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The Barefoot Laureate: Mentors Come in Many Forms, Leave Lasting Impression

There’s an old Buddhist saying that the teacher is always right in front of you. The peach tree in front of you is a teacher. The praying mantis in front of you is a teacher. Every emotion you feel is a teacher.

The teacher appears in a million guises. Even the most awful people who cross our paths are teachers, demonstrating how not to behave.

I’ve had dozens of teachers, but for today I’ll just focus on the three that came into my life early on and left a lasting impression.

My first real teacher was a neighbor friend named Liz. I met her when we were both 5 years old. Because we looked alike, it was especially disconcerting that we were profoundly different.

Liz was good at everything. She could groom and ride even the most skittish horse at the nearby dude ranch without flinching or showing any fear. She spoke with with people graciously. She knew the names of plants and trees. She excelled in school and even sports. 

Liz was clearly not beset with the same insecurities just about everybody else I knew possessed. 

One day I told her she was lucky because she was good at everything. She was running a curry brush over the flanks of an old mare, dust and flies filling the air, none of which seemed to bother Liz one bit.

She looked at me for a moment and then said, “It’s not that I’m good at stuff, it’s just that I really enjoy learning.”

This was a complete revelation to me. All this time I’d thought learning was a chore, and something I could one day put behind me, not a process one could cherish!

Years later, I realize Liz was saying that a love of learning is a gift we give ourselves. It is a beautiful and rewarding way to live our lives, because ultimately, the purpose of learning is action.

Of course, I was still a clumsy, fearful creature, and not long after that, Liz and her family moved away and I remained, not just clumsy and fearful, but bereft.

It wasn’t long after that my brother suddenly seemed to take an interest in my education.

To my horror he told me all about the Vietnam War and about the corruption of a man named Nixon. He explained that the radio contained this thing called FM and that AM was no longer cool. He explained the nature of pollution and big industry. He spoke fervently about caring for the less fortunate.

He turned me into a fan of The Beatles and Aretha Franklin, and then one day he placed a book titled “Thus Spake Zarathustra” into my hands.

I’d always enjoyed books and stories, but this was an incomprehensible text, entirely over my head, entirely mysterious, entirely provocative and ultimately thrilling.

Here was a person writing about the inner life. At that point in my young life, I didn’t even know the inner life was something we all had.

Although I had always been a reader, this was, I think, my first real introduction to the arts.

I should be clear that The Beatles’ and Aretha’s lyrics completely escaped me and I had no idea what Nietzsche was really going on about, but I had entered the world of feeling— and was feeling less alone.

All my life, I’d been conditioned to believe that feelings were to be avoided like the plague.

To experience feeling as a positive thing was entirely new to me.

Not long after I experienced my first meaningful teacher in an actual classroom.

I had decided to take a journalism class and my teacher was the first true eccentric I had ever met. His name was Freeman, and he was an ex-DJ. I learned later he had conducted the final interview with Buddy Holly before that fateful plane crash.

Freeman was a spelunker, an avid ghost towner, journalist, creative writer and a sensitive, empathetic human being.

He also had a physical challenge: One of his legs was much longer than the other. His walk was ridiculed regularly. Students were not kind to him and neither was I, until one day he looked me in the eye and asked, “What sort of person do you want to be?”

This was a question I had never really considered.

That same school year I had an art teacher whose primary teaching strategy was to yell at the top of his lungs. His name was Mr. Wolf.

And so I replied, “I don’t want to be like Mr. Wolf.”

It was pretty risky to say something negative about another teacher to a teacher, but Freeman didn’t bat an eye. He simply said, that’s a start. 

Those three words helped me understand something about beginnings. “That’s a start” may sound flippant, but it felt to me like permission to become discerning, to start paying attention, to begin considering myself as capable of growth, as capable of learning, as capable of being a better person. 

We became friends. Freeman encouraged my creative writing. He gave me my first real taste of confidence. He listened.

I was beginning to see life as something in process, as something we are all co-creating, and not as something that was happening to me.

Freeman and I wrote letters to one another until I was well into my 30s, when he passed.

It is the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who is attributed with saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

He also said, “When the student is ready, the teacher disappears.”

And aren’t both of these things equally true?

My next book will be on the subject of mentorship. I would love to hear your stories of teachers, mentors and guiding stars in your own lives.

Please feel free to reach out to me at my email below.

In the meantime, I leave you with a poem by another teacher of mine and a dear friend, Tasmanian poet, Cally Conan-Davies:

Learning Ukulele

Long as the latitude I allow love—

my one and only daughter sings along
the downstroke of her thumb strum
her head nodding to the ukulele neck.
I keep mum as mothers learn they must
who listen on the other side of window glass,

my other ear to the bush beyond
where the murder birds are bound
to turn in their coffin dreams.
Didn’t all the angels weep
when a single angel wept,
wiping out the difference?
I make believe I could kiss
all the tears from all their baby faces
crooning nothing is amiss, nothing amiss
when the sweetest little bird voice
breaks from the minor chord she bumbled—

is how it dawns on me
there is no right way to do this.