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Mentor (7 of 90)

I’d planned on writing this post on the plane last night, but the best laid plans and all those things.

The travel delays and obstacles, though, brought new opportunities my way. I had the chance to sit next to a young woman from Charlotte on the flight from Memphis to San Francisco. We chatted about our lives, our work, our families. The kinds of small talk strangers sometimes make when they feel safe. Or alone. Or tired.

“You give great story,” the woman said. “Everything sounds so fascinating.”

And both of those statements – if I can say this without sounding more egomaniacal than I normally do – are absolutely true. I’m a pretty good storytelling. And everything does sound fascinating.

But the two are not always related.

***

Thirteen years ago, I visited San Francisco for the first time. Although if I’m being honest, that’s not exactly true. I visited Berkeley.

I’d sent off my graduate school application, written in a flurry of alcohol and drug-induced spasm the day it was due. I was in the throws of what would become a pattern of self-destruction, but at the time it just seemed like a regular week. A regular day. A regular hour.

I’d wanted to attend Berkeley since the time I can first remember wanting to go to school. It was exotic. Far away. The place where dreams were made, where genius came to roost, where writers came to emerge.

The ins and outs of why I came here are unimportant, but there person who brought me to Berkeley on that summer weekend wasn’t. His name was Bill Drummond, and from what I’d heard, he was the scariest professor in America.

There were tales of students breaking down into balls of tears, students quitting graduate school after just a week of his class. He was exacting. He was menacing. He was the Iron Fist of journalism.

This is the man who was going to teach me.

***

I had no idea why I was on the plane to Berkeley. I just knew that I had to get into Berkeley and if I could just sit down with the admissions director (there will be more on her later), if I could just sit down with the professors, they would overlook my clearly inadequate credentials. (Unless bartending in Austin counted as credentials.)

I found the cheapest hotel I could find, which was nowhere near the graduate school (although I had no idea how far away it was at the time). I couldn’t afford to rent a car so I tried to comprehend the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) systems. (I couldn’t.)

My trip to Berkeley was a complete boondoggle. I couldn’t find my hotel. I trudged all over the city, suitcase dragging behind me, backpack slung across my neck. I spent hours wandering the city until I finally got up the courage to ask someone for help. (Turns out I was nowhere near where I needed to be, which meant more walking.)

My hotel was a good two miles from the school, which meant a long morning walk for my meetings. A long morning walk if I knew where the graduate school building was. Which I didn’t.

But I found my way there. Eventually. And I talked with the admissions director. More importantly, I got to talk to Bill, the Scary. The man people desperately tried to avoid (despite the random draw of students each semester).

I sat down with him and simply told him this:

“I need to come here. And I need to be in your class. I know people try to avoid you, but that’s why I want to be in your class. I’ve been told that I need to be in your class.”

***

What I told Bill was absolutely true. More than one friend had told me, as I struggled to make my mark in journalism, that Bill was the guy who would straighten me out. I’d know, they said, if I could make it in the business.

To this day I don’t know if it was simply the luck of the draw that put me in his class, or whether there were strings pulled to make that happen. (I flew out a second time, just a month or so later, to meet with him again.)

I don’t spend much time thinking the machinations that led me to his class. After all, I did everything in my power to make it happen. Even though I had no idea how important “it” would end up being.

***

Bill and I had coffee today, just up the street from the graduate school. I know the way there and back now. I still have memory flashes when I visit North Gate Hall.

He speaks to me like a contemporary now, which is a complement beyond description. There is no way that I can ever repay him for taking pity on me all those years ago. For grinding away at me as I flittered my talent away. As I self-destructed. As I ran from the hard work required of great success.

All that I can ever do is honor his commitment to me by trying to pay that forward.

I have no idea who he is outside the friendly confines of the J-School. That is not our relationship. He is not my friend, and that is not something I take personally. He is so much more than that for me.

He is my mentor.

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