Fans will remember the basic storyline: a baby bird hatches while its mother is absent from the nest. The baby bird goes looking for its mother, asking various animals and vehicles met on the journey, “Are you my mother?” Ultimately the baby bird encounters a power shovel (or steam shovel; I don’t remember which). This scares the baby bird into uttering, “You are not my mother! You are a SNORT! I want my mother!” Then the power shovel lifts the bird back into its nest, where mother and baby are reunited.
When I first started teaching in 2003, I felt a bit like that baby bird, looking at the people around me and thinking (to myself), “Is that my mentor? Who is my mentor? Are you my mentor?” Like many folks starting out in a variety of careers, I had the notion that the day would come when I would have the one, true, ideal mentor.
But most searches for THE ONE — in any context — are futile. Starting out in law teaching and still now, my m.o. is to ask individual colleagues — local and national — for specific guidance and help. What was your process for writing your book proposal? How have you dealt with this kind of problem in the classroom? Would you read my Introduction and tell me if the thesis is clear? Would you mind sitting in on my class and giving me feedback about this particular concern of mine? I have received gracious assistance every time I have asked.
As I got more settled in law teaching, I started asking other questions, too: Do you have any interest in this speaking engagement that I have been offered but cannot accept? Could I introduce you to Professor X, whom I met at a conference and to whom I mentioned your work? How are things going with your writing?
Taking the long view, I think of each of these interactions as mentorship-in-action. Some questions led to nothing more than quick conversations. Some turned into continuing conversations. Some turned into co-authorships. Some turned into professional relationships that I count among my most important.
The baby bird received a literal lift up from an unexpected source, but only after engaging with the steam shovel. So, too, must we reach out for guidance, honest feedback or a sympathetic ear in a search for mentorship. And to be the helpful power shovel — to give a lift to someone else — we need to be available and willing to share our abilities and attention.