When I arrived at the Girls Write Now office for my mentor orientation back in September, I was completely overwhelmed. I’ve never been terribly comfortable in large group settings, and this all-too-familiar awkwardness wasn’t much helped by the realization that, aside from two or three staff members whom I recognized from my interview, I was entirely surrounded by strangers. Weaving my way through the crowd of chatting, bubbly women, I struggled to stay upright within the current of names and faces that seemed to sweep past me at an alarming rate. By the end of the workshop I was dizzy and exhausted, my mind bursting with information, ideas, and details about the lives and accomplishments of the many amazing women I’d met throughout the day.
How differently I felt when I walked into our second mentor-training workshop in January. September’s turbulent eddy of indistinct characters had slowed almost to a halt. Though many faces were still only vaguely familiar, others were now easily identifiable as friends and colleagues. As we greeted each other over coffee and a delicious brunch spread, I recalled with amazement how this, now intimate, group had seemed so large and intimidating not so very long ago.
The conversations that unfolded over the course of the workshop further emphasized how far we’d all journeyed since September, both in our individual mentee-mentor relationships and in our relationships with one another. As mentors shared their responses to the “Opening Lines” prompts that opened the workshop, we nodded, laughed, and grinned in acknowledgement of common feelings and experiences. Even though we had spent relatively little time together, I felt deeply connected to my fellow mentors as they described things that they had learned, been surprised by, or gained from their relationships with their mentees. Our experiences, though unique, were marked by many of the same themes and motifs.
We made our way through a packed agenda, which featured independent writing exercises, small group consultations, large group activities, and a wonderful presentation by a panel of psychotherapists (“on call” to support mentees and mentors at times of need). As the day unfolded, I grew increasingly aware of the intense listening that was taking place throughout the room. Having attended an all-girls school for the better part of elementary, middle, and high school, I’m keenly aware of how difficult (read: “next to impossible”) it is to keep an entire room of sociable, energetic, smart women from drifting towards little islands of private conversation. Watching my fellow mentors, however, one could almost visualize ribbons of rapt attention unfurling and crystallizing between speakers and listeners, arcing from one side of the room to the other, binding us to one another even as we moved, shuffled, and reshuffled ourselves throughout the day.
After breaking into small groups, we shared some of the joys and challenges we’d encountered in our relationships with our mentees. We also exchanged questions and concerns with each other and with a member of the therapy panel. For some challenges, we had concrete suggestions (often simple ideas, such as organizational strategies or tips for helping mentees approach the art of revision); for others, we could offer only reassurance, empathy, and encouragement. Even in those cases where advice and wise words seemed to fall short, however, the act of sharing our uncertainties and having them heard and acknowledged left all of us feeling strengthened and supported.
For me, the day had many themes. After the workshop, as I walked with several other mentors down the street to a local pub, I found myself bundling the day’s lessons and experiences into a few major categories: the value of listening both to others and to our selves; the benefits of embracing the uniqueness of each mentoring relationship; and the importance of nourishing all aspects of our lives—body, mind, soul, heart. As my fellow mentors and I settled ourselves at a table and I chatted with my neighbor about the menu, I felt myself sink into the pleasure of feeling—for the first time since I moved to New York nearly three years ago—like a part of a community. I was home.