Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Goodbye, Mr. Bott: Reflections on an Unlikely Mentor

On the first day of ninth grade, I was dropped off at the wrong high school—an all-boys Jesuit academy called Fordham Prep—and through a series of tragicomical misunderstandings too complicated to explain here, wound up staying through graduation.

Up till that point, I’d been exclusively a New York City public-school kid, where I’d spent nine years as a reliably mediocre student.  In truth, my “C” average was deceptively flattering:  My overall GPA was given a crucial bump out of the “D”-level basement by the lone “A” I could be counted on to earn in my English classes.

Despite my subpar scholastic track record, however, when I advanced from elementary school to junior high, I was, in what can only be explained as an administrative error, placed in the city’s now-defunct SP program (“special progress”—essentially a gifted-and-talented curriculum), in which students completed three years of schooling—seventh, eighth, and ninth grade—in only two.  During that time, I took two years of Latin, algebra, biology—all before I ever set foot in high school.  I passed them all, too—painfully and often barely, but still.

And this was at a junior high school, I should add, that was at the time regarded by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood as a disgrace—an unfortunate but unavoidable way station between elementary school and high school.  (I wonder what Neil deGrasse Tyson, an alumnus, would have to say about that?)  Parents simply pinched their nostrils, registered their kids, and counted the days till they’d move on to the Bronx High School of Science or some other esteemed learning institution where their real education would resume in earnest after a two-year waste of time—an institution like, in my case, Fordham Prep.

 

THE “ZONE UNKNOWN”

When I wound up at the Prep’s doorstep, however, the syllabus I was handed looked alarmingly familiar:  introductory Latin; algebra; biology—I think you see where this is going.  The lion’s share of kids who attended the Prep were coming from the parochial school system, and Fordham’s curriculum was designed to pick up where that left off.  Trouble was, I’d left those courses in the dust already, but when I explained my predicament, the administrator—I’ve long since forgotten his name (or more likely just willfully repressed it)—got a look on his face like he’d just swallowed a lungful of bus exhaust and said, “But… that was public school?”

Indeed, this was a “fresh start”—one whereby Fordham would graciously overlook my plebeian origins, and that meant erasing all trace of them.  Good news:  None of it ever happened!  Admission to the Prep was a rarified privilege, I was assured, for which to be grateful.  Fordham Prep’s name, after all, was uttered almost exclusively in whispered, reverential tones—the Prep!—and the honor of attending was one most of its students had been anxiously anticipating since preschool.  It all meant nothing to me, though:  Six months earlier, I’d never even heard of the place.  This perhaps gave me a more sober—a more realistic—perspective on the school, even at fourteen years old, than my peers or their parents.

The Prep’s sterling reputation for academic excellence, I argued without success, was largely a product of skillful self-mythologizing.  Christ, how good a school could it have been, really?  After all, I got in!  Shouldn’t that have been the first red flag?  Bronx Science—a public high school—walked the walk:  They quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with me.

And my own dismal grades notwithstanding (though I did make the honor roll freshman year, but any idiot can ace a bunch of classes he’s already taken—and passed—before), there were some objectively intellectually challenged students at the Prep.  I was a longstanding public-school kid, and knew a knuckle-dragger when I saw one (I preferred their company, for the most part), and that place was wall-to-wall with them.  All of which prompts the question:  How did Fordham achieve—and sustain—such impeccable standing if they were admitting riffraff like yours truly?

But, then, the Prep has always suffered from something of an identity crisis—at least since I first came to learn of it.  There’s the school it wants to be—one of those proudly elitist elite learning institutions, à la Dead Poets Society and School Ties and Scent of a Woman—and then there’s the one it really is, whereby the only two requirements for admittance seem to be a dick and a cleared check.  In other words:  It’s less Regis, and more St. Raymond’s, than it would comfortably care to admit.

