My Mentor: A Personal Eulogy

A trying day just got harder.

I had a couple of bad experiences this morning, but have been trying to live up to my New Year’s resolution of keeping an optimistic attitude anyway. I think I was doing all right with it until I received a call a half an hour ago that informed me that Jeanne Fryer, my former professor, died. Jeanne was my mentor, a concept I’ve never really understood until I had Jeanne in my life.

While attending graduate school to receive my Masters in Education, Jeanne was assigned as my advisor. Because of the way in which the program was organized, I spent at least eight hours each week with her in a class with four other students. My peers, fellow English teachers, had been my classmates in a larger class the previous summer. Notably, the five advisees of Jeanne were, how shall I say, the students that were a little rougher around the edges than our other cohorts. Even though we were all teachers, we were the ones that would question authority, swear in class, fall behind on the reading/assignments, and try to get away with whatever we could. Surely, it wasn’t a coincidence that we had been grouped together. And surely it wasn’t a coincidence that someone saw fit to have Jeanne be our advisor.

From that lead in, you might assume Jeanne was some kind of hard-ass taskmaster, but it was quite the opposite actually. Jeanne was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She never had a bad thing to say, and while this can be an annoyingly fake trait in some, Jeanne was so genuine it was easy to believe her. It didn’t take long for my ragtag classmates and I, the grad school equivalent of the bad students we had in our own high school classes, to completely adore Jeanne. Truthfully, we didn’t hold much esteem for some of the authoritative figures at our college, but Jeanne was a stellar exception. Were it not for Jeanne’s warmth and guidance, I am not kidding when I say I probably would have dropped out of the Education program altogether.

I struggled a lot as a teacher, a fact that is pretty well documented in the archives of this blog. Fortunately, Jeanne was there to support me. Even in my failures, she was always able to find a positive comment to offer, as well as some constructive criticism. I can’t say I quite maintained my sanity that first year of teaching, but she helped me to keep the little bit that I could. I tried to hide a lot of the worst aspects of my teaching from a lot of people, but I felt comfortable putting it all out there for Jeanne. She would come and observe me in my classroom at my worst and actually manage to make me feel better; in some cases, I just appreciated having a witness to certain events (i.e. “Can you believe a student actually did that?!”) I remember once when she came to my worst behaved class, a smart-ass student asked me, “Is that your girlfriend?” It was clearly meant to be an insulting joke of sorts given our large age discrepancy, but I just responded, “Yes.” The student looked me at me confused and Jeanne just shrugged her shoulders and smiled. At that moment I realized: I should be so lucky!

My mentor-relationship with Jeanne went beyond teaching. One of the aspects that drew me to Jeanne the most was her remarkable life path. Though she started out as a teacher, she frequently changed careers and was never afraid to travel and try something new. Jeanne was an avid learner who let her interests guide her. While most people are content to find something decent and stick to it, she would venture out and take risks professionally, routinely finding success. Her life was an inspiration to me; as someone who didn’t want to teach forever, I loved her drive and found hope in her exploits.

Truthfully, I’m pretty sure Jeanne realized I was destined not to be a teacher far before I did. That’s not to say she thought I was a shitty teacher, I know that she had more faith in my abilities than I did, but that she sensed my overwhelming unhappiness with the job.
Although she continued to encourage and support me 100%, she also recognized my potential and passions for other pursuits. She encouraged my wandering eye and shared writing and academia opportunities with me.

When I wrote my graduate thesis, Jeanne admired my candor in a way I’m sure no other professor would have. I took a very cynical perspective toward teaching in my writing and did not hold back. This was very much against the grain, as most of my peers’ theses were filled with uplifting sob stories that romanticized the profession. (Good for them, of course, after my experiences, I respect a great teacher more than anyone, it’s just not me.) Jeanne vouched for the originality, strong writing, and unique honesty of my thesis and helped it to be selected to win the college’s thesis award. There’s no way I would have won that without her in my corner, and there’s no way I would have felt comfortable sharing so strongly without her to validate my research and experiences.

At my graduation ceremony (the same one where I did in fact pat Jeanne on the butt on stage on a dare), each advisor prepared speeches about their advisees. Most professors complimented their students’ teaching abilities (and rightfully so), but Jeanne made sure to push mine beyond that to make it more relevant to my long-term goals. I kept one of the note cards she read from: “Thank you for your ‘realness.’ What a pleasure it must be to be counted among your friends (and students!) Best wishes for life discoveries.” She also included a quote by e.e. cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” The wisdom of that quote has only grown on me since leaving the teaching profession. It shows how much she understood me. She believed in me and saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself.

After graduating, I meant to stay in better touch with her, considering what an inspiration I found her to be. You know how “meant to”s go. We’d contact one another occasionally or run into each other, but we never shared the long chat I was hoping for. The last time we spoke, Jeanne shared how her father had died, and that was the saddest I had ever seen her. She still maintained her trademarked sense of optimism, though, and if she knew she was sick at that point, she did not mention it and clearly wasn’t letting it hold her down.

In the past few months, I tried to get back in touch with Jeanne. As I struggled to find employment and a solid life path, I really wanted some guidance from her. For some reason, I felt that she more than anyone would have all of the answers. I now realize that life must have gotten very complicated for her during this time, so I completely understand the lack of response.

It’s frustrating, because now more than anything I want Jeanne to fix my situation or make me feel better about it. At least I was fortunate enough to know her and know that she believed in me. I can still take the wisdom and the care that she offered, use her life as an inspiration, and keep pursuing a meaningful life that is happy, fulfilling, and helpful to others. Plus, remembering Jeanne reminds me to remember how an optimistic approach is the best one – even for a cynic like me – so I will keep soldiering on.

Jeanne has helped a lot of people become great teachers, and for me on a personal level, a great person. To allude to the note she made about me at graduation, the real pleasure was to be counted among Jeanne’s friends and students. I only wish I had had the opportunity to express that to her recently.

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