The Fortunate Few Have Mentors


Probably, a lot of people would claim that they were my mentor if I was famous enough to be worth claiming.  I had some great teachers, especially early on, and I had a bunch of wackos, too.

MentorMy-Father-Of-Blessed-Memory had to take up the slack when my first Hebrew teacher in a Yeshiva — now defunct — was a highly insecure (and probably gay) man who even got chalk all over himself.  As a teacher, he was neither condemning nor very helpful, knowing no way to teach except repetition, both oral and written.

One of the reasons that I had no real mentoring when quite young was that I really did not know exactly what I wanted to do with my curious life, aside from “something in the arts and sciences” which covered pretty much anything I liked, or didn’t.

A mentor is supposed to be something more than a teacher.  I was pretty confused about this throughout school, high school, and even college.  It is tough to connect with males, as many smart people on faculties happened to be.  As for women, I was pretty impressed by my French-born high school French faculty, but because Beaver Country Day School For Young Ladies was a private school — and they did not have to be American born or American trained — they could be wonderful at what they did.

I have become so French that I have basically fooled myself into believing sometimes that big hunks of my soul are French.  I love to dance using the stage-name “La Nouvelle Goulue,” after the she-started-as-a-redheaded-Jewish-kid Louise Weber, who as “la Goulue,” was the headliner at the Moulin Rouge and starred in all the posters by Toulouse-Lautrec.  So these wonderful people had a tremendous effect on yours truly, but absolutely were not mentors.

I remember vividly the chilly feeling of walking down the corridor of a major medical library in Boston, looking at seemingly endless rows of paintings or photos of famous physicians.  Those recent enough to merit photos had mutton chops – except for Elizabeth Blackwell who founded the Women’s Medical College.

I remembered having read about these things in a junior reader edition, during that brief period of time when I had been allowed to borrow books from, and read through the local library.

I was curious to look up more recent lists of great physicians.  I remember finding Virginia Apgar — the creator of the Apgar score to assess the health of newborns.  Whoopee.  Surely she was a smart woman who had worked very hard, but still one who was into babies.  Not my cup of cognac.

France — well, there were only two women professors at the Faculty of Amiens.  Both became great personal friends.  But mentors?  I could not have depended on either to help me figure out how to live life.

Mme. V. had been on the team that originally figured out that DNA and not protein was the hereditary material.  Her husband had a far more exalted institutional position than she, but she was light years smarter.  I had a feeling she should have gotten a Nobel prize — neither did, but like me she was clueless about the politics of institutional medicine.  Her two children, one a brilliant painter and one a brilliant actress/ beauty were otherwise useless human beings, as far as I could tell.

Mlle. O was brilliant and still producing in her field — and she was very Catholic.  She got her personal needs met through an extended family while telling me that in our era, a woman who wanted to do what either of us looked like we were doing should not even try to be a mother of a family.  Period.

Male mentors?  The chief of surgery at a Jewish hospital in these United States took me to meet members of prominent local families of the Jewish faith, hoping I would stay put and finish training in general surgery and marry well.

For to be a surgeon — which I was smart enough to be — I would need my ego pumped a bit.  So he took me to the top lookout on the tallest hospital tower and made me look down at the people on the sidewalk.  He said they were all little like ants, and their brains were little like ants.  My brain was very big, and I was smarter than all of them.  I had to learn to act that way to get the job done.

My father was so happy when I told him this story.  For most of my childhood, he told me, “If I were as smart as you, I would go around spitting on other people all the time.”  He was really happy that a Jewish surgeon who was supposed to be training me seemed to agree with him.

A study on mentoring basically says that when there are specific problems and specific things that need to be done to make a mentorship relationship work.

No, I never really had a female mentor who worked out.  Not that the women psychiatrists and psychologists who worked with me were not good — even incredible folks.  It is just that by the time I got to them, I had already made up my mind that there was no real help.

I had to feel my way. I had to build what I needed as I came along.

I did.  I used a search of the academic literature to build an atypical marriage, with me as the primary wage earner.

I learned early on not to care what other people think.

I was never someone who wanted to study under anyone in particular.  Maybe I am stronger because of the glowing absence of relevant mentors in my life. Or maybe my mentors were the titans of the past who taught me without ever meeting me.

I believe I have solved conventional problems of female health professionals.

I believe I have mentored others, and will continue to do so.

Perhaps something I have already done, or something I have yet to do, will put me in that class of historic titans and I can serve as a mentor to some future generation that I’ll never meet.

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