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The Gift of a Mentor

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #79, 2007.

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Jeannette Webb


I'm convinced that God has a sense of humor. To prove it, he gave me, a mathematical midget, two children with quantitative minds that delight in math/science/engineering. I would be lying if I told you I accepted it calmly. Late at night I cried, I whined, I begged God to let me off the hook for educating these kids through high school. To make a long story short, He didn't give me a reprieve, but He did give a peace and He opened my eyes to possibilities that had been right in front of me all along.

A Tribute

Printed in the program for Austin's high school graduation, 2004

It was a clear, fall day. The large windows in the college lab admitted streams of powerful, undiluted light. It seemed to make the test tubes and beakers in front of me glow. I was about ten at the time, perched high atop a lab stool and focused on a chemical experiment. My mentor stood nearby, keeping an eye on the procedure and patiently answering my effervescent stream of questions. In a burst of enthusiasm, I asked, "Do you think I could be a chemical engineer?" "Yes," he replied, "but you could also be a physicist."

That thought was locked away in my memory, to be retrieved and pondered. Eventually, it became a dream.

I came to Dr. Sonobe as a young boy, bursting with questions. Most people didn't know what to do with me. Dr. Sonobe, however, took my ramblings as a matter of course. Though most chairs of university physics and chemistry departments wouldn't have deigned to put up with an erratic 10-year-old, he patiently explained concepts, helped me with numerous experiments, and answered the multitudes of questions I came up with, no matter what the topic, no matter how far off topic. Whatever I was interested in, he had time to discuss.

I grew older and my aspirations started to solidify. I delved deeper into the sciences and he gave suggestions for my course of study. As my interests expanded, he helped me with other endeavors. When I pursued high school and college studies, Dr. Sonobe was ready to help. Once, when living out of state, I lacked access to equipment and materials I needed to complete some labs. Dr. Sonobe offered to help and made the time-consuming arrangements. I spent a solid week of 8 - 9 hour days in his lab, much of that time with his assistance and guidance. He invited me to stay with his family and in the evenings we discussed the day's experiments and their implications, current research topics in science, and local news. Years ago, he had opened my eyes to what I could become. Now he was assisting me in a very practical way to prepare for that endeavor.

Dr. Sonobe has been my teacher, mentor, and friend for almost a decade now. From the time when I needed a stool to reach the lab bench, to now, at my current height of 6' 2", from my youthful scientific ramblings to my present focused work towards a scientific career, he has been there, helping and affirming.

There is certainly the temptation to be proud of where I am, to say, "Look what I did!" or to think of myself as somehow a self-made man, but it wouldn't be true. Probably no one who ever lived can say that they achieved purely by virtue of their own faculties and volition. If the truth be known, we are all much indebted to fellow human beings who offered a helping hand even though no obligation compelled them.

I owe much to many, but few more than Dr. Sonobe who taught me by example to look beyond present circumstances and see what might be. Many years ago he pointed out distant possibilities on the horizon and has walked beside me on the journey ever since. -Austin Webb

Finding Help

When my 10-year-old son's knowledge of chemistry and resulting questions passed my own, in desperation I went to one of the elders in our church who just happened to be the head of the chemistry and physics department at our local university. I begged him for a book that I could read to get myself up to speed. Being both wise and kind, he suggested I drop Austin off at his office one day a week. He had some free time and was willing to answer his questions. It was the start of a mentoring friendship that would last for years and is, in fact, still going.

Musical Mentors

My daughter's relationship with her mentors was much shorter lived. We relocated for one year to Colorado where she met a musician couple who took her to their hearts. He was her violin teacher and orchestra conductor. She taught Natalie violin pedagogy, to enable her to teach her own students. We spent a great deal of time in their company. This showed my daughter how hard musicians work to survive: studios of 30 or more children who need weekly lessons, professional duties as members of an orchestra, and random gigs (playing at weddings or events) for extra money.

After one particularly long weekend, the wife collapsed in a chair and said, "Don't do what I've done! I play with men and women in our professional orchestra that are business people by day and make music at night. You have the ability to do that." Later he made a revealing statement when Natalie was performing a "for fun" piece at lesson, "How I miss getting to play for enjoyment. After teaching all day and working on music for the next performance, I don't have time to play music for pleasure anymore."

Their transparency during that year was enlightening for my daughter. She began to consider relegating her music to a delightful avocation rather than her academic focus.

A Mentor's Gift

My son's relationship with his mentor propelled him forward to attain higher goals than we ever thought possible. My daughter's association with her mentors caused her to re-evaluate the direction of her life and choose a different path. These adults cared deeply about my children and gave advice that was pivotal to who they are becoming.

A true mentor is a gift from God and we will be fortunate if we have two or three in a lifetime. As a parent, I cannot orchestrate this relationship, as there has to be a spontaneous chemistry. However, I can look around me with new eyes at extended family, church family, and associates to see if there is someone possessing the skills I lack who might take a special interest in my child. I have found that adults are usually eager to help a child with whom they share an interest. Some of these contacts will only result a meeting or two and will never develop into a mentoring relationship, but have, nonetheless, enriched the life of our student. You just never know what might be the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches "Homeschooling Through High School" seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping homeschool students matriculate to America's top colleges. She can be reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com.


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