Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What I Learned from my Mentor

Many people who have met me assume I have a lot of confidence.  After all, I've spent many years working in broadcasting; I've interviewed a number of celebrities; I've been quoted by newspapers and magazines; and I've given talks in front of audiences of all sizes.

But the truth is I'm only confident in a professional context.  Giving a presentation in front of hundreds of people rarely worries me; being a guest on a radio show doesn't make me nervous at all.  But invite me to a party, or ask me to socialize with even a small group of people and I'm completely at a loss.  It's always struck me as bizarre that I can MC a rock concert and feel completely comfortable, but sitting in a room where a few people are chatting makes me feel totally awkward and out of place.

There was a time when I wasn't confident professionally either.  How I acquired that skill is a long story, better told some other time; but suffice it to say one major factor was having someone in my life who encouraged me.  It was a professor of mine (his name was Bob), and he believed in me when no-one else did.  It's funny what having a mentor can do.  I had never had one before-- I grew up in an era when girls were not expected to have careers, or if they did have one, it was only until they got married.  When I told people I wanted to be a disc jockey, few of them took me seriously; disc jockeys were men with deep voices, and if there were girls on the air at all, they were giving fashion tips or talking about recipes. The fact that I wanted to play the hits seemed strange to most people, but for some reason, Bob understood, and he even told me he thought I'd sound great on the air.  

Many times, when I was frustrated because no-one (not even the folks at my college radio station) would give me a chance, and when it seemed my dream might never come true, Bob remained certain that one day, I would get that opportunity and I would have the career in broadcasting that I wanted.  He was right: in October of 1968, I finally was allowed to be on the air, the first female d.j. in the history of Northeastern University.  He was proud of me, but he wasn't surprised.  He has always known. He also knew I'd be successful:  he helped me to develop coping strategies when things seemed bleak, and he helped me to overcome my own self-doubt.

I'd like to tell you that he continued to cheer me on, but unfortunately, he couldn't.  Although he was an amazing professor, who was very popular with his students, he was also an alcoholic, and in the end, that is what cost him his job. It also contributed to his death a year later, at the young age of 43.  I admit that at the time, I knew very little about the disease of alcoholism:  I don't drink at all, and my parents rarely did. I had heard all the stereotypes about alcoholics being lower-class or skid-row bums, but Bob was an educated man with a good heart and a PhD.  As I later learned, this disease can affect people of all ages, races, and social classes.  But at the time, all I knew was I had lost the one person who had faith in me.  And all I could do at that point was learn to have faith in myself.

To honor him, I got a Master's Degree in Counseling, with training in working with people who have been affected by drug or alcohol problems.  And to this day, I try to be a mentor whenever I can, especially when I encounter students with alcoholism in their family.  I teach them about the Three C's-- a valuable lesson I learned when I went to Al-Anon meetings:  you didn't cause his (or her) disease, you can't cure their disease, you can't control their disease.  In other words, it's not your fault that the alcoholic drinks; you can't make them quit if they are not ready; and while you love or sympathize with the alcoholic, the best thing you can do is focus on your own emotional and physical health.

 Next month, it will be the 46th anniversary of his passing, yet every now and then, I find myself thinking about him; I am still saddened by his death, but I remain grateful that I knew him.  A part of me still wishes I had more knowledge about alcoholism back then-- perhaps I could have given him the kind of encouragement that he gave me.  On the other hand, I came to understand that he wasn't ready (or able) to quit drinking; and although that fact was difficult to accept, I also realized it was time for me to get on with my life. And while my broadcasting career, and years later, getting my PhD, resulted mainly from my own hard work and determination, I sincerely believe that none of it would have happened if a certain professor had not seen my potential and decided I needed a mentor (and a friend).

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