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Honor Your Mentor

A former high school teacher of mine is doing an “Honor Your Mentor” project, and as part of that project, was reaching out to all graduates of my high school to encourage them to say something about someone who mentored them.

He got me thinking about two teachers from my high school, one an English teacher, and the other a Psychology teacher (and wrestling coach).

My English teacher, Mr. Estell, was the first person to ever pull me aside and tell me I had a "gift" (that was his word) for writing. Until then, I knew I liked to write, even sensed that I was talented, or skilled in that area. But it was Mr. Estell who helped me to see talent or skill for what it really is: gift.

Then later, in my senior year, Mr. Estell also spoke a huge word of encouragement to me. The context was a speech each of us had to give to summarize a term paper we’d written.

We each had ten minutes to do our speech. Mr. Estell had our index cards and outline in front of him, and as each one of us spoke, he’d give a “half-way” warning, then a two-minute warning, and then a one-minute warning from the back of the classroom.

When I started to speak, I got on a roll, never looking at him. I missed the “half-way” and “two-minute” warnings.

All of a sudden Mr. Estell was flashing me a one-minute warning. I was only about 3/4 of the way through my speech. But apparently I kept talking, unruffled, and mentally rearranged all the rest of my points into shorter points, and brought them all in, in a closing sentence or two.

He pulled me aside after class and told me something to the effect of "In all my years of teaching, I have never seen anyone respond so calmly and so well to being told his time was about up, and get all the most important points in the remaining time. You have a gift."

That was twice he told me I had a gift: once for writing, and then for public speaking. I'm sure those two comments were huge factors in the trajectory of my career after college: politics/government/speech writing, then ministry, where both gifts are necessary and rewarded.

The other memory this mentoring project triggered was of my Psychology teacher and wrestling coach, Mr. Sutton.

(The main reason I’m indebted to Mr. Sutton is that he is the first person to encourage me to go to his alma mater, Wabash College, a school I’d barely heard of at the time. I ended up going there and the place changed my life forever. As another Wabash graduate said in a recent speech about himself, “Wabash College saw something in me that even I couldn’t see at the time. Wabash College helped me understand that ‘good enough’ wasn’t going to be good enough for me, and helped me learn how to extract excellence from myself...")

I've never forgotten a challenge Mr. Sutton would issue at the beginning of each class he taught: "If, at any time during this class, I say something that you think is irrelevant to your daily life, raise your hand. Stop me. Tell me. If I can't show you how it is relevant to your daily life, I will move on to the next part of my talk, and the challenge starts over."

I’ve tried to issue that same challenge whenever I am teaching or giving a presentation. (And, I must say, I often wish that our Sunday morning liturgy were structured in such a way that preachers could issue the same challenge right before preaching their sermons!)

Just knowing you’re going to challenge your listeners in this way forces you to prepare your lesson differently.

But I also discovered something that that wily old Mr. Sutton knew all along: if students are sitting there thinking they're going to challenge him, then that means they're sitting there thinking, "How is this relevant to my daily life?" and chances are, they are answering that question themselves.

I share these thoughts today because we never know when we are speaking words of encouragement into someone’s heart.

And to encourage you to think of someone who’s mentored you, and to give thanks.

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