It's not gender that I wish to discuss, however. Rather, a very different hole in my youth and adolescence: that of a mentor.
I think the first time I became conscious of a mentor was when I saw The Transformers: The Movie. My favorite of the new characters was Kup, the crusty old codger who busts Hot Rod's chops through the whole movie while spouting off one anecdote after the next. "Every place reminds you of somewhere else," Hot Rod teases. "Experience, lad. You should learn to appreciate it," says the elder Autobot.
It occurred to me then that I would have loved to have had such a figure in my own life. Someone to tell stories, certainly, but also to offer guidance. I was always inquisitive in my classes as I'm sure my classmates and teachers can attest to this day. I asked all those questions because it was often my only opportunity to expand my understanding of the world and my place in it. I had no idea what to even ask many times. I just knew that there seemed to be an epiphany awaiting me if I just asked the right questions, so I kept trying to find my way as best I could. There was no Kup to oversee my growth and know what wisdom to impart, you know.
At some point in grade school, we were assigned to read Theodore Taylor's The Cay. I don't recall a whole lot about it now, but I distinctly recall a passage in which the young boy in the story becomes overwhelmed and begins to scream and yell at the old man with whom he is stranded. He pounds on the man's chest, and as I recall even calls him some very unpleasant names. The old man never lashes out at him, though, the way grown-ups in my world would have done. Instead, he takes the abuse because he understands his young companion needs to express his frustration. The display of patience struck me very specifically. I knew when I read that section that I wished to one day afford someone else that kind of understanding.
Recently, I joked that there ought to be some kind of system in which women write letters of introduction and recommendation to one another about their guy friends who are terrible at introducing themselves (such as yours truly). A Crohnie friend of mine completely stunned me by writing the following eloquent and humbling remarks:
My friend Travis is one of the coolest people I know. I haven’t actually met him in person but for 3 years he’s been as close a friend as anyone could be that you communicate with via the internet only. We talk to each other on almost a daily basis in various support communities (he’s a Crohn’s patient like me), but also in other social settings. He’s very smart and funny. He genuinely cares more about other people’s well-being than his own. He is honest and always concerned about making a meaningful difference in a person’s life rather than just providing lip service. He’s an extremely astute observer of the human condition and a proponent of common sense. He sets almost impossibly high moral standards for himself but doesn’t expect the same from other people. All the same, he can be light-hearted and makes others laugh when they’re miserable. Talking to him is always a pleasure and you always feel better about yourself afterwards than you did going into the conversation.[I want you to know that the only reason I didn't cry when I read this is that I was entirely exhausted. Even now, I find it makes my bottom lip begin to quiver.]
It may seem laughable to you, but I can honestly say that Kup and The Cay played significant parts in helping me to become the subject of my friend's description. I have been ever mindful of how much I longed for that kind of patient, wise mentor in my own life and if I'm entirely honest it's a role I have always wished to play for others. There is an obvious danger of paternal arrogance to all this. I've always made a conscious effort to avoid such a blunder but I'm sure I have occasionally faltered. To that end, I can only say that I continue to search for wisdom.