My parents divorced when I was very young, and the separation was nothing close to amicable. I lived with my mother, who strictly limited visits with my dad. Then, during my rebellious teen years, Dad and I had a falling-out that lasted well into my twenties. Years passed when we seldom saw each other or spoke. We finally achieved a certain détente once I successfully put myself through college and started a career.
During my years in family exile, I missed a lot of what it meant to have a male role model around. I saw part of what was missing whenever I looked at my younger half-brother, who completely absorbed Dad’s tool-wielding and problem-solving skills. Dad had worked his way up from bricklayer to building contractor, and he knew every nuance, inside and out, of constructing and maintaining a building. My brother possesses the same aptitude. (To my credit, I know how to change a lightbulb and which end of a hammer to hold.)
As one of several kids in the group who faced challenges at home and elsewhere, I’m sure Mr. B. quickly recognized the signs of a young man in search of a mentor.
Dad’s specialized skill set aside, I could easily have drifted through my teens without the guidance of an older male figure. Through my good fortune, this was not the case.
Enter Mr. B
Mr. B. was a teacher at our high school, and to say he didn’t fit the mold of the traditional suburban schoolteacher was a vast understatement. The first thing one noticed was how he placed his students’ desks in one big circle instead of neat little rows. Then your attention was drawn to his classroom walls, plastered with brightly colored posters featuring the popular buzzwords and images of the day. Finally, there was his approach — friendlier, more conversational and a far cry from the pedantic teaching style more typical of the times. The rebel in me immediately recognized a kindred spirit.
As luck (or fate) would have it, Mr. B also co-facilitated a teen drop-in center at a local church, site of weekly “rap sessions” and Sunday youth services. He invited me to stop by to check things out, and I soon became a regular.
Although Mr. B. was one of several of the youth group’s co-leaders, he and I quickly developed a rapport I felt was uniquely ours. We shared a similar sense of humor about life’s foibles, and his sunnier outlook tempered my own somewhat darker perspective. As one of several kids in the group who faced challenges at home and elsewhere, I’m sure Mr. B. quickly recognized the signs of a young man in search of a mentor.
And mentor me he did.
Mr. B. taught me how to tie a tie, something Mom could never do. He schooled me in the value and discipline of a freshly spit-shined pair of shoes, sort of our version of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid movies. And he showed me how to drive a stick shift, a task that demanded considerable patience during some serious gear-grinding I inflicted on his beloved yellow Austin Mini, May it Rest in Peace.
These proved to be valuable life skills, but of course the real lessons were taught in the midst of all the tying, shining and grinding.
Because Mr. B was, and still is, a very “up with people” kind of guy, a lot of our conversations focused on personal empowerment, believing in oneself, keeping an open mind, and being considerate of others. He encouraged me to give flight to my creative side and express in words those challenges I saw before me — almost always, I eventually realized, self-generated — while he constantly preached the gospel of unlimited potential. These simple lessons resonated with a latchkey teen with too much time on his hands.
Regarding his own life’s journey, Mr. B., a true teaching visionary many years ahead of his time, was destined for a short stay at my high school, where more conservative elements soon pushed him out. Their loss: Mr. B. went on to build a very successful management consulting business alongside his equally talented wife, and together they raised two remarkable daughters who likewise have excelled in business and in life. I am proud to call all of them friends.
Mr. B. and I still talk, laugh and reminisce about our 40-some-year friendship, albeit from different time zones, and I still seek his counsel on matters of concern. I know I’m not the only person to benefit from his time and interest over the years, but that doesn’t make our connection any less precious. We are friends until the end.
As I write this, my biological father is still very much alive at 90, as evidenced by some surprising dance-floor moves he made at a recent family wedding. And although I do not enjoy the ease of interaction with Dad that my younger siblings share, I am grateful to him for giving me a brother and sisters who always make me feel welcome in their homes.
Family is family, but in a pinch, it’s good to have a Mr. Miyagi in your corner.
Happy Father’s Day.