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On Mentorship: Lessons from Childhood

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

By James King and Lucas Cardona

Today's Chautauqua blog continues On Mentorship, a series in memory of Philip Gerard, beloved writer, professor, and co-editor of Chautauqua, who was taken from us all too soon. Philip's generous and whole-hearted ethic of listening and encouraging everyone to be their best selves enriched the lives of everyone in his orbit. It is what made him such an excellent teacher, mentor, and friend. To honor Philip's indelible spirit, we have asked our editorial team to recall moments of mentorship that inspired them, shifted their worldview, or put them on the path to follow their dreams. We hope this blog series allows you, dear reader, to sit and reflect with us.



—James King

Managing Editor

 

Mrs. Pajak taught me what music was, or more specifically how to make it, and the place it fit inside the human soul. When we met, I was a timid sixth grader who played the violin, and she was the teacher who singlehandedly helmed the middle and high school symphony orchestras. Mrs. Pajak could command any room—an entire auditorium, even—but she had the unique ability to make every person in it feel seen, and, at the same time, loved. She saw the potential in every student and at the same time suffered no fools. She supported me in ways too numerous to count, although I suppose it all started when she plucked that quiet twelve-year-old out of the group and insisted I join the after-school Chamber Orchestra, full of older and more talented kids. Thus was the start of our friendship.

Mrs. Pajak quickly proved to be kind, feisty, magnanimous and bright, whether in a quiet discussion in her office tucked away behind the orchestra lockers or conducting the annual Christmas concert in her trademark black and gold sequined suit, glittering against the darkness of the concert hall. She also brought her trademark sense of humor to the classroom. An example: the orchestra’s concert attire required black shoes and black socks—“no white socks,” she told me once, “Elvis is dead.”

Moreover, Mrs. Pajak had a way of putting things in a way that just made sense. I’ll never forget the way she explained me how accenting notes worked in a piece of music. They have to fall into the right place. If you did it wrong, she said, it was like speaking wrong, with “ac-CENT on the wrong sy-LAH-ble.” It also made me realize, sitting at my music stand by the rehearsal room window, how music was like speech, a language of its own. Another time, to show us exactly what feeling we were trying to convey in Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, she had the class read aloud a historical account of a 19th century Hungarian public house, its down-to-earth and life-loving patrons clinking mugs of beer made flesh on the page.

She led student orchestras of forty, fifty, sixty students, but even then, you could always tell that she knew you, your anxieties and your dreams. In my final days in high school, at the senior honors banquet, every student was allowed to invite one teacher, and I didn’t hesitate to invite Mrs. Pajak. Each teacher was to give a speech. And though I’d been in her orchestra class for seven years at this point, she’d asked if I wouldn’t mind sending her something I had written, so she could talk about it in her speech—she knew that deep down, I wanted to be a writer. She talked so passionately about a poem I had written that I knew she believed in me. As we parted at the end of the banquet she gave me two books—Forster’s Howard’s End and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, two books I have on the shelf in front of me as I write, hundreds of miles and half a decade away from Timberlane Regional High School.

It is thanks to Mrs. Pajak that I love both music and language, how they come together, and that I am lucky enough these days to fill my world with both of them. Mrs. Pajak’s catchphrase was “follow your bliss.” She knew that the best thing a teacher could be was someone who helped their students achieve that, to bring their bliss out of them. She believed in a life in art. That is what she did—standing on the podium, swinging her baton up, crying “forte, forte!” into the dynamic of the soul.


—James King

Managing Editor

 

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wonderly, had a grandmotherly aura to her. She looked a bit like how I imagined Mrs. Claus might look—short and plump, a nest of clean white hair crowning very round head. I can’t envision her today without them, so let’s assume she wore thick square glasses. Her voice was soft, lilting, but could rise without warning to a scolding pitch that made even the most anarchic student feel embarrassed—suddenly aware of how loud they sounded compared to their peers. I was a riotous, obnoxious child, constantly maneuvering for attention, but sharp and more perceptive than most. For whatever reason, she seemed to take an interest in me.

It was somewhat common knowledge at my school that I had a wildcard of a father with whom my mother was then engaged with in a custody battle for me. I think this knowledge gained me a certain bit of leniency among the faculty. I was constantly getting into trouble, but my teachers always seemed to be rooting for me. Perhaps, on some level, my antics amused them. I had charisma back then. Even as a ten-year-old kid.

One day, shortly after hearing the Twisted Sister song for the first time, I stood up on my desk and started chanting, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The principal, a tall Abraham Lincoln-looking man with the longest, hairiest arms I’d ever seen, came and escorted me out of the classroom.

That year, we read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. The book had a tremendous impact on me. I remember announcing very loudly to the class that I wanted to be Nicodemus, the wise, elder rat who possessed a sort of pseudo-leadership role within his community of super rats. Stoic, gentle, sagacious, and shrewd, he was the one the rats looked to lead them through hard times.

Mrs. Wonderly looked me dead in the eye.

She said, “Lucas, you don’t have the discipline to be Nicodemus.”

It’s taken me thirty-five years to realize she was right.


—Lucas Cardona

Assistant Editor


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