Grow, Grow

During this season of gratitude, I have been thinking about those who have helped shape my life in significant ways. I have had the benefit of many wise teachers. When I think back to my teenage years to some of my earliest mentors, Carla McGee comes to mind. She was a beloved high school teacher who then went on to become a principal, and then on to other leadership positions in education.

Mrs. McGee was a force to be reckoned with, and she communicated with a gentle and persistent persuasion. When she spoke, my friends and I listened attentively, inspired by her joyful presence and concern. She loved us. That much was clear. I was keenly aware of Mrs. McGee's attention. I knew she believed in me, that she saw me. I saw myself differently because of her care. And I know many others would say the same -- that she was a powerful force of inspiration in our early lives. She was a second mother. She was family.

The Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinical writings on Jewish law and tradition, says, "Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, 'Grow, grow.'" Mrs. McGee was one of those angels, encouraging each of us and pushing us towards ourselves at a time when we struggled to find our way in the world.

Teens face a variety of complex issues with the transition from childhood to adulthood, grappling with identity, independence, peer influence and societal realities. When these issues are compounded by perceived scarcity, whether in the form of poverty, abuse or lack of a nurturing support system, it can be even more challenging for teens to generate or maintain their self-esteem and find their way forward.

Paul Tough notes the importance of how others perceive us as we develop in the New York Times feature, "Who Gets to Graduate":

We shape our self-concepts based on our understanding of how others perceive us. We form our self-image as the reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. As children we were treated in a variety of ways. If parents, relatives and other important people look at a child as smart, they will tend to raise him with certain types of expectations. As a consequence the child will eventually believe that he is a smart person.

If we grow up, however, believing we are somehow less than, unworthy or undeserving, we often long for these second families; we need the support of others to help us see beyond our limited views, to think about ourselves differently, and to help us blossom into our potential.

According to Erik Erikson, we experience identity versus identity diffusion, an insecure sense of self, during the ages of 12-18 and may actively seek out others to help inspire us to work through these issues.

As I have met those who act as dedicated mentors to low-income high school students at Minds Matter, it seems to me that mentors can act as both compass and mirror. Yes, they help our students navigate the often confusing and complex path to college when there is no frame of reference. Mentors spend many hours every week during the school year to provide a variety of experiences for our students, helping them understand the world through a different lens, and encouraging them to reach beyond their imagination to attend colleges they never thought possible. While 100% of our students are accepted into a four year college, more than 70% of them attend a selective college, and most students indicate they never would have even considered applying to a selective college were it not for their mentors helping them realize that they belong in these schools. Perhaps as important, though, mentors also act as mirrors, reflecting back to students the parts of themselves that they perhaps cannot readily see.

It is also very clear to me that mentors receive and learn much from our students, that our students demonstrate perseverance, hope and grit, creating fuel for the ongoing passion and desire for mentors to serve.

So, I honor Mrs. McGee today, who left our visible world several years ago but who lives on in many, many hearts. I honor others who play the role of teacher, mentor and guide who whisper, "Grow, grow" to students of all ages everywhere. And I honor our students, who teach us so much about determination and grace, who teach as much as they are taught.

In gratitude for the gifts of our day-to-day work in service of others, may we all aspire to be the whispering angels for the blades of grass we find on our path.

Ellen Magnis is Executive Director at Minds Matter National based in New York. This piece was written in association with The OpEd Project.