My Mentor Michael
I have written about the importance of mentoring young people and how I have done so throughout my adult life. I am confident that mentoring Isaiah and Nicki has not only helped them achieve their goals, but has also given me insight into their lives which are so very different than mine.
Seven years ago, I wrote about my mentor Michael Brooks, after his dear wife Ruth died, because together they opened my eyes to the possibility of marriage with someone who was also my best friend. His revelation to me that his wife was his best friend over 40 years ago, felt stunning to me, having never observed a healthy marriage in my youth, until I met Michael and Ruth. Opening my eyes to that possibility allowed me to open my heart to my wife Sheryl, and we are now blessed with nearly 39 years of mutually supportive loving marriage.
But, Michael’s impact on my life goes much further than opening my eyes to a healthy marriage. We first met when I was in 9th grade in 1973, when he became the principal of my synagogue’s Hebrew High School. He was a grad student at the University of Michigan, and although like most teens, I complained about my mother forcing me to go to Hebrew school, meeting Michael made it all worthwhile.
Back then, I could drop into Michael’s office at any time and he would listen as I complained about my parents or any other teenage grievances I might have. He always listened thoughtfully and compassionately and provided useful advice, often highlighted with a joke or story. He often took me out for a meal and when I offered to pay, he always declined saying, “You can pay when you make more money than I do.”
By 11th grade, it became clear that 12th grade would be a waste of time for me, and I was fortunate that the University of Michigan had a special program that I could apply for admission without a high school diploma. To do so, however, I needed strong letters of recommendation, and to this day, I am confident that Michael’s letter was what enabled my early admission.
While I was excited to get into Michigan, I was terribly disappointed in the Animal House that was my dorm, and the mediocre large lecture courses provided to freshmen. I found it ironic that Michigan required letters of reference to make sure I was mature enough to attend school there as a 17 year old, but the 18 year olds I met were frequently highly immature. I considered transferring, and I got into Kenyon College, but since my parents could not even afford to send me to Michigan as an in-state student, requiring me to work 2 jobs, I realized that it was financially impossible for me to attend a private school. So, I remained at Michigan and learned an important life lesson about making the most out of the situation I was in.
Michael proved to be not only my mentor while at Michigan, but truly a lifeline. Almost every Saturday afternoon, I would walk to his house. I knew that he and Ruth would be home because they were observant of the Sabbath. Initially, I intentionally timed my arrival to join them for lunch, but after awhile that felt greedy on my part, so I started varying when I would show up. It turned into a joke between us after that because it did not seem to matter what time I showed up, they were always just sitting down to lunch, and had set a plate out for me. During the summer of 1979, Michael and Ruth hired me to paint their screened in porch, which not only helped me financially, but provided me even more time with my dear friends and mentor.
After I graduated in 1979, I traveled in Europe, Morocco and worked on a kibbutz in Israel, for nearly a year. I wrote letters and post cards to many people while I traveled, and when I turned 50, Michael gave me one of the best gifts I have ever received-the letters I had sent him that year. Reading those letters reminded me that our world has lost the great gift of letter writing with the advent of e-mail.
When I returned from Europe, I moved back to Ann Arbor and managed Pizza Bob’s, where I had worked part-time as a student. My Saturday afternoon visits to Michael and Ruth continued, and after Sheryl and I met and quickly fell in love in the fall of 1980, she got to know them as well. When Sheryl graduated, we moved to Boston so she could attend medical school and a year later, I started law school. During our years in Boston, and ever since that time, virtually every time I return to Detroit to visit my family, I make a trip to see Michael (and Ruth before she died) to reconnect. Of course, we talk on the phone in between visits, and Michael never forgets to call me on my birthday.
Michael also calls me on our anniversary, which he fondly remembers as he married Sheryl and I. In fact, he also made our chuppah (wedding canopy), which I now wear as my tallis (prayer shawl).
Since Ruth died, Michael has periodically struggled without the love of his life. Since he has given so much to me, and I care deeply about him, I have increased my phone calls to him. Whenever I call and ask him how he is doing, he says, “better now” meaning that he feels better now that he is talking to me.
My wife and I were recently in Detroit visiting my family and as usual, we made a trip to Ann Arbor to visit Michael. We had a lovely visit and towards the end there was a special bonus. For many years, Michael simply refused to allow his photo to be taken. As a result, I have no photographs of Michael. However, this time, as we were getting ready to leave, Sheryl stepped a few feet back from us and prepared to take our photo and before she did, I asked Michael if that was ok. He relented as long as it was candid.
As you can see, Michael is a man of books and and some of my most treasured books were recommended by him. When I sent him the photo, he said that we “both seem to be aging pretty well.” Indeed we are, and I believe that our support for each other is helping us to age well.
I needed a mentor as a teen and young man because I did not have an older brother, or a trusted uncle, grandfather or father, with whom I could share my feelings. While I have had a few other mentors, only Michael has been a lifelong mentor to me. For that, I am eternally grateful.
I have mentored others besides Isaiah and Nicki, and only time will tell if I will end up mentoring them for the rest of our lives. I will certainly be glad to do so if they want my guidance as I know how much mentoring has meant to me.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.