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The gift of a mentor

October 18, 2017
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

According to the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring, the movies bring many examples of great, heroic mentoring.

"Yoda and Luke Skywalker. Coach Bombay and the Mighty Ducks. Professor Dumbledore and Harry Potter. When you think of mentors in pop culture, the stories are endless, building on a common thread of how important a mentor's role is in relation to an individual's personal journey," the editorial on the Chronicle's 25th anniversary said.

In the movies, Mr. Miyagi took Daniel out of his life as a lonesome loser and taught him discipline, respect, and grace through karate, and when he won the tournament, defeating all his foes at that other dojo, he became The Karate Kid.

Mushu, the dragon who looked like a little lizard, helped Mulan persevere in the hard road she chose, taking her father's place in the national army of China.

Aslan guided the Pevensie children throughout The Chronicles of Narnia.

And of course there's Obi-Wan Kenobi and later Yoda to mentor Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars epic.

But a mentor doesn't have to lead their mentees to save China, a galaxy, or even to win a tournament. There are many ways a few kind words, a drop of strong encouragement, and a kernel of truth can make a tidal wave of difference in the life of one person.

My mentor was my piano teacher, Mrs. O'Dea.

I?started piano lessons with Mrs. Lois O'Dea, who lived a block and a half down the street. She becomes very important over a decade later.

I was the same at piano as I was at school, and as I am in life:?great at what I'm great at and struggling mightily with the rest.

The rest included Finger Power and other things to do with the technique of playing. I knew technique was important: playing the wrong notes was an embarrassment. But I had devised my own form for playing scales and long runs and passages. It involves a contortion of my fingers which defies gravity. Mrs. O'Dea was horrified and said I'd have carpal tunnel syndrome and worse before I was 25 (hasn't happened yet, though I have this occasional pain that shoots down from my shoulder).

It wasn't ideal, but I?still played accurately. Mrs. O'Dea said she'd never taught a girl who could make the double fortes as tremorous nor the double pianissimos as delicate as I could, though she told me I'd never go to conservatory if I didn't conform my technique and cross over and under to play the long scales.

But this isn't what was most important about Mrs. O'Dea as my mentor.

My mother died just before I started eleventh grade. I?was still taking piano, still contorting, but taking on some hard material of Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, while also staying on top of chords and theory for jazz band.

My father, who was divorced from my mother before she passed, wanted me in therapy. I?refused to go. I?finally agreed to attend a group for teens grieving parents. However, it turned out to be children in foster care who were grieving parents who died of drug overdoses or in prison, or parents who were still alive, but seemingly didn't want them.

I didn't feel I could share my narrative of, "My mother was the most amazing woman I've ever known, the most amazing woman I probably will know, and I?miss her awfully,"?because that would sound like what we now call privilege.

No more therapy,?I told my father.

"You need someone, something,"?he said.

"Not to knock your profession, Dad (he was a school guidance counselor)?I get more out of pounding on the piano and talking to Mrs. O. than I?ever have with a stranger on a couch,"?I?said.

So, my piano lessons went from once per week to three times. Mrs. O'Dea was always full, but she talked to Robbie Coacher and his parents about whether they truly felt his heart was in his lessons, and to his relief, his parents let him and his sister, Nancy, quit, thus freeing up two more half-hour sessions. I went an hour on Tuesdays, and my usual half hour on Thursdays, through 11th and 12th grades.

We didn't divide our time in any formal way between talking and playing. I don't even know if I said in plain words, "Mrs. O., I?really miss my mother today," nor if she ever gave me any grief advice.

What she did do was count 1-2-3/4-5-6 as I?contorted the unceasing arpeggios on Chopin's "Winter Wind"?Etude. I never did play it perfectly (those constant double thirds are killers)?but having it to concentrate on quite possibly made my junior year even possible. ?



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