Greatest Mentors Of All Time?

By Marc Alexander

Mentors, mentors, everybody is looking for a mentor.  Everybody wants guidance from someone who has been on the road before them and knows where the traffic cameras are.  The mentor-mentee relationship can be as strong and fulfilling as any in life, and many a successful person will tell you that if their mentor had not been there to tell them to take the elevator instead of the stairs, they never would have made it.

Some say mentors are the answer to much that is wrong today. Dr. Taquan Stewart PhD., who is the principal of Locke High School in the Watts section of Los Angeles has been quoted as saying “Prisons, more police, and tougher laws do nothing to impact why it seems so many young men seem angry and [get] into trouble,” he said. “The only thing that will significantly change that situation is strong, consistent, and continuous mentorships. If the people who don’t know any better are guided and advised by those of us who do, it will go a long way in solving problems that seem like they can’t be solved.”

Mentorship is hardly a new phenomenon and many times its trickle-down effects impact numerous generations. Celebrated scribe James Baldwin was mentored by Harlem Renaissance writers Richard Wright, Countee Cullen, and Beauford Delaney; and he, in turn, mentored award-winning writersToni Morrison and Maya Angelou. In the football arena, the late Bill Walsh –  nicknamed “The Genius” for his offensive coaching brilliance  - mentored both directly and indirectly 22 NFL head coaches, some of whom went on to win Super Bowls.

In the film industry, the list of Hollywood A-listers who have been mentored by Producer/Actor/Writer/Director Roger Corman is longer than the red carpet on Oscar night.  Robert Deniro, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, and Dennis Hopper are just a few who passed through the Corman School of Filmmaking.  Cornman’s mentoring wasn’t necessarily hand-over-hand, but, rather, it was more of a work-with-me-and-see how-to-do-it mentorship experience.

But trying to pick a G.O.A.T. individual mentor is impossible.  Thankfully, there are too many people, too many arguments, and too much debate.  However, what can be declared is a G.O.A.T. profession. That is, declaring which singular profession clearly has “mentor” molecules intrinsically built deeply inside its DNA. For me there are only two professions that qualify for comparison: coaches and teachers.

Coaches often turn into mentors when they see that either great ability or great determination is present in a player. If a player has great ability, a good coach becomes a mentor to help his player continue to work hard and to not solely rely on that ability. He or she encourages that player to push as if they had no ability at all, and they exalt their star player to develop work habits that will amplify that ability to the max. Coaches also become valuable mentors when third parties seek to exploit their star player. A coach/mentor will advise the player on how to navigate potentially shark-infested waters because they genuinely have the athlete’s best interest at heart.

Teachers, naturally, act as mentors from the word “go.” Students – especially young ones – look to them as surrogate parents almost immediately after the classroom door closes for the first time. A teacher must evaluate and mentor each child in his or her class, like it or not. If anything positive is to be achieved, the student must trust and accept the guidance of that teacher hook, line, and sinker.

Based on this comparison, my choice for the G.O.A.T. mentor is the teacher.  While coaches only mentor while involved in athletics, a teacher must mentor his or her pupils in all aspects of life: socially, academically, and far, too often, even in the familial sense.

Teachers not only persevere through the drudgery of making tedious lesson plans, grading infinite numbers of papers, and maintaining their composure through parent teacher conferences, they have to find new ways to inspire and motivate. They have to mediate and perform beyond the norm just to maintain the status quo.  A good teacher is a magician, a social worker, and a rabbi all wrapped into one. They see talent and potential when others have long ago given up, and they consistently find innovative ways to bring that talent out of even the most stubborn of students.

 Agree? Disagree?  Make your argument.  Go ahead. I dare you.
Marc Alexander is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer and purveyor of urban culture.

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