, had a peculiar ability to tell a great story about the people he loved, without seeming maudlin or overtly corny. Back then, he had a curly mop of hair, and a body worn wire-thin every winter by the taxing effect of varsity distance swimming at the collegiate level. He smelled like chlorine and he had no idea how sheltered he had been. Still, he made me laugh when he spoke in class, without fail. He could have been an actor, a comedian, a playwright. But his comments were always informed, if slightly modest, and he did the work of the class—reading thoroughly, analyzing without fear. I knew that he worked like an attorney. He was frank, a little off color in his commentary, but an incisive reader and thinker. Like a good attorney. Which is exactly what he turned out to be.
I’m reluctant to call myself his mentor for two reasons. First, he had a wealth of guidance in the form of his swim coach, his other professors, his wise and strong-minded parents. Mentorship is a kind of casserole of influence. No single ingredient claims the dish.
As for the two of us, Bell and I spent time together, often doing nothing more than talking about my young children, about his crazy younger brother or maybe just college football while out on walks to lunch. I learned about his family, both here and in Northern Ireland. I listened, probably not that carefully, to his gripes about fraternity brothers, other swimmers and certain closed-minded members of the workshop classes he sat through. A mentor simply has to be there for a young person. They have to register what’s being said, and why. Mentor attends to the person he cares about.
The second reason I’m reluctant to call myself his mentor: I don’t recall ever telling him anything specific. To my mind, we simply talked. And I worked on my writing, as did he. And, in some way I suppose, he learned to work like me. A mentor persists. We stayed in touch, during class, after class and after graduation. In fact, I just texted him and asked: Did I ever give you one good piece of advice in all these years we’ve known each other? To which Bell, now 41, a partner in a major Indianapolis law firm and member of the faculty at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, replied: “You told me to risk sentimentality. Be concrete in my images. Good advice for a writer. Good advice for a lawyer.”
Moments later, this: “You also advised me to marry Anne.”
That much I got right.
In the years that went by after Bell left, he and I spoke sporadically. In those times, I suffered a little more than I had in the years prior. I had a major car accident, I resigned my tenure, I got divorced. Each time, Bell found me a lawyer, called me on the phone to listen or offer a laugh. He told me when to take it easy on the drinking, when to buy a treadmill, that I had to get an accountant, that I had to listen to my disgruntled son rather than forcing him to listen and even when I should go back to work on a book I’d given up on long ago. For a decade before that, I had been his mentor. Allow me to risk sentimentality in saying, in the decade since then, he has become my mentor, having saved my life more than once with a single line. I’m proud of that. He’s a smart guy. And I had something to do with that. Mentors come from the places you set up for yourself and everyone who follows.
But it should come as no surprise that Bell, the kid whom I influenced as his mentor in college, the same man who had influenced me so profoundly in the recent past, gladly and vigorously took up the task of mentoring a young person in need more than 10 years ago. While he was forming a professional life, Bell joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, where he became Big Brother to one James Taylor, then a 9-year-old living with his grandmother on the north side of Indianapolis. They started slowly, with James Bell taking James Taylor to movies and sporting events, before graduating him to family gatherings and holidays. Inclusion. A mentor is inclusive by nature.
And a mentor listens. “Mostly we talked,” Bell says now, “which was tough because for a long time, James wasn’t too sure about me.”
James Taylor laughs. “He was the first white person I ever spoke to, besides a teacher. It was weird. Took me awhile to get used to. I didn’t talk so much at first.”
“I’ve advised James only to worry about the things he can control, to make a plan and stick to it. Perseverance has been a challenge.”
But the mentor abides. Bell always told me about the fact of James Taylor in his life, but he never bragged about him. And most of all a mentor never measures his own success on the life of the person he’s helping. James Taylor graduated high school, lettered in football and went off to college. Along the way, Bell was there. James Taylor’s accomplishments were his own. Bell just showed up: attended James Taylor’s football games, took him to his family gatherings, invited him to holidays, stepped in for his minor scrapes with the law and stood by when James Taylor became his own man. James Bell, his mentor, surely had something to do with that. “He went to all my games,” James Taylor says. “One time I quit, which wasn’t too smart. I was mad and all that. You know. He went in and talked me back on the team. That was cool. That changed things for me.”
There was more, and success was not always obvious. James Taylor, now 25, has two small children. Like all of us at 25, there are struggles. He dropped out of college. For a short time, he moved to Alaska, then back. But he has a job and works to take care of his children. It is a kind of steady life. James Bell is dispassionate about that. A good mentor can’t, or doesn’t, measure outcomes. “I’ve advised James only to worry about the things he can control, to make a plan and stick to it,” Bell says. “Perseverance has been a challenge.”
When I ask James Taylor, protégé of his mentor, James Bell, once my protégé to my own mentorship, what Bell really taught him, he is circumspect. There’s a good long pause. James Bell does nothing to fill in the silence. “I don’t know really,” James Taylor says. “I learned how to talk to white people.” He takes a sideways look at Bell, who takes a look at me. “That’s really something,” Bell says. “That really means something to a kid when he’s nine years old and he has to look at me like I mean something.”
“Nah,” James Taylor says. “He means something.”
“Imagine being nine years old and being asked to trust me,” Bell says.
James Taylor speaks quietly from the couch. “He’s always been there. That’s all.”
In this case, on this sunny day, “there” is the street out in front of James Bell’s house. Three men, two, maybe three mentors. James and James and me. For my part, I’ve never met James Taylor before. He’s a good-looking kid, easy with a smile, less than forthcoming with the stories. I like him. I tell Bell as much. Bell tilts his head. “He’s doing the story because I asked him to. And he’s still a little reluctant. He doesn’t want the story to come off as me coming in and saving his life. White guy, Big Brother. All that. And he’s right. His story is his. He’s his own person. And his own life. He’s his own man.”
It makes sense to me.
“All I did was talk to him,” Bell says.
That’s not all, I tell him. There’s a laundry list of things he did for James Taylor over 16 years. Even James Taylor will acknowledge that. But James Bell won’t have it. Like any good mentor, he boils his role down to two things. “I talked to him,” he says again. “And I listened.”
“Everybody needs that,” I say. “That’s what I like about you too.”
Bell shrugs. It’s simple enough. That’s what he always liked about talking to me.
I listened. I talked. I was a mentor.
Tom Chiarella is a writer-at-large for Esquire Magazine, and a contributor to Popular Mechanics, The New Yorker, Golf Digest, O: the Oprah Magazine, Chicago Magazine, Euroman, Men’s Style, Fashion (Canada) and many others. He lives in Greencastle, Indiana, where he serves as the Hampton and Ester Boswell Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at DePauw University. Chiarella has written extensively for Esquire about the crisis of education for the current generation of boys, about the current and growing legion of homeless 23-year-old men who wander the west coast and certain questions of masculinity, often asked, rarely answered: What is a Man? What Makes a Man? He’s also interviewed dozens of celebrities for Esquire, naming only the very odd (and unrelated) pair Jimmy Kimmel and General David Petreaus as the profile subjects who came to mentor him a bit. “Mostly they always listened, and they never gave me pat advice. That’s about the extent of the job of mentor as far as I’m concerned.”