By David Anderson
Why mentoring matters.
Typical, or at least rudimental, for beginners anyway, are the use of the words that frame the familiar opening sentence in fables, folk-lore, fiction and the like.
For example there’s the mostly unimaginative ‘In the beginning.’ Then, more famously – or infamously if you sat in the classroom of Scott E. Rice – ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’
In the beginning – 1982 to be exact – Rice, who was then a professor in the English Department at San Jose State University, inaugurated the annual tongue-in-cheek contest in which entrants are invited “‘to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’ – that is, deliberately bad.”
Though in the beginning, for starters, there were only three contestants, thanks to media attention in very next year the contest had grown to 10,000 with the prize for not placing first – meaning your submission wasn’t judged the worst – your name could at least merit a listing, that is if your writing was bad but not that bad : “Dishonorable Mention.”
Imagine then my delight in reading the opening line of a writing assignment entitled “The Case of the Missing Candy” – a story-character-development exercise given to the second-grade class, one student of which I mentor.
With excellent penmanship (though spelling needs work), and with his nose just inches from the paper, word by word, slowly – very, very slowly – with obvious great care and an evident history of supervised attention to ensure each letter was formed exactly on the line, the young author began the mystery about the missing candy:
“Mr. and Mrs. Jolly Rancher had no eyes.”
Intrigued, I watched as he moved his pencil down just a bit to the beginning of the second line:
“Because the Jolly Ranchers had no eyes, they could not see.”
Anthropomorphic visions of the Jolly Ranchers family came to my mind – little gummies; their cousins the fruit chews; Jelly – but likewise Jolly – Beans; lollipops; and of course the ever hard-working hard-candies perhaps most well-known of all, all lovingly wrapped under one roof in the warmth of their hearth-and-home great-great-great heritage: The Hershies, where the current occupants were cheerfully overseen by Mr. and Mrs. Jolly Rancher . . . who could not see.
What adventures they’d have, joining the Willy Wonka Nerds family down the lane – “happy little guys. They’re skateboarding, rollerblading, playing Frisbee, tossing around a beach ball … all without a care in the world.”
How loving and caring and sensitive and close would the Gummy Bears become. Even their misdeeds would not go unnoticed. One of their favorite past times, for example, would be swapping heads. How boring after all to only come in just red, or in just orange. And somehow they’d always be found out even though Mr. and Mrs. Jolly Rancher could not see.
Excited about how this story would unfold, much less end, in this fledgling writer’s imagination, I asked him – during a pause as he supplied the appropriate periods to complete his sentences – how was it that the Ranchers could not see?
As might be expected from the world of seven-year-olds, his answer was not only customarily straightforward but also conveyed to me the importance – and privilege – of being his mentor:
“Candies don’t have eyes.”
‘Silly me,’ I thought to myself as we said good-bye at the end of our session, wishing the little guy a great weekend. How foolish of me to have not seen the obvious.
Candies can’t see.
But what if they could?
What is the great object of education after-all, pre-school and beyond? Is it not for the passionate teacher to assist the parent who is aided by the mentor to inspire the student by opening the window to the world and, in that discovery, help them see?
To see how their story could end?
Which ending depends most critically on how it begins?
Which is where you come in?
Help them write their story.
Be a mentor.