Today marks the 26th year since my mentor, Avon Gillespie, passed away. Every year on May 29th, I write to three other colleagues who were close to him and huddle electronically in a moment of remembrance. It’s the least I can do for this man who opened the door to the life I have lived. How much thanks is enough? I don’t know, but I keep on thanking him, on this day, at the beginning and end of our summer course or whenever he crosses my mind.
Driving home from school with just four days left of my 40th year of teaching there, it struck me that our time together was so short. Once a week in a one-semester class at Antioch College in 1973 and then we didn’t see each other for 10 years. Then two weeks each summer for the next six years, three as his student, three as his colleague in the Orff Level Trainings. By the clock, that’s not a lot of time, especially compared to the 26 years he has been gone. But the spiritual connection between a mentor and an apprentice is outside of time and space. It doesn’t need “quality time” to work on the relationship, it exists in an unseen form before the first meeting and resonates long after the last hug goodbye.
The mentor is the one who lives out in physical form some deep yearning in a person, some half-formed longing not quite yet in focus, but brought alive by the living example of another. We can go to a concert, a basketball game, a poetry reading and be appreciative or astounded or amazed by the virtuosity, soulful presence or accomplishment of the performer, but we don’t necessarily aspire to be like him or her. Only if they’re doing something that feels within our reach and already exists in our spoken or unspoken vision.
Then comes that difficult period where we feel tongue-tied in their presence or long to be noticed or impatiently await their blessing. Our job is to make ourselves vulnerable like that, announce ourselves to them at great risk and follow the necessary steps to receive their teaching. Their job is to notice us, because they need someone to pass the baton on to as much as we need it passed. When they do, that’s when the fun starts. And yes, I meant “fun” a bit tongue-in-cheek, because it’s not a path strewn with roses.
The mentor is both an opening doorway and a high wall to scale. Our first impulse—and it’s a healthy and necessary one— is to imitate, even when we know that it must be but a passing phase to our own voice. Even if we literally play the same notes or teach the same lesson or perfect the same style of jump shot, it will never be the same as the one we’re imitating. We can’t help but put our own spin on it and if we’re alert, that little spin of difference can grow into our own way of phrasing, teaching, shooting the ball. An emerging voice that will be worthy of someone else’s urge to imitate down the line. To be complete, the relationship with the mentor moves from adoration to imitation to side-by-side work and sometimes to surpassing. Like I said, not a path strewn with roses and the rifts that can grow between original geniuses like Freud and Jung (for example) are the stuff of high drama.
I often wish that Avon could see where my own spin has taken me, but in the Soul world where our relationship lives, I have to believe that he does indeed see it. I’d like to think he would be pleased, though today I could feel his frown when I weirdly sang “Head and Shoulders” with the five-year olds in some strange key and tune before I got back on track. (He was a beautiful and powerful singer and I am not. No competition there!) I wonder what our relationship would be like today if he was still here with us at 77 years old. And yes, I still grieve the loss of that possibility. I think I would have loved it.
So, Mr. Avon Gillespie, yet another thanks for all you gave to me and the world and I hope there is a ripple in the great Cosmos that lets you know that you have not been forgotten.