Paynesville Press - Dec. 11, 2002

Community Perspective

You may be someone's secret mentor

By Linda Liestman

A while back my husband and I were at a gathering when someone started asking each person which three people, other than their parents, had made the greatest positive impact on their life and why. The sharing of these stories was inspirational. Some of the people had never thought about who their secret mentors were. It became very apparent that when we, as adults, are around impressionable youth in their formative years we just never know what one phrase we might say, or what one action we might take, will help form a productive, creative, confident adult.

My own life is an excellent example. I grew up on a dairy farm in a rural Minnesota small town community just a few miles from Garrison Keillor's fictitious town, Lake Wobegon. I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who had solid morals, simple needs, modest means, gave a lot of love, and were always there. The work ethic was pretty strong at our house, but I wasn't pushed hard to excel in any one activity or to get top grades, which remained average. When I started school my self-image developed into the following: I saw myself as a very average, chubby, terribly shy, farm girl of average (or less) intelligence, who was sort of a loner, not very popular, but also not disliked by other students. I just didn't stand out in the crowd and that was probably the way I wanted it because I was so shy. I felt so dumb because frequently when asked a question in class by a teacher my mind would instantly go blank and I couldn't speak.

Yet, two people stand out in my mind as making single statements to me which changed my concept of myself and therefore my life. One such person was my science teacher whose tactless approach challenged me in a positive way. At around 13 years of age the students of my class were given intelligence tests. We were never officially told the results of these tests. However, a week later, in front of the whole class this teacher singled me out and said, "Linda, I have seen your IQ test results and I was shocked! You could be doing a lot better."

That same summer of my 13th year I hung out at the beach on warm afternoons as I had for many years. I was always like a fish who loved the water. My summer mornings were spent working in the garden or around the farm. Afternoons were spent at the beach and evenings were spent riding my horse on country field roads or pan fishing with the family. A teacher from Illinois owned a cottage on our lake and each summer he would bring his family to the beach most afternoons. I recall that he impressed me as a smart, educated man who adored his family and was to me a sort of "expert from afar." He usually greeted me by name and said good-bye each day, but that was the extent of any conversation. One afternoon he sat down nearby and struck up a conversation that led to the question of what vocation I might like to pursue in my life. "Oh," I answered, "I just don't really know right now." He responded with the phrase that I have carried with me ever since, holding it up as the beacon in my life. He simply said, "Well, Linda, I think you are capable of doing anything you put your mind to."

Those two statements, one from a respected teacher and one from a respected stranger, helped me to reach for and achieve many goals and successes in my life. The interesting thing was that my mother had said something similar to me many times, but it just did not mean as much as when it came from unrelated, respected adults who became my secret mentors with only a phrase.

We have opportunities every day to be observant about youngsters who are not our own, and to give them a word to build their confidence and maybe even form a life. Let's make these words sincere, challenging, and constructive! You never know when you might be someone's secret mentor.

Liestman, a ntaive of Paynesville, wrote this article in 1994 while president of the National Horseman's Association.

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