Are you one of those addicted to the feeling you get when you help someone? I certainly am, and I know exactly when that addiction started.
I learned the truth about that feeling in the sixth grade.
At the time, I had been taking piano lessons for several years. I loved playing the piano, but I am embarrassed to admit that the piano-playing didn’t align with the rugged manly image that I was trying hard to nurture and project. So, needless to say, I was certainly not a prodigy, but I was fairly capable for an 11-year-old who spent most of his time playing basketball instead of practicing my scales.
One day my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Chang, explained that she had an opportunity where we could volunteer to share our skills with first-grade disabled children. She explained how much all the participants would benefit from this mentorship opportunity. The plan was to have a culminating event in the cafetorium at the end of the session where the children could show off their new skills to their parents.
She was really selling it hard.
There was a terrible long pause after she asked for volunteers. No one was raising their hand! I can remember being very conflicted. I had just transferred into that school this year and was still trying hard to fit it.
If I raised my hand, what would they think of me? Would I get teased, and even worse, bullied? Being almost the smallest kid in the class made that a real possibility. I really don’t know why my hand went up. I am not a particularly brave person and certainly wasn’t brave as a scrawny 11-year-old. Brave or not, to my surprise, I found my right arm pointing to the ceiling.
I volunteered to share my piano playing skills.
The Perfect Mentee
I was assigned a beautiful, happy, almost non-communicative young man. My mentee was always overjoyed to see me walking down the hall and would wave and shout whenever we saw each other in the hall, library, or an assembly.
He and I worked together for about 30 minutes each week for a couple of months. My goal was for him to play the first couple of stanzas of The Entertainer. The Sting was a popular movie starring both Robert Redford and Paul Newman that came out the year before (1973), and The Entertainer was the most recognizable song from that soundtrack. To my 6th grade thinking, the tune would be recognizable to all.
The weeks passed by quickly. I probably never admitted to anyone, but I looked forward to the time I spent with my mentee. He was always eager, easily frustrated, but also easily assuaged. And when he got something right, he threw his head back with unbridled joy, and mouth wide open, emitted loud screeches of laughter, shook his arms, and bouncing up and down on the piano bench. I smiled and giggled right along with him.
The Big Day!
When the day arrived, I remember being as nervous as I had ever been in my young life. The mentors were invited to the recital to enjoy the performances and assist where necessary. Mrs. Chang left the decision as to whether I should accompany my mentee onto the stage.
I was of two minds.
When his name was called, we were both standing behind the curtains, stage right. I had my right arm lightly placed across his back with my hand on his shoulder. He looked up at me, and I motioned him to approach the piano. I was prepared to escort him, but he seemed to understand that this wasn’t a duet.
He marched out fearlessly, and I stayed behind the curtain.
This was his day. Not mine.
My mentee approached the piano, sat on the piano bench, and played the first three stanzas. It wasn’t perfect; I know that, but it sounded to me like the most inspiring and emotionally touching music I had ever heard. I was so incredibly proud of him. After he finished, he stood up and walked back to my side.
I stood there, stage right, behind the curtain with tears spilling over my lower eyelids and down my cheeks, hoping that none of my classmates saw this “unmanly” emotive display. The teasing would have been unbearable. But fortunately, I was safe and alone behind the curtain.
We stood there, my friend and I, for a couple of minutes as I composed myself.
Memories Are Funny Things
Funny enough, my memory of that day ends there. I can’t for the life of me remember what happened next. I can’t really remember much of what happened in all of 6 the grade, to be honest.
But I will never forget standing, stage right, as my mentee returned to my side after his virtuoso performance and turned to face the piano on the stage. In a squeaky voice, I told him I was proud of him and replaced my arm across his back with my hand resting on his shoulder.
I will never forget the feelings of that moment. I remember the joy, fulfillment, happiness, and physical warming of my heart and body with love, pride, and compassion. There was also a strange dull physical sinking in my gut that confused me. I know now that feeling was gratitude.
That lovely, wonderful memory will be with me forever.
Feeding the Addiction
And now, like an addict, I chase that same feeling every day in my adult vocation. But unlike an addict, I am not chasing a feeling that can never be replicated. The feeling I get when a mentee achieves a successful outcome is just as wonderful as the first time.
My heart and body fill with love, pride, compassion, and gratitude. Yes, gratitude for being able to stay behind the curtain, stage right, and witness the joy, pride, happiness, and fulfillment of another.