This is NOT Fordham Prep—merely what the Prep sees in the mirror

My sentiments on the entire four-year ordeal are probably best expressed by legendary music producer (and Brooklyn native) Jimmy Iovine, who recently shared this reflection on his own scholastic experiences in the aptly titled HBO documentary series The Defiant Ones:

“I don’t remember one moment of high school that I enjoyed.  Catholic school:  nuns, suits, jacket, tie, no girls, all guys.  I hated every second of it.”

Now, I’ve spent decades making the lawyerly case I outlined above to old classmates, fine men and good friends all, who vehemently and unanimously disagree, who look back at the experience with soft-focus fondness (for reasons I trust will be made manifest in the afterlife), whose own sons are now approaching high-school age, and for whom there is only one option in their immediate future:  Fordham Prep.  Poor bastards.  But, hey—maybe they’ll enjoy it, too.  (If by chance any of you don’t—and you’re reading this—feel free to bitch in the comments below.  This is a safe space for you.)  I am admittedly and perplexingly in the minority on this one; the I argument make here is one I lost over a quarter century ago, and I guess it still smarts.

But the reasons for my feelings, I should hope, aren’t hard to understand:  I spent freshman year—and even part of sophomore year—repeating public junior high school at a private (read:  expensive) college prep school, only now with a dress code, and with kids I didn’t know, and religious rites I didn’t understand.  That put me in an irredeemably shitty mood, to put it mildly, and I went out of my way over the next four years to register my discontent the most obvious and effective way I knew how:  my physical appearance.

My neckties were proudly stained with mustard (and never tied properly, anyway, since I didn’t bother to learn how), my shirt half-untucked at all times, my hair worn well below the collar in flagrant violation of regulation.  (There were no girls to impress, so what difference did it make?)  Such transgressions put me, immediately and perennially, in conflict with the man in charge of enforcing the Prep’s standards of uniformity:  Mr. Bruce Bott, Dean of Students.

 

THE HEAT IS RISING

Mr. Bott wasn’t merely a man—he was a presence.  You felt his energy in a room oftentimes before you even saw him.  He never yelled or raised his voice; on the contrary, he spoke in almost hushed tones—an admittedly cool power move few can credibly pull off.  He never smiled or laughed (not in my miserable company, anyway, but can’t say as I blame him for that).  He never looked flustered, despite how often I would overtly defy his orders to tuck in my shirt or cut my hair.  (This is what passed for being a badass at the Prep, yet another instance in which it woefully failed to reach the bar set by my old junior high.)

Running into Mr. Bott daily—you couldn’t not run into him; he was everywhere—was the least favorite part of my day, because there’d be no sympathetic ear or “good cop” routine or use of honey over vinegar:  He’d simply cite you for what you were doing wrong, and expect it corrected by the next time he saw you.  To invoke a pop-culture analogy of the day, he was less Mr. Rooney, more Mr. Strickland.

Yep—this is EXACTLY what it felt like

He ran an impressively (albeit maddeningly) tight ship.  You couldn’t cut a class at that school.  Mr. Bott dutifully collected attendance slips from each classroom, every period, and if a student wasn’t where he was scheduled to be, he’d find him and make him answer for it—it wouldn’t slip through the cracks.  Seriously—you couldn’t even ditch last-period study hall in that place!  He was on top of everything and everyone that went on there; nothing evaded his radar.

I’ve often thought, in the years since, his talents were probably underexploited at a school where most of the student body was well-behaved, happy to be there, and more or less toed the line voluntarily.  Imagine the troubled schools a peerless disciplinarian like that might’ve turned around had he relocated throughout his career—an itinerant Dean with No Name, so to speak.  (What a pitch that would make:  It’s Lean on Me meets A Fistful of Dollars!  Don’t laugh—stupider ideas have sold.)

But that observation notwithstanding, Mr. Bott knew where he belonged.  A graduate himself of the Prep—class of ’59—he elected to spend a forty-year career there, committed to the institution that had educated him.  Committed to its Jesuit ideals.  To its academic program, and its objective of inspiring young men to live service-oriented, faith-based lives.  He was a man of quiet dignity—I mean, that guy was nobody’s fool—with the courage of his convictions, and, after over forty years on this earth myself, I’ve met dispiritingly few people like that.

