Supplies: Mentors

Franklin Coop - Somali Science Class
science class poster – shot by Diana Rajchel

Note: written on 1/27/14

Mentors are not always the people you expect.

For me, when this exercise came across my page, the thought that came to me: “Ah. This is why I’ve been thinking about him.”

My first mentor – not named as such in any way – was someone I knew 20 years ago. He might have been a little bit younger than me. I only vaguely remember how we met. He said I loaned him a pencil during our college placement testing. That day was an anxiety-filled blur. If I did it, I don’t remember it. Such kindnesses were reflexive for me. I was always the smart kid that carried the dumb kid that forgot his pencil. Wait, I sort of remember it because he asked three other people before he asked me and he had started to look a little desperate so I felt sorry for him.

I know I remember meeting him at a privilege-consciousness exercise called “Archie Bunker’s Neighborhood.” He pissed me off by greeting me with “hi honey!” then displayed both leadership and noise making skills that left me irritated and resenting my own growing attraction. He was an athlete. Where I came from, associating with a jock might as well have been associating with a felon up for multiple murders that had something on every judge in the state. Jocks were thugs, especially when it came to me. Usually I was spared the sexual violence – too undesirable – but often they would attempt to pretend to befriend me only to turn on me or establish some exploitative arrangement in hopes I’d do their homework for them.

I’d hoped to leave that behind when I started college but it was made clear it followed me within my first ten minutes in my dorm room. I heard my neighbors loudly discussing the size of my ass and the other flaws of my body. By the end of that day I’d encountered so many jeers by the young men and young women that I was only too happy to skip freshman orientation and work in the newspaper office instead. He was the person to suffer the consequences of that.

Of course, He did not know any of this. I never quite felt safe enough to tell him.

Looking back, He really tried hard to befriend me. I may have been the most effort He had ever expended up to that point, especially since men gravitated to Him and women threw themselves at Him at a fairly constant rate. I was the person that made it hard for Him because of my automatic mistrust.

On the first day of classes He came into Sociology 101, looked straight at me and then sat in the desk next to mine with a big smile. The entire time I sat thinking please be looking at someone else please have some girl you want to fuck on your radar please don’t pick me out to harass aw shit I’m on his radar any moment the harassment will start…

I think He tried to start a conversation with me. I ignored Him. Just ignore Him so this way the bullying just goes into a void…He finally shouted my name so I had to look.

He was laughing, but puzzled.

“What do you want?” I snapped.

He mocked me for that. With a little persistence He got me to relent and then got a conversation out of me.

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The next class was intimate, an honors class founded in discussion. It was right across from the Sociology 101 class, right after it so I had one of the first seats. People sat around a single table that filled up slowly. Most people chose chairs far away from me, except for the girl I’d already met in my probability and statistics class. (She was awesome. I am sure she still is.) At last it looked like everyone was there, the campus pastor had started distributing the syllabus and at the last possible moment He swung through the door. He looked straight at me and grinned. There were only two chairs left: the one right next to me and the one closest to the door. He took the chair next to me. The shit, don’t sit next to me voice had started as He looked at both chairs.

I cringed. I thought it was inward but it may have been outward. I had a brief, paranoid thought: did this guy change classes so he can harass me? I dismissed it. Jesus Christ, Di, it’s college. No one here has the money to do that ridiculous shit.

He annoyed me during class, all right. He proceeded to tip on the back of his chair, balancing as far back as He could. I kept worrying that He’d fall and hurt himself. The bastard found a way to trigger my babysitter’s impulse.

The pastor had to stop class and chide us for bickering at least once that day. It wouldn’t be the last time the poor man had to do that.

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This memory may be confused. It might have been someone else. It might have been the same day or a week later. It was still fall. He was walking with me after class. He asked me to sit with him at lunch. I said yes. Paranoid voices in my head were still going. OK, here’s where he humiliates you. Maybe he just wants you to help his buddies with their homework. When I got through the food line He was at His bench, surrounded by His friends.

He, I might have handled. But a table full of His friends terrified me. There was no way someone wouldn’t be derogatory. I sat where I usually sat. I don’t even remember who I talked to – I never had regular lunch companions.

