Tuesday, May 28, 2013


I am almost a senior.

Wow. I can't quite believe that. Very soon the class above me will have graduated and I'll be sitting down to a band staff dinner to discuss the year, not as any staff member, but as a captain. I will lead a band camp team and I will take government and economics and I'll play at the pre-most-important-football-game-of-the-season luncheon and...wow.

I have actually been a mentor to someone, to my squire who I'll have knighted by the time this post goes live. But I have also been mentored, by the Best Person Ever, a trombonist for whom I was lieutenant last band camp and who in his senior quote quoted Winston Churchill. And next year, I will have no mentors at school. Teachers are too distant in age to be properly empathetic, and people my own grade can inspire but are more colleagues than mentors.

Questions I'd like to address:

1. Why mentor those damn underclassmen at all?
2. How should you choose who to mentor? Should you choose?
3. What are the characteristics of a good mentor?


1. Why mentor?

Reason 1: pay it forward. Since you can't pay back those who helped you, might as well help those who will come after you.

Reason 2: those underclassmen do need help. In an organization like band, the weakest link really does have a negative impact on everyone else. So there's the selfish reason to mentor: if you don't then everyone will look foolish.

Reason 3: another selfish reason is to gain respect and adulation. Most people I think tend to hold their heads higher when they know someone's watching, so if you've got someone looking up to you you'll probably do better, be more of a role model than when you think no one's watching.

Reason 4: empathy + unresolved psychological wounds. Freshman year was rather awful for me and I don't want anyone else to have to be that one freshman that no one knows and no one cares about. Just a smile in the halls can work against that.

2. Who to mentor?

My school has a program in which small groups of freshmen are matched with an upperclassman buddy who supposedly is a resource, a font of inspiration and advice. I doubt the efficacy of this system because the buddy assignments are arbitrary.

About to sound clannish here: the informal method that goes on naturally within subgroups works better. Most of the people outside of my grade that I know are in band. Common interest and an excuse to hang out throughout the year go a lot longer way toward bonding people than a few forced conversations during extended lunch periods. Unstructured time - in short, boredom - is what I've found to be the most effective agent of bonding.

Aside - that might be why the brass sections are so much closer-knit than the woodwinds. We sit in the back, so can talk a lot more easily than if we were right under the director's nose. This holds doubly true at football games, when we're high in the stands and can easily conceal a pie or two.

In sum: whomever chance throws your way is a good choice of pupil. Even here, though, I think discretion has its use. Some people are naturally confident and don't need so much mentoring as occasional pieces of advice. For myself, I tend to favor quiet, withdrawn people (introverts) like myself who open up only under certain conditions. The kind of person who won't ever admit in words to needing guidance but who will benefit from someone talking to them.

3. What makes a good mentor?

Patience, willingness to listen: a willingness to listen to the underclassman's concerns, worries about classes, and not downplay the stresses. Yeah, AS English is a joke compared to a schedule loaded with APs, but freshmen are transitioning from middle school, which is much easier, and even they can get overwhelmed by schoolwork sometimes.

People are generally self-centered. I am no different. But the upperclassman who can set aside his/her own problems and listen and hear and perhaps offer some advice - that is a valuable mentor.

This is something I need to work on if I want to be any good to the underclassmen (and I do want to help them; see question 1 reason 4 above). Really, I should know better. It can be alienating, as an underclassmen, listening to the older students discussing material from classes that you haven't taken; it makes you feel stupid. Unfortunately most of my math jokes require at least precalc to understand...

I wonder what the ideal age interval is between mentor and 'pupil'. They can't be of the same grade, because then they're just friends. Biological age doesn't make as much difference as the externally enforced age differences. My mentor, the Trombonist, is less than a year older than I am; I, in turn, am less than a year older than my dear squire. What matters, I think, is that the mentor has gone through the same circumstances as the pupil, but not so long ago as to have forgotten what it was like.

Senior to freshman is too big a gap; there's not enough common ground that the senior will not, even if unknowingly, behave as though humoring the freshie. Senior to sophomore is also a pretty big jump. Seniors and juniors have about the same workload, from what I've heard, and share many classes. Also, seniors almost uniformly are too consumed with their own futures (college apps aaaah) for underclassmen problems to register as important enough to listen to.

What about the other potential relationships? Sophomores don't like freshmen much. Junior year seems to be the best time to mentor. There's still the danger of condescension toward freshmen, but juniors are still very much engaged in the high school environment. Junior-sophomore mentoring relationships are, from my own limited experience, the most productive. The one-year gap means that the junior won't have forgotten too much of what it was like to be a sophomore, but the classes will be mostly different so there's still an imbalance of knowledge/power.

(AP classes are what make the deal, I think. Sophomores at my school usually can only take the one class, AP Euro. So they have some taste of AP and can't be written off as having an easy workload. A lot of juniors take multiple APs, which adds the slightest element of awe.)


So how can I apply this next year? My prime mentoring time - junior year - is about to end. As a senior, what can I do to help out those darn underclassmen? First, don't be too obvious about helping them out. That would be condescending. Second, no matter how dumb their problems seem, listen. Posters and presentations used to scare you, too, and any essay longer than 400 words was absolutely unthinkable. Third...I don't know what comes third. Is there really anything else you need to know?


  1. you are cool girl. Mentoring is an amazing thing to do, i realize that maybe next year you'll have your plate pretty full so putting mentoring on top of everything else might add that little extra stess that you don't really need, but i'm sure your pupil(or pupils?) is a lucky one and you'll both be richer from the experience, good luck!

    1. Thanks! The kind of mentoring I do is mostly informal, just lending underclassmen an ear and giving them advice and answering questions about classes and stuff. I do feel that I benefit from it too. :)