He was neither gray nor wizened, and I was certainly not Telemachus. But the odyssey begun nearly 40 years ago supplied me with a lifetime definition for what it means to be a mentor.
I signed up for Bible class at my Adventist day academy that August knowing only that it was going to be taught by the PE teacher. He had graduated just three months before from the college up the street, and was entirely new to his profession. He drove a racy Mustang Mach II, had just married his longtime girlfriend, and sang the lead in one of those three-man folk-religious groups that flourished on Adventist campuses in the seventies. His reputation suggested that he knew all the rules for flag football, and had served his time at the bottom of numerous gymnastic pyramids. But his depth of spiritual understanding was as hazy to me as the humid August day on which we settled into our chairs for his first—and nervous—day of class.
For whatever misgivings roiled my adolescent soul that day, what unfolded was the best year I had in academy Bible class. We neither debated the then-developing Watergate drama nor challenged the ethics of America’s declining role in Vietnam. Instead, we studied Paul’s epistles verse by verse that autumn, and warmed the Massachusetts winter to spring by reading and discussing daily chapters from Ellen White’s Desire of Ages. Many of my central understandings of personal faith and devotional experience date from that pivotal year in a Bible class taught by the PE teacher in the industrial arts classroom.
But far and away the most significant thing that happened to me that year was what occurred every day after class. My teacher prayed with me—every day—for a whole year, sometimes with a small group of friends, but usually just the two of us. It was my first sustained opportunity to hear another Christian praying his way—every day—through his life, with its joys, frustrations, successes, and sorrows. I got a glimpse into the heart of a maturing Christian—when I was a bundle of teenage anxieties—that made a profound impact on my own walk with God and influenced my future professional choices. I was mentored; I was taught; I was discipled in a life with Christ by someone who went far beyond what his teaching contract ever specified to introduce me to an even better Friend.
When I reminded him of all of this a few years ago at an alumni gathering, trying to find words to express my gratitude, he seemed genuinely surprised, for he had forgotten all about it. It didn’t seem remarkable to him, though it wrote indelibly on my life.
It’s that quality I choose to celebrate in Adventist educators—the everyday mentoring they do, the way they help to shape values, character, and faith by both the way they live their lives and the content they deliver in the classroom. I’ve known so many in the course of my Adventist education like that long-ago Bible teacher—as teachers, as colleagues, as teachers of my children. For all the talk we hear in school systems across the land about mentoring pupils, in the end—or rather, the End—we will always want to know more about the spiritual quality of the men and women who pour their faith into our children’s lives.
There is no way that I would trust the mentoring of my sons to whoever happens to be the teacher at the end of the public school bus route or the education that costs me nothing. My Adventism has always taught me to be wary of gambling, especially with lives too precious for words.
Mentoring endures; it lasts; it replicates itself; it survives to teach another generation. That’s what I’ve learned from an Adventist education.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto your children.”
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published July 26, 2012.