Mr. Bott led an honorable life doing a job he loved and believed in, and he did that job exceptionally well; I’m far enough removed from the experience to recognize what a truly remarkable dean he was.  That he and I never got along—never once saw eye to eye—is probably the best testament I can offer as to how consistent and effective a disciplinarian he was; if, at the age of fifteen, I’d have liked him, he’d have surely been doing something wrong.

 

THE PAST IS CALLING

On April 25th of this year, I received an e-mail from an old Prep classmate—we’ll call him “Spinner,” an in-joke very few will appreciate—with this simple message:

“I know this is morbid but Bruce Bott passed away.  I don’t have any details.  I know you interacted with him a lot during high school.  Just thought you’d want to know.”

I know you interacted with him a lot during high school.  That’s nothing if not an old friend putting it diplomatically!

For reasons I can’t adequately explain, this news left me in a state of melancholy for several days.  The fact is, I haven’t been back to the Prep since the day I graduated.  Never have I attended a reunion, either.  And I’ve made no effort whatsoever to keep in touch.  (Only somewhat recently have I come to realize we don’t lose touch with anyone—we choose to be out of touch; it’s not a passive act but an active one.  But that’s an essay for another day.)  If it wasn’t for Spinner—as dear and true a friend as I’ve ever had—I’d never know what became of anyone we went to school with; I certainly wouldn’t have heard about Mr. Bott’s passing.  The news shouldn’t affect me on any level save the most basic sorry-to-hear-it one, but it hasn’t really left my thoughts four months later.  (Hence the reason you’re stuck reading about it now.)

I suppose, on some level, I regret not allowing myself a chance to see him again, to talk not hardnosed-dean-to-disgruntled-student but rather—imagine it—man-to-man.  Mr. Bott was the same age, give or take, as so many men in my life that I loved and admired as a boy yet never got to be friends with in adulthood, like my father, and my father’s best friend Richard, and my father’s younger brother—my dear uncle—Jim.  (I know—“daddy issues” much?)  They’re all gone now.  Why are they gone?  Why couldn’t they be here to see the man I became?

 

MEETING WITH THE MENTOR

And though I didn’t have the same emotional tether to—the same pure fondness for—Mr. Bott as I did those other late gentlemen, he was in a unique position, as a male authority figure in my life, to have seen and evaluated the changes that have occurred in me over the last twenty-five years.  I robbed myself of that opportunity, and the chance to have buried the hatchet with a man who—I see now—had appreciable influence on me during my formative years.  (It’s worth noting that I can barely recall the names of more than two or three teachers I had at the Prep, but I never forgot his.)

Rocky Balboa mentors Adonis Creed in “Creed” (2015)

We’ve studied the hero’s journey on this blog—the monomythic narrative pattern that’s given shape to most of Western literature—and one of the early stages of any young protagonist’s odyssey is known as the Meeting with the Mentor.  This is the scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi offers Luke Skywalker his father’s lightsaber and asks him to join the mission to deliver the droids to Alderaan.  It’s the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where wise museum curator Marcus Brody cautions cavalier archaeologist Indiana Jones on the magnitude of the undertaking he’s agreed to.  It’s the scene in Creed where Donnie asks Rocky to be his trainer.  It’s a narrative beat that can herald the Call to Adventure, as it does in Star Wars, or simply underscore the peril of the journey ahead, as in Raiders, or serve as the basis for the central relationship of a story, as is the case in Creed and Wall Street and Whiplash.

“In his study of Russian folktales, Vladimir Propp calls this character type the ‘donor’ or ‘provider’ because its precise function is to supply the hero with something needed on the journey.  Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure” (Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey:  Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd ed. [Studio City:  Michael Wiese Productions, 2007], 117).

Indeed, we tend to think of mentors—partly because our popular narratives reinforce this image—as benevolent and nurturing, like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother or Mr. Miyagi.  Who isn’t still waiting for a mentor like that?  Yet other times the mentor is covertly subversive and/or antagonistic, like Alonzo Harris (Training Day) or Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada) or Henri Ducard (Batman Begins).  But I think the archetype operates on a much richer, wider spectrum than those oft-invoked extremes suggest, and it seems to me that one such example is what I’ve termed the “resistance mentor”; in my life, on my own “hero’s journey,” as it were, Mr. Bott filled that role.

