Mentors 2: On teachers and being a great one

James Breiner
6 min readNov 2, 2023

The best ones demanded our best and left us with words to live by

You’re reading the My News Biz blog. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models. This is the second of a series about mentors -whether friends, family, coaches, guides, or teachers — and how we can be good mentors to others. With rapid change in the digital world, we need to be lifelong learners and teachers.

When we were in seventh grade, on the cusp of adolescence, our science teacher, Mrs. Jacques, showed us what happens inside a woman’s body when she becomes pregnant.

She displayed diagrams of the fetus at various stages of development. Mrs. Jacques was trained in science and approached the lessons like a scientist. This was in a Catholic school — St. Clement, Lakewood, Ohio — and I suppose she was making sure the girls in particular knew what they were in for.

What I most remember, though, was when one boy., in total blushing innocence, asked how the male sperm managed to get inside the woman’s body and fertilize the egg. Some of the class started snickering, while others waited for an explanation.

Mrs. Jacques paused till the snickers died down and told the boy that he should really ask his parents about this. She was calm, matter of fact. Maybe we all learned a little maturity that day.

When to get mad

We had three different football coaches in the three years I played youth football. The first one, Bill Mason, had patience.

Coach Bill Mason is in the back row, second from the left. I’m № 64, next to the boy with the football.

One day before the coach showed up for practice, we hauled out a bunch of basketballs and were kicking them wildly around the gym — total mayhem. I booted a ball just as the coach walked through the door. It smacked him hard in the left side of his face.

He turned red but did not turn in my direction to identify the guilty party. He didn’t want to know. He simply told us all to put the balls away and head off to the practice field. I’ve tried to be as patient as he was when kids are being kids.

Rhythm and rhyme. Two nuns gave me two different lessons in poetry at that school. One showed us some examples of poems and songs and encouraged us to write a poem about the fall season.

It was in second grade. I still remember that poem, which talked of geese flying south to meet their mates at the river mouth. I must have seen that on TV.

In a later grade, another nun asked us to write a poem in which a part of nature was like a person — personification. Thinking about lawns, I tried my hand at alliteration and wrote about “Gorgeous George the grass.” To this nun, “gorgeous” was an evil word. She scolded me and said, “God doesn’t like things that are gorgeous.” What I took away from her criticism is that in writing, sometimes you need to trust your own judgment. I liked the word.

Center stage. In high school — St. Ignatius, Cleveland — I was lucky enough to have several teachers who encouraged me in literary pursuits. One of them, William A. Murphy, taught public speaking and directed the student theater productions.

He had been crippled by polio several years into his teaching. It left him with a withered arm and leg, and a weakened diaphragm. He had trouble breathing without assistance, but that didn’t stop him from leaving his wheelchair to stand up and tell us to pipe down.

Murphy gave me a major role in a comedy one year, and the next he cast me in multiple character parts that required changes in accent, carriage, and costume.

At a school with championship sports teams, getting recognition on stage was a confidence builder. Judging by comments written in my yearbook, that’s what classmates remembered me for.

The college candy store

A liberal arts college is like a candy store for a curious mind. English and French literature were the subjects that grabbed most of my attention at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

As a freshman, I bumped into an elderly professor in the library stacks. He stopped what he was doing and helped me find a book. He asked me about my interests and what I might major in. He turned out to be the chairman of the English department and an expert on Renaissance writers — Prof. Lowell Coolidge.

In his rigorous Shakespeare course, Coolidge spent much of the time asking us what we thought. He wanted to know how our generation experienced the poetry and plays. He was genuinely open, kind, and generous.

Research on fire

A keystone experience at the college was and remains its independent study program. My adviser, Deborah P. Hilty, had taught a seminar on modern forms of the epic, and she encouraged me to go deeper.

The resulting thesis after six months of fevered research and writing drew on the writings of C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, Marshall McLuhan, and many others. I was interpreting James Joyce’s “Ulysses” as a modern form of the epic hero’s quest.

It runs about 70 pages. Mrs. Hilty helped me lasso a wild rodeo of ideas into an orderly cavalcade.

Say, what?

At my oral defense, two of my readers were the professors Ray McCall and David Moldstad. They grilled me on the fundamentals of my hypothesis. Their skeptical comments rattle around in my head today when I need help formulating why I don’t accept someone’s theories.

“I’m not convinced by your argument that ‘Ulysses’ fits the hero-quest model,” said Moldstad. Then McCall asked, “When are two things the same?” I still feel shivers. In spite of their comments, they rated it the department’s best senior independent study thesis.

The experience awakened me to the power of focused research. It informed my later experience as an investigative journalist. And as supervisor of investigative projects, I tried to emulate the kind of support and encouragement I received from Mrs. Hilty.

A masterful voice

My college professors saw me as potentially following in their footsteps and recommended me to Ph.D. programs. I chose the University of Connecticut. Among my favorite professors there was a visting British expert on classical Greek and Latin literature, Rex Warner.

Warner had published poetry, translations, non-fiction, and novels, including one, “The Young Caesar,” that my high school Latin teachers assigned. Warner was in his late sixties when he arrived in Connecticut. His relaxed teaching style did not fit with the frantic “publish or perish” American academic environment.

Warner savored the sound and sense of language. He had done an English translation of Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”. When Warner read us the speeches of Pericles from 2,400 years ago, you could hear the magnificent voice of that great Athenian general.

Making the leap

I enjoyed grad school, but after completing the master’s degree requirements, I decided to leave.

One reason: a Ph.D. dissertation has to break new ground somehow. As one professor joked, “The only way to say something new about Shakespeare is to say something wrong.” Some of the dissertation topics I saw my fellow students researching seemed destined to attract an audience that could fit into a taxi.

Frankly, I had no idea what job opportunities awaited me. But our first child had arrived on the scene, and her little voice conveyed a sense of urgency. Get moving, Dad.

Her nudge was like some of those I described in Mentors, Part 1. But I’ve already told you that story.

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James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia