SEPTEMBER ISSUE: Mentors

Tanya Shadrick with sculptor David Nash in his Ash Dome

Welcome to the seventh issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s theme concerns mentors: subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt: Tell me about a great mentor or teacher in your life – how you met, what they taught you. Or: say instead what kind of wise guide you are still hoping to encounter, and why.

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Gerald, of Wakefield

I watched him through a lens of shyness. But mainly I read, researched, and thought. He made me want to. Back then, I was too busy making teenage sense of Homer, Thucydides and Plato to appreciate his influence fully. It’s so much easier now that I’ve walked in his shoes.

Gerald Thompson was a West Riding grammar school boy, with brainpower that allowed him to enjoy the same sort of mildly intoxicating Cambridge years he helped me to experience. Perhaps his ‘humble’ origins made him more at home in my unpretentious East Riding hometown. Larkin called us a ‘cut-price crowd’, but Gerald didn’t treat us like that. He wanted so much for us. He showed us the beauty of learning, and the narrowness of the syllabus. Above all, he gave us an example in how to live. I’ve never seen a teacher suggest so unintentionally that it wasn’t about money or status. He stood out.

Every boy in the school called him ‘Hermes’. And why not? He might as well have been Greek. In time, that was his identity: citizenship, orthodoxy, ways. He walked away from the unromantic restrictions of a heavy-handed management brigade. I know that walk now…
Gerald lies buried in a cemetery on Aegina, the island that became home for him. Our school trip to Greece in 1979 included a few days there. Remembering how at ease he seemed in that environment, it was no surprise that he settled into a life there so completely. We can all learn something from Gerald about marrying temperament with rhythm and milieu.

It was some years into my teaching career before I realised that I was holding the baton which Gerald had gently passed to me. I tried to grip it firmly and proudly. And I passed it on, Gerald.

Paul Gamble

When I think of mentors, teachers, great bestowers of knowledge, I think of Dr Maya Angelou…

…a woman I always have and always will look to, who shows me strength in character, kindness and self-respect. She is the epitomy of self-will to be better, to not be the victim of circumstance, that your beginnings do not have to dictate where you will end up.
She did this in so many ways from her teachings, her activism, poetry and writing. The boom of her voice alone would command my attention.

Dr Maya has been an inspiration to millions now in the age of YouTube and she will continue to be, thank God, but this I feel was all started with the simple faith her grandmother had in her which became central to the presence she would later become in the world.

When Maya was a child she was mute for many years after terrible abuse at the hands of an adult, it was her grandmother who would speak to her whilst braiding her hair, telling her with absolute certainty that she believed in her, that she was ok just as she was right now in her silence… but that when she did decide to speak the whole world would listen.

How right her grandmother was! This taught me the power of having faith in another person’s abilities: that it can help them to move mountains, or simply come home to themselves when life has taken them down strange and unfamiliar paths.

Whatever the results I know the power of a mentor: that an inspiring teacher in life can change your world and then maybe the world at large.I will always thank Dr Maya Angelou for showing me the way. Thank you Maya

Monique kennedy

The Quieter One

She was the quieter one, kept things turning over in a house with more children than money, scraped mud off potatoes and sliced knobbly carrots while he led us on adventures into the mountains or unexplored corners of the city. ‘Nice time?’ she would ask as, with a toddler in arms, she paddled through soapy puddles – the overflow from the clothes wringer – to put steaming soup on the table.

While we debated politics, music or books, around plates of stew or Queen of Puddings, her fingernails would drum continuously on the tin teapot, her gaze drifting towards the windows. There were hints that, at one time, she led a more interesting life: a pink silk ballgown in the dressing-up clothes, cracked leather ice-skates in a plastic bag under the stairs, a collection of stilettos and old perfume bottles in the dressing table made from wooden fruit boxes.

‘Never let your interests go,’ she would softly suggest, as she led me across the peninsula before everyone woke up, to paint watercolours or watch rabbits; ‘Find something you love,’ she would tell us as she snatched moments to escape into novels and biographies; ‘You need to find a way to support yourself for the rest of your life’ she would say as we moaned about homework, ‘you may not have a man to support you.’ And as she organised yet another flag day or bring-and-buy she would declare firmly: ‘Remember how lucky you are.’

It took until my middle years to understand how effectively the quieter one had led me, from behind; how she lost sight of no-one as she navigated the world she found herself in, least of all herself. In the drifting gaze and the drumming fingernails she was holding on to her very soul.

sheila de courcy


I knew my mentor was close by…

In the field where the black knapweed grew, at dusk, where the fox cubs fell over themselves to tear at the sole of an old shoe, and a roe deer looked me in the eye, she was beside me. Her hand on my shoulder told me not to move. Her whisper in my ear slowing my breath, and I clung to her signs, desperately wanting to understand the nature she was showing me. If I devoured every morsel, I was sure I’d find an inner peace, could cope better in a world turned upside-down. But peace was fleeting. Soon, inevitably, I’d need to leave. But for a few precious minutes each evening, my mentor would sit with me, and life seemed a little easier to bear.

jane adams

Not realising it at the time, my elementary school headmaster was a mentor. He was kind and opened his heart and school to those who did not have a place anywhere else. And he wanted us to learn, experience the things we did not have in our rural households. He opened up our worlds and was a great storyteller. He lived his motto, I feel: Knowledge and patience is power.

I hope I repay his debt in small ways by helping and encouraging others.

sara stegen

I’ve stood (secretly) open since memory first came to me…

…open-souled, open-handed, open eyes, waiting, wishing, hoping. Rocks unearthed, trees felled, relationships excavated, letters written, windows watched from. I’ve looked, searched, scorned, begged, whispered, pleaded, first feet, then hands, then knees, until I’ve found myself laid upon the floor in recent life with little search left in me.

An only child of a single mother, unrooted to place, running into stories, books, movies, a screaming scared child asking, waiting, watching, a mother now, and wife, hoping, and looking and yes, still asking in cities, fields, oceans if there was one, just one who would stop and look and take my hand, and lead and help and guide. So I stumble, when feet are once again found, and I make my own way while (secretly) waiting, and yes, still I wait.

And yes, I hope. That just maybe.

Sabrina

I never thought I would say these words, but: I have a sponsor.

She has my back, she freely shares the wisdom that was passed onto her from her sponsor, she is without judgment.

To stop drinking was the first best decision I made and the second was letting the small and committed meditation group that I am part of know this in our WhatsApp group chat one day. Later that day I heard a ping; a private text message from a women in the group. She had picked up on my mentioning that I had stopped drinking and was reaching out to say that she stopped drinking 14 years ago and was ‘here’ should I need to chat. I found this sweet at the time but little did I know how important her reaching out would turn out to be.

I had been riding my new-found sobriety wave for over a year by then and the novelty was starting to wear off. I had read all of the sobriety books and had become increasingly irritable. I was also isolating a lot. At work I would micro-manage everyone and gossip. At home I would crash on the sofa and experience suicidal thoughts.

I later found that the term for what I was experiencing is ‘dry drunk’ and that I had been ‘white knuckling ‘ my sobriety . When I started to obsess and worry about a possible holiday plan to visit my partner’s family in Italy in a just under a year’s time, I knew I was in trouble. What if I relapsed? It would be so easy with the wine flowing and – let’s face it – sobriety wasn’t looking so great either at that point.

I made the call. The women from my meditation group answered and she listened. She listened so well. She suggested that I attend an AA meeting.

‘But I don’t drink anymore,’ I gasped.
‘But you did and you will,’ she responded.

I attended and I cried. I cried with relief as the warped thoughts of what I thought AA would be like dissolved. I felt accepted and understood . I wanted a slice of this! I was no longer alone!

I attended meetings and slowly developed an understanding of this mysterious programme. I was encouraged to find a sponsor so I could start to work the 12 steps. ‘Choose carefully,’ other AA women would say. ‘Choose someone who has a good length of sobriety, works their programme well and has values that seems to align with your own.’

Today the woman from my meditation group is my sponsor. I have not drank alcohol in nearly 2.5 years, but only when I started on this honest programme of recovery did I start to become emotionally sober.

charlotte dawson

Jan

A leap of life took me from flicking pitted marbles in a secondary school playground, to being mesmerised by a long-flowing skirt; flapping like sea sails in a grasping wind. She sailed through the school gates like a jamboree on wheels; all festival, fiesta and carnival unravelled into one. A red beret poppy topped her head; a parade of roses flowed around her ankles; her thick knitted cardigan bulged with heads of cauliflowers.