He asked me later why I didn’t sit with him. “Your  table was already full when I got there.”

He never asked again.

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There were girls in the dorm lounge. I almost walked past, but then, thinking of my lonely lunch and supper that day, I forced myself to turn and join them on the couch.  I need to at least try to make friends. They were talking about boys.

His name came up. They all declared Him hot. I didn’t realize He was who they were talking about – His last name hadn’t registered quite yet. I didn’t know anyone’s name. I didn’t find anyone all that attractive. Attraction was a complicated, mostly suppressed thing for me.

He walked through the door while we were talking – the girls all gestured Him over, and after looking the group over, He came. As He sat with us the girls began to talk about the arcana left by previous tenants. In one room stars, in another graffiti. I asked to see the astronomy map left in one girl’s room.

“Of course,” she said through grit teeth. She then leaned over to her friend, covering her mouth and cupping the girl’s ear and whispered something while looking at me. “It’s not about you,” she said to me.

“Sure.” I smiled tightly. Wow, so it’s not high school that never ends, it’s junior high.

He caught my eye and said it in a way that made it clear He was only speaking to me. “Do you want to see my room?”

A junior had invited me to His room earlier that week and it got really weird really fast. While I got out before anything happened, it made me none too fond of being on boys’ rooms. Because of this, I almost hesitated, then on some subterranean level that understood how normal people thought, I got it. “I’d love to,” I said.

We walked away from the gaggle of mean girls together.

I walked with him down the  boy’s hallway, endless white brick. He showed me – it was the room right below my own. “That’s my room,” he said, waving to it.

“Good to know,” I said.

“We’re even,” He told me.

I had no idea what the hell was talking about. But OK. I went upstairs to my own room.

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The bickering started early. I can’t count the number of times the pastor had to stop class because He and I got into it. Speaking in class was as natural to me as making social connections was not – I was often the only outspoken person in class and then silent, sometimes for days at a time, outside it. It made me unpopular in high school. Since most of our  grades depended on participation and I was at this college because I didn’t test well,  I had to participate. I got the feeling He was also often the only one to speak up in class and had become used to shouting into the void. Sometimes having a partner in these discussions was a welcome change. Sometimes He really made me mad; He read the symptoms of my responses with skill and over time could expertly provoke or defuse me at will.

He told me later he had started dating his girlfriend because she actually argued with Him during their high school classes. He enjoyed the energy it sparked. He didn’t understand that exploration I needed, I could handle, but hard debate just wounded me. Still, He was a relief of the otherwise dull and listless student body and He told me years later, in so many words, that I was a relief to him.

When I got a boyfriend it made me feel safer around Him. Having the boyfriend made me feel vindicated, protected against false accusations about my undesirability or supposed virginity. It prevented at least the other freshman girls from accusing me of having designs on Him. It gave Him no opportunity to humiliate me with the “I just like you as a friend” speech. I figured that the speech from Him was inevitable but I wanted to put it off.

Despite my social anxiety with girls I had no trouble telling boys when I liked them. He is the only exception to that, ever.

Every time I might have mentioned my feelings to Him, a new blonde was coming out of His room. It was like He had a production line in there. I may have known of the high school girlfriend by that time. I didn’t ask questions.

Our first test in Soc 101 came up. I surprised myself – seemingly not of my own volition, I turned to Him in class and said “Want to study together?”

He looked as surprised as I felt. He said yes.

This surprised me.

I probably did it because I had a boyfriend to hide behind. It made me feel safer trying to make friends with a man.

He came to my room to study with me while my boyfriend was at a play rehearsal. He was smarter and better prepared than I expected. Mostly we talked about Him. My family often accused me of talking about myself too much so I just didn’t, not with Him, not with anyone.

He told me he planned to transfer out of the school we were at in pursuit of his athletic ambitions. He seemed so certain of it.

An unbidden thought trotted through my mind. I can’t imagine this school with you.

I did tell Him I would probably stay, graduate early if I could.

Mostly we actually studied.

My boyfriend was annoyed to find out that I’d had a boy in my room without his permission. He was especially annoyed it was That boy.

