An Ode to Mentors and Other Good Things

Comment: I’m not sure if you are aware of this, Dr. Ellen, but you were one of my first teachers when I decided to go back to college at such an “old” age. I was truly a lost soul in so many ways when I met you. You inspired me in such a grand way that I wept all the way home that night. I still consider you a mentor and I know for sure that I would not have pursued my degree so vehemently were it not for you. In fact, I most assuredly would not have gathered the strength to end a long, violent and abusive marriage without having the opportunity to grow and “think outside the box”. I remember how deeply my soon-to-be ex-husband hated you from the very beginning, wanting to deny any moment of pleasure or contentment that I felt or sought.

I admit that I still have my ups and downs and continue to battle the demons of depression sometimes. I know for sure, though, that my children and I are happier, stronger, more healthy human beings because of you. They are all honor students who love school and value education as well as the love and conservation of all animals. I have an incredible relationship with each and every one of them which I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. That is a wonderful accomplishment and I attribute my strength and desire in that regard to you. I realize that in some ways we are worlds apart but in other ways – perhaps not so much.

I thank you deeply and with the utmost gratitude for instilling me the courage NOT to settle anymore. I will be alone rather than ever settle again. Education and “thinking outside outside the box” are the keys and I thank you for giving me that incredible gift. You have been a gift to so many of us. I sincerely hope you know that.

Dr. Ellen’s Response:
Rosemary, thank your for your kind words. I appreciate them very much. I can tell you from experience that teachers at all levels of life love to hear from students whom they have taught or mentored. I hope you will take the time to tell other important teachers in your life what they did for you, as well.

I particularly loved teaching in the Community College environment because I found myself in an enviable position to help students as they travel down some of life’s rocky roads through my ‘psychology for living’ classes. Most community college students cannot afford to seek out family counseling, and what a bonus that the educational system could offer young adults such an opportunity to think out loud about their many options (and difficulties) in life – in an atmosphere of learning and inquiry.

I always encourage students to seek out the best professors through word of mouth. Talk to your fellow students, find out who is inspiring and who isn’t before you take their classes. Take courses from the inspiring professors and let them fill you up with their energy and passion for the things that move them. For school is NOT all math and technical know-how, and we have to learn to live in harmony with others first, then forge careers for ourselves.

I remember once offering a year-long colloquim in family relationships to all rising seniors in a local high school. It was offered at no charge to the school system so long as it was mandatory. I wanted to be sure that they graduated with some significant relationship skills, not just with computational and language skills. My offer was turned down because the school said it ‘already offered that kind of thing’ in its health curriculum. I THINK NOT. In fact, I know not…schools are driven by standarized curriculums within tight budgetary constraints, even though the colloquium that I was offering was (1) free and (2) it had only the requirement that all rising seniors take it before graduating that year. So much for the use of available community expertise.

So I moved over to the Community College system to see what I do there to help students navigate the relationship turbulence around them.

It was there that I enountered Rosemary in one of my night classes. She was older than the rest but not by that much in some cases; but certainly she looked exhausted and obviously scared to death of what was to come. She had no confidence in herself, no encouraging others around her, and she had nothing to pin her hopes on except possibly a passing grade if she studied hard enough despite having three small children and a crumbling marriage to manage. But I looked into those tired eyes and I saw a person with huge passions and great ambitions, the kind of ‘stuff’ that made me always come back for more, semester and after semester. The dialogues we had in those classes were profound and sometimes life-changing, and they reverberated beyond the walls of the building that we occupied.

This is what education is all about, isn’t it?

Psychology is one of the ‘soft’ sciences, meaning, unlike mathematics or engineering where hard numbers can be crunched’ and combined, psychology is a relative field of study. You cannot Chi Square feelings no matter how hard you try! Feelings and anxieties and relationship concerns defy standardization. They do lend themselves to relationship patterning if only one has a language to decipher those patterns with, which is the language of systems.

Dr. Murray Bowen of Georgetown was one of my mentors. I have always tried to pass along the same kind of mentoring process to my own students.

According to a systems way of thinking, you are what you are from the trek you have taken through life to date. If your intimate relationship network has been low-anxiety and encouraging, you will be an encouraged young adult with aspirations. If that network has been abusive or destructive, you will feel abused and perhaps even act out destructively in your interactions with others, and your aspirations will be limited by the cloud of anxiety that engulfs you.

Family relationship anxieties that you carry with you into the educational arena will surface in the form of inattentiveness, irresponsibility, feelings of inadequacy, and more.

I just wish our educational system was more tuned into such things, and brave enough to say no to Standards of Learning that inhibit good teaching and expansive classroom dialogue, and learning processes that take into account where each student is coming from, not just intellectually, but personally. Schools do that in the primary years to some degree but as the student moves through the system the emphasis is more and more on the digestion of facts and figures. In so many cases students are literally being told [what] to think…where as the emphasis should be on how to think.

Perhaps your children, Rosemary, will inspire changes in how we do things with your encouragement and good parenting! YOU GO, GIRL!

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

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