As a 20-year-old college student, I hated writing.
Mostly, I hated it because I was bad at it, but I desperately wanted that to change. After reading Bill Simmon’s The Book of Basketball, my heart was set on becoming a digital and print journalist. The only thing that stood in my way was the fact that I wasn’t sure where to put a comma, I used way too many run-on sentences, and couldn’t structure a well-thought argument to save my life — among other things.
To get through introductory-level college English classes during my first two years of college, my friends tutored me and heavily edited my papers — perhaps a little too heavily. I knew that if I ever wanted to become a writer and a journalist, my writing skills needed to vastly improve.
I had the same English teacher during both my freshman and senior year of high school, Mr. Wylie. He had no reason to like me — or even remember me. I barely scraped by with C’s and slept through 40 percent of his lectures.
But I decided to reach out to him to see if he’d help me improve over the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. While I was certainly an uninspired student — the definition of average — I still saw him as a possible mentor. He was a good teacher, funny, and, most importantly, didn’t seem to judge me when I turned in essays riddled with typos and grammar mistakes.
If I was going to overcome my shortcoming as I writer, I would need to be around someone who wouldn’t condemn or ridicule me for the fact that, at 20 years old, I still didn’t know how to use a colon. Even more importantly, I needed someone who wasn’t going to doubt that I could achieve my dream, no matter how unrealistic it may have seemed at the time.
According to John Nosta, an author on Psychology Today, there are 10 rules for building a powerful mentor relationship, and contrary to what many people may think, it doesn’t include waiting for a mentor to seek you out.
If I were going to achieve my goals, I certainly didn’t have the time to wait to casually bump into Mr. Wylie and then hope that he would offer to tutor me. In fact, Nosta’s first criterion is that the mentoring process can be informal – that it can have a loose structure. At the same time, the conversation needs to be direct, i.e., don’t beat around the bush and get right to the point.
So, nervously, I sent an email to Mr. Wylie asking him if he could meet with me once a week to help me improve as a writer. I acknowledged that I wasn’t the best student when he taught me, but I was dedicated to changing that.
I don’t have his response saved in my inbox anymore, but he essentially said he was happy to do it and that we could meet every Friday in the teacher’s lounge of my old high school. The only condition was that if I didn’t take it seriously then he wouldn’t want to give his time. He asked me to bring a piece of writing to our first session, and over the entirety of the summer, he worked with me. By its end, I was a much better writer and thinker.
That’s not to say I was ready to be a professional yet, but I was ready to take on higher-level English classes without tutoring support from my friends.
At the end of the summer, I offered to take Mr. Wylie out to lunch or buy him a beer, but all he asked was that I help him set up his classroom for incoming students. After that, I contacted him on occasion and would send him stories I wrote, but for the most part, we lost touch.
I don’t think every mentor has to be with you for life. Mr. Wylie invested in me when I needed it the most, and today I can proudly say I’m making a living with a writing and journalism career. If he didn’t take the time to meet with me that summer, I may not have had the confidence — and certainly not the skills — to take advanced journalism and English classes. I could have ended up in a completely different profession, but I sought out a mentor, and that made all the difference.