There was I, lost in my tracks, a newly-fledged teacher at twenty-seven. A late starter digging into a dream of making a difference; a mere puppy in the hands of others.

She strode across to me, cutting through the air with sharpness of intent. Her right hand – gloved up to the elbow in black satin – shot out arrow-straight towards me, waiting for a connection. I stalled, cut out and faltered; self-conscious waves slapped my insides, made me unsteady-unsure-unable to couple with the velvety thrust of hand. She flowed closer towards me casting a shadow over my feet.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m Jan.’ She looked into my eyes and grasped me from within. I unlocked my arm and invited her hand into mine. The lustrous, sheeny cloth felt comfortable and safe. I stuttered out images of words which she made whole by a squeeze of hand. She loosened her grip, then tangled me up in her gaze.

I knew she was special: an angel fallen into the laps of children; her heart an Aladdin’s cave of kindness.

Me! I was uncut-unpolished-unshaven for such honest tenderness from a stranger. Her smile unknotted the tightness of my breath and settled my near-casualty of heart.

The hands of friendship was written in law that day. The chemistry of life makes alchemists of us all.

Steve Harrison

Dear B,

I remember our first meeting: in a narrow room, beige and bland. The window, hastily covered with cardboard to hide the famous face inside. The singing teacher asked me to take part in this event. I owed him a favour.

Could I be a sparring partner for the famous face to test their new skill before showcasing it to the world? I was a safe pair of hands, and you the voice of reason, able to give critical feedback without ruffling feathers.

During the first break you beelined over introducing yourself unnecessarily, because I, of course, knew who you were. The words came flooding out like a dream: I’d like to work with you. I let them hang in the air to savour as I gave you my number, holding my breath while you rang it there and then, so that I had your number too.

Wow. You really meant it.

Then we worked. Oh, how I loved it. I loved it more than I could ever tell you. More than you will ever know. You told me to be bigger, bigger, bigger yet still there was room to grow. Braver. Deeper. More honest. More raw. You told me to trade pretty for real. And I did… just as you did not.

Someone younger, bolder, more-connected with grander prospects tag-teamed me out. An easy swap for which I don’t blame you. Such possibility, such adventure – who could resist? She soars so lofty now and shines so bright – even I pay for her glow. But she’s forgotten it was on your wings she once flew.

So here we are. Again. All these years later. Emerging from boxes we didn’t know we were in. You the resentful sage and me the path not taken.

Whaddya reckon, friend? Shall we go again?

Debbie Yearsley Davidson

She used to read Thomas Hardy while drying her hair…

(A nugget I still remember fondly as I blitz my own with an empty left hand.)

A love of ink on a page that seemed out of reach.
Structured, unrelenting and purposeful in her teaching, there was no immediate rapport. I cannot pinpoint a specific moment of inspiration but can retrieve the sensation I started to feel that summer; to be engaged, enthralled and excited by the world and texts surrounding me. As she introduced me to the Brontë sisters, her favourite Mr Hardy, and Much Ado about Nothing. As we argued for hours over her love for John Donne sat in the relic classrooms of my comprehensive. By now, reading constantly, I was relishing in the sunbeams that she emitted; soaking up every last inch of sunlight from her lessons.

As a teacher myself now, understanding the sacrifices it takes to be a good one, I walk into my local swimming pool. It’s six am. And there she is, almost a decade later, in the changing rooms. I greet her as if no time has passed and I can see her struggling for my name. We have an amiable conversation but I had arrived unprepared for such a rare opportunity; blurry eyed and tired from a week of school.

You showed me how to love books. You showed me how to be a woman living on her own, divorced and real. You helped prepare me for a life of one’s own.

None of those words came to me as I stood on the tiled floor in the chlorinated changing rooms that morning. But as I left – like exiting the airport and arriving home to British rain – I was rejuvenated once more, by the simple presence of her rays.

caitlin cornec
%d bloggers like this: