From the moment I saw the grade and read his note, I knew it was the beginning of a riveting relationship. He was going to challenge me and, well, I think I’ve already established how I react to challenges.
“Melissa … You have a nice ‘poetic’ flare in your writing style, but be careful not to allow it to get in the way of a coherent analysis … I know … I have the same strength … and tendencies. [smiley face]” — Timothy Kirk, African American literature professor, wrote this on my limited critique “Power in Money: The Murder of Emmett Till,” January 17, 2007. It was the first analysis I wrote for that class. It received an “A-” and that received a twisted eyebrow from me. Minus!
Professor Kirk cultivated my already deep appreciation for African American literature, and he shoved me into sharper learning, always charging me to pluck out the profound, provocative and problematic elements of a story or style. He taught me that it wasn’t enough just to enjoy the stories; the stories needed to be understood. It wasn’t unusual for us to participate in out-of-class debates/heated discussions via e-mail or campus café chat. On those days, I struggled to squeeze my thoughts into my car on the 45-minute drive home.
He always made time for me and my battling bullet points. And today, he still nudges me to not allow something to get in my way. And I smile.
We need those people in our lives. You know the ones. The ones who make life just a little too uncomfortable. The ones who stretch our resilience. The ones who take the time. The ones who demand more from us. The ones who make us better. The ones who … care.
Not long after I started my current job, I asked some coworkers who “the ones” were for them. I was shocked at the response. Most people had difficulty thinking of a single one.
We have to do better. We must start taking young people under our wings and making their lives just a little too uncomfortable. And we all should have at least one mentor. That mentor should know that he or she has affected us in great capacities. Tell him or her. What harm could it do? Wouldn’t you want to know if you’ve left a stamp on someone’s life?
My challenge to you is to recognize, seek out and thank your mentors. Before it’s too late. It’s only fair; I mean, you wouldn’t be who you are if it weren’t for them.
Below I’ve listed 17 names (I could’ve listed more, actually) of other people who, at some point in my life, have taken me under their wing and contributed to my development. Each one recognized something in me and went out of his or her way to cultivate it. This list does not include family members; they’re on an untouchable list of their own.
Please forgive me if I’ve misspelled anyone’s name. Or if you start hearing the Academy Award music before I’m finished. I’ve tried to list only one example each, but each one is much more to me than there is writing space.
- Cheryl Haines, Elementary music teacher: made me audition for my first musical in fifth grade.
- John Burton, Director/choreographer/singer: invited me to dance/sing for his (one-man) show.
- Roberta Stoughton, High school music teacher: physically pushed me at times to be better. At everything.
- Charles Corritore, General manager of Erie Playhouse/director/actor/singer/dancer: cast me in A Chorus Line, kissed me in Singin’ in the Rain, sent me encouraging e-mails when I lived in Germany.
- Betsy Hermann, Singer/actress/dancer: made me forget our age difference and showed me the ropes to humble stardom (by modest terms, of course).
- Angela Fels, Voice teacher: invited me to sing with her band at the policeman’s ball.
- Leslie Edwards, Dancer: made me forget our age difference and showed me there was more to dance than Dolly Dinkle schools. Introduced me to No. 8.
- Jean-marc and Dafna Rathouse-Baier, Teachers of dance and life: sit in my soul food. They are my bloodline.
- Robert North, Swim coach/physical education teacher: shaped me as a stronger swimmer and student of life. Oh — and he swam Lake Erie.
- Ruth “Ruthie” Andrien, Modern dance teacher/former Paul Taylor Dance Co. member: walked to the back of the studio, grabbed me by the hand and led me to a spot next to her. She whispered intensely: “Melissa, you are a leader of your peers. You belong up front because they watch you. I don’t ever want to see you in the back of my classroom again.” She’s the same teacher who, during my freshman year at UArts, sent me with two seniors to New York City to audition for Paul Taylor Dance Co.
- Larry Kornfehl, Dance captain/manager: called the casting director before the second day of rehearsals and told her she needed to hire me full time. I was working full time the next day.
- Stacey Johnson-Bew, Casting director: called me while I was in Germany and said she’d heard I wasn’t happy there. She flew me back to the states to reassume my position.
- Anthony Dixon, Husband/king of my prince: taught me how to be grounded and that people want and need my attention.
- Gloria Rich, Christian sister: made me aware that dance was my Spirit gift. Also was instrumental in my prince’s development.
- Pastor Ed Keaton — I used to call him Dad. That’s all I need to say.
- Dr. Rickey A. Cotton, English professor: taught me how to think. He once asked me if I’d missed my calling to become a lawyer.
- Joshua Hill, English professor: encouraged me to follow my faith — regardless of circumstances — and stayed after hours to discuss advanced grammar and teaching.