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Archive for August, 2013

A week ago I finished a job as event coordinator for a large academic conference in Boston.  Although the organization bills itself as a “North American Society…” there were people in attendance from all over the world, and I — an undergraduate English major who studied romanticism quite a bit — was so far out of my league I wondered where my studies of Wordsworth and Shelley had gone.

I had four students acting as assistants for the conference. Three of them were graduate students, one was a rising senior, and all of them are headed for careers as college professors or researcher/writers in the field of romanticism.  They were terrific, each one of them in their own way, so smart and engaged and energetic.  The grad students were put on panels and so, received the opportunity to present a twelve minute paper on a subject they were studying, and to field the questions of the audience who wanted to explore their topic (or tear their thesis apart).  This was a wonderful opportunity for them, and when they weren’t helping at our registration desk or running around taking care of other errands, they were off in seminars, taking full advantage of the visiting professors who came from Australia, Ireland, across Canada, China, Denmark, and more.

Each one of these women is already impressive.  And each one of them is going to be something important, really significant, and soon.  You can see it in their drive, in their conversations with one another, in their eyes.  It made me not only remember my own days in graduate school, when I grabbed every opportunity I could get to work in professional theatre and dove deep into studies of Georg Buchner and the existentialist playwrights, days when I thought I would die of happiness just working for the eighteenth hour straight on Elizabeth Ashley’s new play, about to come into the Colonial Theatre, or work on a grad student production of Percey Shelley’s play “The Cenci” (talk about obscure romanticism).

Along the way I got a boost from some people (mostly women) that helped.  The costume designer and now business consultant Betsy Leichleiter, who sent me off to Boston’s theatre district to work because she thought I had the right stuff.  Theatre publicist Nance Movsessian, a warhorse of a woman who was legend in Boston theatre, who taught me about communication in an arts setting.  Roberta Rogovin in New Haven, who thought that I had what it would take to make the City of New Haven a place where the arts could not only survive, but thrive.  And then, as I branched away from theatre and the arts and toward other non-profit settings and the world of religion,  Denny Davidoff, an advertising and marketing powerhouse who, with former Unitarian Universalist Association Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, not only taught me about the business of religion but about how to make your career and your life focus on making a difference in the world.

These were my uncommon women, the people who were there to give me a hand along the way, sometimes a kick in the ass as well, and who pointed me toward the next challenge and the opportunities that lay ahead.  As one of my graduate assistants at that conference agonized over a professor who had torn into her thesis, I wondered if some mentor would be there to keep her headed in the right direction.  Soon enough, one of her professors (not a woman, but a mentor and advocate for sure) showed up to help her refocus on what was important.    “If you didn’t get questions about what you wrote, it wouldn’t be worth saying.  You’re doing fine.  Keep going.”  And my comment:  “Everyone I’ve talked to at this conference has talked about how wonderful you are as a teacher.  You told me you wanted to be an English professor.  You already are.  Your students value you.  Keep working toward the goal of being the best professor you can be, and you’ll be on the right path.”

This week I’ll be at a dinner, held by another ‘uncommon woman,’ one who has been an author, one of the first female Fulbright scholars, and a foreign bureau chief for a major news outlet.  She’ll gather with a number of other impressive women around her table and they’ll be talking about their lives, who they have mentored, whether they now mentor others.  It should be a heady conversation.

I have no idea if my life will put me in the place where I need to be lifted up, again, by one of my uncommon women.  But I know what the value is of such people in our lives.  So often they show up at just the right moment.  Knowing when to say something or give you a kick in the ass is part of the treasure that such mentors hold…part of what make them so uncommon.

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