19 March 2022 -- On Mentors, Crossroads, and Lives Saved or Lost

Tonight is the last night here in Naples for this year’s study abroad program.  I am reminded of what I was thinking and feeling two years ago, the last time I was here, right before COVID blew up.  Here’s what I wrote at that time. 


A recent email from a former student has me thinking about a critical moment in my life when things could have gone terribly, terribly wrong for me -- a fork in the road that would have led me to a very different life -- if it had not been for the mentoring and tough love of two of my professors. 

When I was an MA student at Colorado State, my advisor was Bill McBride, a hugely important person in the training and support of high school English teachers in the state. That’s what I was there for - to get my master’s and go back to teaching high school - but not because that was a professional calling for me, nor out of some altruistic desire to enlighten young people or make the world a better place. I just wanted weekends, holidays, and summers off and decent benefits like my father had as a public school music teacher. I also wanted to skate, to not work very hard in my career, and language arts just came easily and naturally for me. So that was the plan, and I was sticking to it. 

When I met with Bill one day that first fall, I was already hurtling toward the end of my drinking and drugging. I was pretty close to free fall, and everyone in the department knew it. Folks in Eddy Hall would literally turn around and walk the other way when they saw me coming to avoid contact with me. So I went into Bill's office to talk about my spring class choices, and he said, "You know, Kate Kiefer is teaching an experimental class on the reading-writing connection in the spring. You should take it.” And my response was, "Oh no no no." Kate is, perhaps, the single smartest person I have ever met, one of the founding editors of the journal Computers and Composition (back when we were writing on mainframes, for crying out loud), and there was no way I was going to take a class with her. I was hell bent on sliding by, on doing the absolute minimum amount of work necessary because I had no more to give, because tending to my drinking and drugging was a full-time job on its own. “Um, no thanks,” I told Bill, and slinked out of his office. 

We repeated this little dance at least two more times that fall, as I remember, with McBride raising the stakes a bit each time. “Oh, I really think you should take Kate’s course.” “It’s going to be a great class!” "It won't be offered again before you graduate." Etc. No sale, each time. Finally, I went into his office one day, and he spun aggressively in his chair and said, quite pointedly, “YOUNG MAN! Do you want me to be your advisor?!” And I sheepishly said, “Yes, please, god, of course” - because by this point almost no one was talking to me anymore - and he said, “THEN I ADVISE YOU TO TAKE KATE'S CLASS!!” 

And so I did. And it was the single most important intellectual and academic experience of my life. All those difficult questions I had so assiduously avoided and evaded up to that point in my life — What is the nature of reality, truth, knowledge, community, identity, power, texts, meaning, and how does language embody/enact/generate them all? — were laid out for me in Kate’s class. Mind = blown. And I realized how appalling my ignorance was, how desperately I loved these ideas, how much I needed them and needed to work with them, which led very quickly to me searching for the best PhD programs I could find. 

Taking Kate’s class moved me from being a cypher, an empty set, a null space where something should have been happening (but decidedly was not) and put me on the path I still walk today. When I think of how horribly wrong things could and would have gone for me, how impoverished my mind and my life would have remained if Bill hadn’t strong-armed me into Kate’s class, it makes my throat clench and my stomach hurt. Like right now, for instance. 

About 15 years after I left Colorado, I went back for a visit and was lucky enough to get both Bill and Kate to come out to breakfast one morning. And I made a point of telling them the story I just told you. “I am just really grateful to both of you. I don’t know if you two know how important that class was for me. It literally changed my life.” They looked at each other, then turned to me and said, “OF COURSE we knew! That's why we pushed you into it!” 

[What is clear to me now in retrospect is that taking Kate's course didn't just change my life.  It saved my life.]

I joke at work that I am paid to read, and write, and talk to smart people. That's actually a pretty accurate description of what I am fortunate enough to do for money. And for 1/3 of the year, I get to read, and write, and talk to smart students in Europe by directing our honors semester abroad program. We arrived in Naples today for our annual week of visits to Vesuvius and Pompeii and Herculaneum and all the other amazing volcanic and Roman sites here. We just gorged ourselves on heavenly Neapolitan pizza, which I have been jonesing for since we left last year. I am sitting here in my hotel room thinking how very easily this could have all gone a different way, how impossibly lucky I am to have somehow arrived here. But that's not right. It wasn't luck at all. It was an amazingly hopeful and generous and committed gamble that two professors of mine took on me when I certainly did not deserve it 30 years ago. It was their ability to see in me things I could not see myself and their willingness to force me to live up to that potential. 

I am thinking tonight about how critical a single instance of mentoring can be in a life (and in the many other lives that that one life will eventually touch). God knows how many senior people in a given field just refuse the responsibility to pay it forward, to mentor as they have been fortunate enough to have been mentored, and how many of us turn from the sun, wither, and die as a result.

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