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He is sometimes who I consider my first initiator. He was the one who brought me into adulthood, into the fun part of being a kid that I never really got to connect to while actually a child.

  • He got me drunk the first time. (It happened in part because my moments of naivete were as hard to predict as Midwestern weather. He did not believe I was as straight edge as I said I was, not that straight edge was a thing yet.)
  • He gave me my first dose of Vivarin.
  • He lit my first cigarette. (He did it to get me to stop crying.)
  • To Him, I became one of the guys. He was fond of explaining the male mind to me. It really only applied to His mind, but the effort was appreciated and at least I felt like I understood His motivations most of the time even while I knew He was full of shit when it came to anyone else.

Here’s what I really learned from him:

  • I learned how to chill. I had been horrendously uptight. He gently persuaded me that clenching made no difference over how much control I had over the world. I am still driven and organized, but I’m aware of my trouble letting go, of the madness behind it when I don’t.
  • I learned how to listen, much better than I had before.
  • I learned how to have a conversation without needing to win. We disagreed on some pretty big, fundamental things. But we found a way to relate to one another with compassion and affection.
  • I learned that there is no such thing as a “guy’s perspective.” There’s just “one guy’s perspective” and it in no way represents other men.
  • It wasn’t intentional, but it made it clear that I do have problems with intimacy. Even now, 20 years later, I have a long way to go – but his treatment of me helped me realize that there were things I physically could not talk about and that to have that problem meant something else was wrong.

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There’s more, so much more to this than I can possibly write here. I can say that the person I’ve turned out to be as I near 40 has a lot to do with that boy I met when I was 19. He wanted to open me up and he did though I don’t think he got the results he hoped for. I’m still suspicious/curious about why he chose to do this with me, why I was the second of his “adoption cases” as he sort of explained it to me sophomore year.

I don’t know his reasons for doing it. Given my dark hair and whiff of ethnicity, I probably reminded him of his sisters. He liked girls that put up a good argument and despite my suppressed romantic feelings I wasn’t exactly hell bent on pleasing him.

I can’t speak for him, but I suspect that nothing turned out the way either of us planned. I left for Minnesota, which had never even been a consideration when we met. He stayed in Wisconsin, having fallen in love and found Christianity in the same moment. He yelled at me a little the first time I brought up leaving – he thought it was a repeat of drama from the year before, drama he never fully understood. But then I left. He was sweet, but I pushed away the hovering suspicions he wanted to say more. That beneath it all was a “wait, I’m not done teaching you yet.”

But I didn’t know what it was between us, not then. So I could see something in the clouds above us but had no idea how to interpret the shape.

It’s rare for the one being educated to leave, but it was time for me to. I still wonder what it would have been like if I had managed to stay at that school, if the money had miraculously arrived to let my life continue. I wonder a lot about how our relationship might have evolved. I don’t have any curiosity about what might have happened with anyone else there – just him.

Minnesota was a mistake, a bad choice in a situation where all my options were bad, but it was one I needed to make.

When I called, he just said he missed the way I contributed to discussions in our honors class.

I have no idea how he’d feel about my writing about him now.

Friendship with him did not last twenty years and while I know how to find him I don’t think I could handle the inauthenticity social media gives to people that haven’t interacted for decades.  In the end he let me go and then waited patiently for me to let him go. He was always kind, even when he was mad at me, even when he was ready for me to disappear from his life. He used to make the same face my grandfather did when I said something he didn’t like, an odd motion of the jaw, complete with  visible internal processing. That next-to-last conversation, the one where I told him I was engaged, I could almost hear the movement of his jaw over the phone line. He’d helped me become who I am but he didn’t like the long-term results. He managed to not be home the next few time I called him. He wasn’t my mentor anymore – and he wasn’t happy with the new course of experience I’d chosen.

Who he was to me then meant too much to me for anything less than the real now. I have no idea who he is now…but there is no picking up where we left off, not after this long. There are husbands and wives and for him babies now.  We’d have to start new and that would probably not be easy. It was hard enough work the first time.

None of it makes what he taught me or how it makes me who I am now any less important.

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