Last month, my first year as a mentor with Girls Write Now ended. At the last reading for Girls Write Now I got to meet author Tayari Jones in person. And she's as wonderful in person as she is talented on the page. In reading her blog I noticed one of her latest entries about MCing the Girls Write Now reading and how she wished she had a program like GWN available to her when she was growing up. This is one of the things that I, and many others, have noted when referencing GWNs mission statement. While the organization was in its premature stages when I was in high school, I know I and many other teenage writers could only have benefited from having a mentor help to push, praise, critique, and educate when it came to writing.
Fortunately, I did have someone who was a constant source of inspiration and was sort of a mentor to me in high school as I wrote and considered writing to be part of my immediate future.
I went to John Bowne High School in Flushing, NY, and was part of their Center for Writing program. Being a freshman in a school where you know no one is intimidating enough. You want to make an impression, friends, and settle yourself into a niche. Weeks into my start at Bowne one teacher proved to be more interesting (and interested in what us students had to say) than the rest. This woman would become my mentor and motivator. Her name is Janet Feldberg. Ms. Feldberg was one of the more senior teachers there and the advisor for the freshman/sophomore writing magazine Pendemonium. She had a Mother Earth quality about her that made everyone like her. She treated her students like equals, not like kids. She was our educator, but she respected us and so everyone respected her.
Ms. Feldberg encouraged us when it came to reading the classics. As she watched our eyes glaze over in trying to recall the metaphors of Moby Dick or the characterizations in The Great Gatsby, she never showed frustration just encouragement. And in doing so with analysis of text she also encouraged us when it came to the creation of prose.
As a teen I was really into R.L. Stine's Fear Street series and also tagged onto my mother's fascination with Stephen King. Yes, I read The Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley High, but I saw myself writing things that went way deeper than that and by deeper I mean my stories were meant to make readers laugh and scare the crap out of them.
I submitted my first story, "Terror at Bowne," to Ms. Feldberg with few expectations. Yet, within a day she pulled me aside and thought it was a vibrant story. It starred my best friend, a couple other friends, and myself as we realized our freshman year at Bowne was not what it seemed. There were monsters afoot! Perhaps one could consider it an allegory for the way teenagers feel when they start at a new school alone that they picture the worst happening and find camraderie with others when bad things come to play. But at the time, it was just fun to write. The villain of the story was a disliked history teacher who refused to allow her name on the page. So Ms. Feldberg offered to become the "terror" and published it in Pendemonium that year. I remember when she read it aloud in one of our computer writing classes and the response it got from my classmates. They were engaged even rooting for the ending. It was then I realized I probably had a calling when it came to this whole writing thing.
Over the years Ms. Feldberg continued to praise and help me with my work. When I attempted poetry, inspired by Dickinson and auspiciously mimicking her voice Ms. Feldberg understood what I was really talking about after weeding through the imagery and metaphors and earthly comparisons. She praised another poem I wrote based off a prompt and encouraged me to be an advocate for the CFW program at Open Houses. She was happy to read a sequel to "Terror at Bowne" and again offered her name as the villain who rose from the grave. She was my biggest supporter in those years and as I moved on to run the student government and worry about budgets and advertising and keeping a student body inline, my writing began to lose its importance in my life.
As I worried about SATs and scholarships and placement exams I couldn't focus on writing a sequel to the sequel of "Terror at Bowne." But I had come to Bowne to be a writer hadn't I? What was keeping me from that? Not having Ms. Feldberg as my instructor in the last two years of school (she mainly taught the freshmen and sophomores) definitely had an impact on my creative side. I was focused on the tasks at hand: dances, decorations, meetings, representation, speeches, scholarships, senior prom, a part-time job. And as the last two years of school hit me with the responsibilities of post-adolescence I realized I missed my mentor. I missed the encouragement she gave me my first few years there to become confident enough to run for student council president, to write essays on Stephen King and consider his work as interesting as the tomes being thrust down our throats, to read deeper into books and consider what made them part of a literary canon and why there were so important for us to read in the first place. Nope, as juniors and seniors we lost our guiding hand in the resourceful, kind, and patient Ms. Feldberg and were greeted with people a bit gruffer, sterner who expected us to be prepared. We weren't kiddies anymore, the kiddies had Ms. Feldberg and in a way I envied them for that.
As I prepared to leave Bowne and pursue a degree in writing I remembered everything she did for me. I remembered all the inspiration she gave me and mostly I appreciated it. I remember her writing enthusiastic letters of recommendation for my college applications and running to her to let her know I'd succeeded in getting into my first two choices.
A couple of years after I graduated Ms. Feldberg retired and became a grandma full-time. I saw her a couple times and wrote to her, but this was before e-mail became an institution in most homes and we lost touch.
As the year for mentoring ended I couldn't help but be reminded of Ms. Feldberg and realize how much she not only influenced and inspired the writer I've become, but also the person. I notice the way I've gone about teaching and being a mentor for young girls is almost synonymous with how she approached us freshmen when we sat still and anxious in her class. I realize we both approach students/teens with encouragement and respect. That when we meet young people they need to know that they're capable of anything and it all comes down to desire.
Yes, I'm getting nostalgic in my old age, but did want to take a moment to thank Ms. Feldberg (albeit virtually) for all her guidance and inspiration then because I wouldn't be the person I am now. I can't help but wonder what life has in store for the mentees that leave Girls Write Now. But I hope, whether they realize it now or in retrospect, they appreciate the guidance their mentors have to offer because not everyone gets a Ms. Feldberg in their lives.