Painful Separation

When students outgrow their mentors


My father was my first mentor. When I was in elementary school and brought home a drawing or a worksheet, he would look at it closely, always finding in it something to praise. Later, as my work grew more sophisticated, he would study it as though it were a page from an illuminated manuscript, combining his encouragement with suggested revisions. I came to rely on my father’s judgment, so much so that I couldn’t hand in a paper or give a talk without first having consulted him.

But at a certain point, I felt the need to assert my independence, choosing not to share work with my father that I suspected he might not like or would want me to change. This painful, but necessary separation was the point at which I became a mature writer.

As a teacher, I often remember this process when dealing with students. Initially, the bond between student and teacher needs to be strong. The student needs to feel that the teacher has something precious to impart and that her judgment is not only useful but in some ways necessary for growth. A student is naturally thirsty for a teacher’s praise. Eventually, however, the student has to move away from that dependence.

My best students, some of whom credit me with teaching them how to write, or even to think, will at a certain point quarrel with me about my suggestions for revision. They begin to have a clear sense of what they want to relay and are scrupulous about not letting me misinterpret or get in the way. They also may need to resist me if only to find a way to develop their own voice. I always feel sad when this happens—that I have been used up, in a manner of speaking, and my mentorship has come to an end. But I also know that I have succeeded as a teacher.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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