Updated: Jan 5, 2021
I think everyone has a memorable teacher from high school who has become the stuff legends are made of. For me, it was Mr. Dzeda, my junior year AP US History teacher. No other teacher at that point in my life taught me to think critically about the world I lived in on such a deep level, or synthesize different sources to present written arguments. He and I are still in contact almost 20 years later; in fact, one of the first things I did after the pandemic began was get in touch with him. I’m so grateful for his friendship and mentorship. But to be honest, it didn’t start out that way. Not because of anything he did wrong—far from it.
The truth was...I was the problem. Mr. Dzeda’s class was notorious for pop quizzes, extensive reading assignments, and difficult exams. Because AP classes are university-level, he treated his students like college students and held them to the same standard. His presence even reflected the seriousness with which he conducted his work; with his ever-present leather briefcase, suits, and distinguished silver hair and glasses, he looked like he belonged at Harvard, not a small high school in the Midwest.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the class itself was small at only ten-ish students. That meant there was nowhere to hide.
Plus, I was intimidated by my classmates. They were so much smarter than me; while learning seemed to come naturally to them, it seemed like I had to work twice as hard for the same results.
I looked around the room on the first day and felt like an imposter.
The year got off to an inauspicious start. I was extremely shy about talking in class and always followed along with the discussion’s trajectory in my textbook so that if I was called upon to speak, I’d have something to say. This was no small feat; the reading assignments contained an overwhelming amount of information that felt like too much to cram into my brain the night before class.
Meanwhile, I kept falling into the comparison trap. Everyone else seemed to have it so together, while I felt like I was just treading water. Then, the unthinkable happened (for a highly insecure, overachieving 16 year old feeling way over her head).
I choked on our first essay exam. We had to do this thing where we took historical documents and used them as evidence to answer a prompt. If you've taken an AP class, you know what I'm talking about. These types of questions are the cornerstone of the whole experience. You’d think that as a writer, I’d have this wrapped up with a bow before I even got the question, but at that point in my life, it scared me to death. I wrote one paragraph and spent the rest of the class staring at the prompt and awkwardly flipping through the document pages, while all around me, people were frantically scribbling their undoubtedly brilliant answers. Unsurprisingly, the results weren't great. However, Mr. Dzeda had made a provision for the fact that writing an entire essay in 50 minutes is no small feat. Anyone who earned less than a C could have another crack at it after school. So a couple of days later, I did my walk of shame into the classroom at the end of the day. Mr. Dzeda sat at the desk next to me with my bombed-out paragraph in hand and asked me what went wrong. I was honest: test anxiety got the better of me. I don’t know what I expected him to say in response, but to my surprise, he understood. He said that this type of essay was an art form that often took a few tries to master, and that even good writers like me were not exempt.
That phrase hung in my mind as I looked at the question again and began my second attempt.
He said I was a good writer. The next day, I came into class to find my graded exam on my desk. I’d received a B+. There were only two words written on the last page next to my grade. Fine essay.
With Mr. Dzeda’s coaching, I became a master of writing more “fine essays." I learned how to read the assignments and get the most essential information out of them. When I walked into my first college history class two years later, I was a pro. I still use the skills I learned from him as a writer and researcher every day, and knowing how to quickly produce high quality content has paid off for me on more than one occasion. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment was showing me that I was letting a false narrative created by past teachers who told me I didn’t measure up dictate what I was capable of producing. Great mentors of course show us how to master the gift of storytelling. But more importantly, they help us write a different story about ourselves. Over the weekend, I watched Soul, the newest addition to the Disney/Pixar body of work. Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner, a jaded grade school band teacher with a passion for jazz piano. When he lands his dream gig playing in a quartet with saxophone legend Dorothea Williams, he’s convinced that his life is finally about to start. However, Joe’s newfound change in luck ends up in jeopardy when he accidentally falls in a manhole and ends up on his way to the afterlife (a.k.a. “The Great Beyond”). Unwilling to accept death just when life was about to get pretty awesome, he discovers a loophole in the system: he goes to The Great Before, the holding area for “new souls,” and becomes the assigned mentor to Soul #22.
22 is a problem child. She’s had dozens of celebrity mentors (Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Carl Jung, and Muhammad Ali just to name a few), all of whom have failed at helping her find the personal “spark” that will make her ready for life on earth. She is rebellious, incorrigible, and views earth as stupid and useless. Now, she’s stuck with Joe, whose sole motivation (pun sort-of intended) is to make it back to earth to reunite with his body in time for his gig. Soul is probably Pixar’s most bizarre effort (think a metaphysical version of WALL-E) and as a writer, I am still trying to work out exactly how I feel about the story. However, one truth that it clearly portrays is how mentorship can change the lost and directionless into passionate creators on a mission. First of all, the fact that 22 sees life on earth as pointless is no fault of her own. Her mentors and authority figures enrolled her in the idea that she is less-than. In one scene, 22 is tormented by recollections of all the discouraging and insulting remarks her past mentors made about her.
It’s no wonder she doesn’t want to complete her preparation for earth when the concept itself and her abilities have been thoroughly poisoned for her.
Likewise, we can experience the same discouragement when it comes to not only our gifts, but things we perceive as being areas of weakness. Just as affirmation can build us up and drive us to get better, negative words can weave a tale of failure that keeps us from being our best.
However, good mentors can correct those thought patterns and help us uncover the truth about our potential. This is what Joe is eventually able to do for 22: he gives her a chance where all other mentors, even the greatest names in history, have failed.
One of my favorite stops on my writing and educator journey was teaching English at a career college. Most of my students hadn’t been in a classroom since high school—around 10 to 15 years ago. Many of them arrived in my beginner’s writing class terrified because of some bad experience they’d had in English. Their insecurities weren’t all that different from 22’s—they were written off as failures, told they were stupid, or criticized to the point where they just gave up.
My goal was to help these students write a new story about themselves as communicators. They found that once they started exploring subjects they cared about and learned how the revision process is supposed to work, they stopped seeing it as a source of anxiety and began to view it as a necessary skill for their careers, if not something they actually enjoyed.
It takes time, but it’s possible for one good mentor to succeed where others have failed and change the entire course of a person’s creative life. Sometimes you just need to get out of your own head and see yourself the way someone else does. Mentors help you do that. And in an art form like writing where you spend so much time in your head to begin with, having a guide to share your ideas and goals with makes it that much easier to avoid getting dragged down by your thoughts. Contrary to what I’d been taught in high school, I wasn’t less capable than my peers, and I certainly wasn’t an imposter. It’s one of the great stories of my writing life that through a great teacher’s direction, a class I found so intimidating played a role in correcting the lies I’d been taught to believe about myself.
Finding a writing mentor is a great goal for this new year, and mentorship is one of our values at Inkling Creative Strategies. I want to invite you to schedule a complimentary Virtual Meetup on Zoom with me and see if our consulting service is for you.
We’ll talk about your writing goals and vision for your word, address your hang ups, and see if my services are a fit for what you want to accomplish this year. Click here to grab some time on my calendar and don’t forget to bring along some coffee.
Writing Prompt: Here's a challenge—what false narrative about yourself are you currently believing and where did it come from?