Not too long ago I was rummaging through old books, notes and scraps of paper accumulated over time in my dusty and overlooked study. As a busy teacher now in my 15th year of teaching, cleaning is a luxury.
As these things go, you clean a bit, and then stop and reminisce about something you found. I came across a yellowed and thin book that has been kissed by the sun too long. It was penned by my favorite professor, Jerry Pattengale, who taught ancient history when I attended Azusa Pacific University. I thumbed through it quickly as I felt nostalgia and embarrassment take an unexpected hold of me.
Over 15 years ago this man, who I regarded as a mentor, told me the following when I said I wanted to be a professor: “Jose, what schools really need are male Hispanic teachers. There are a lot of kids out there who would benefit from your presence. You would be a great role model.”
I listened and then walked away bothered because this was not something I wanted to hear. I felt this to be a polite rebuke that I was not good enough to be a history professor. Little did I know that his words would be a kind of foreshadowing.
Today I am a middle school teacher who teaches the same subject as my favorite professor did. If I was able to see both past and future like the Roman god, Janus, then I would be able to understand that all the events prior, led to teaching making sense to me on both a spiritual and vocational level.
I used to get in trouble in elementary school for helping those around me when we were suppose to do quiet seatwork. In middle school I used to be saddened by those around me who gave up in school and turned to drugs, gangs, or like most, to quote Thoreau, lived “a life a of quiet desperation.” In high school I was lucky to have a few teachers constantly hover around me and prevent me from giving up on myself.
In college, I felt the shock of being one of the few visibly Hispanic students on campus. I would listen to conversations that I felt culturally excluded from or was not academically prepared for. So with a mixture of pride and fear, I looked up words in the dictionary so I would not be left out or unprepared. Soon thereafter I tutored football players and other students in either history or philosophy.
School was a special time for me. Since I can recall, I have always had people who I can look up to and mentor me in some direct or indirect way. However, in the not too distant past the threads and patterns of relationships were changing on me. I did not really look for mentors and sages and had a difficult time finding them.
Young teachers and students from the past would seek me out to ask questions. Listening to those conversations, I began to realize that for many of those teachers and young students, I became a mentor to them. Through slow acknowledgement, I realized that I had to commit to becoming a better person.
Chosen by the Community
So when I was officially asked to be a mentor for our school I felt underprepared. I was unsure as to how I was going to articulate the demands and preparation required for the job to a younger peer.
The etymology of the word “mentor” comes from the Greek story of “The Odyssey.” Odysseus had left his son, Telemachus, to be counseled by the sagely Mentor, who was a trusted advisor to Odysseus’ household. His job was to counsel Telemachus in areas that could only be known through hard won experience or divine favor.
The role of being a mentor implied that you were entrusted by the family—in this case, the community—to ensure your charge was prepared for his or her social and vocational role in the family or community.
With that understanding, I became more aware that I was chosen and trusted by my community to influence, guide, and advise prospective teachers. I knew I that I would become a better mentor to my resident teacher over time.
Jose Garza is a charter school teacher in Los Angeles at Partnership to Uplift Communities Schools (PUC). He is mentoring a first year teacher through PUC’s Alumni Teach Project.