“Mentors in stories act mainly on the mind of the hero, changing her consciousness or redirecting her will” (ibid., 120).

At a time in my youth when I was looking to define myself, when the best I could muster with regard to self-identity was a hollow Axel Foley impersonation, Mr. Bott gave me something to bump up against.  (And there’d be a lot more of that later in life, I discovered.)  By enforcing the rules and expectations of Fordham Prep—ones I still oppose on the grounds that they don’t provide sufficient developmental space for teenagers to be teenagers, thereby depriving them of certain rites of adolescence they only get one shot at—he in many respects catalyzed a journey of self-discovery that men much closer to me, like my father, couldn’t incite, by virtue of how emotionally entangled we were and always will be.  Mr. Bott was not a loving, paternal figure in my life, but his role as a “resistance mentor” had a value I am only now coming to better understand and appreciate.  Yes, Albus Dumbledore was Harry Potter’s mentor, but so was Severus Snape.

 

THE THINGS LEFT UNSAID

Now, despite all the fun I had in the opening section of this post setting the record straight about Fordham, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the values it espouses or the course of study it offers (and its teachers, at least in my experience, are nothing if not learned and devoted educators, as exemplary in their roles as Mr. Bott was in his).  And as for their annoying rules:  If they want you to wear your tie straight and your hair short, then you accept that with eyes wide open when you enroll.  Mr. Bott was simply there to ensure Fordham’s standards—whatever I or anyone might have thought of them—were being observed and respected, something he had every right—every obligation—to do.  He did his job, and he did it excellently.  The problem was me:  I didn’t belong there.  Rather than making a pain in the ass of myself, I should’ve just walked out the door and never come back; it would’ve been fairer to both of us.

Because knowing where you don’t belong is as crucial as knowing, as Mr. Bott so enviably did, where you do.  Up till that point in my life, I’d either known the warm embrace of acceptance (at home, or with my friends on the streets of the Bronx) or the cool shade of anonymity (it was very easy to blend in the crowd at a school like my old junior high); Fordham Prep, on the other hand, was a place where I always felt a bit like an unwelcome outsider—eventually to the point of reveling in it, because that’s what Axel Foley would have proudly done.  I was too academically advanced for Fordham’s curriculum (the irony of which, given our respective scholastic reputations, cannot be overstated), and too socially out of step with its same-sex, private-school culture.  It was just a bad fit.  It would’ve been nice to have looked Mr. Bott in the eye, years after all the bullshit had receded into irrelevance, and told him that; who knows how he might have responded?

But as the personification of Fordham’s rules and regulations—as my very own “resistance mentor”—echoes of Mr. Bott resound in my life to this day.  I still wear my shirt untucked.  I still keep my hair well below the earlobes (partly out of celebration to still have it).  I’m not rebelling anymore, however; this is who I am.  This is how I’m comfortable, and how I express myself to the world around me.  This is the man I grew up to be.  And whether it would’ve earned my father’s approval or Mr. Bott’s is ultimately immaterial; it meets with my own, because I know who I am.

It’s the unforeseen challenges we face—the tragicomical misunderstandings that throw us off our course—that define us; Mr. Bott holds the distinction of being the first resistance mentor on my own private Road of Trials.  And as it was in the halls of Fordham Prep all those years ago, his solemn presence continues to make itself felt over my shoulder long after our paths diverged, never to cross again.

14 Comments

  1. What a great post, Sean. Comical and heartwarming with the wisdom of growth and reflection. One of the gifts of age is a greater appreciation for the journey and all those who provided stepping stones to ease our way and obstacles to “bump into.” Both shape us. They key, I believe, is that those human obstacles are consistent and that their intentions are honorable. Mr. Bott sounded like a man of character who cared about his students and his school. How wonderful that he was part of your hero’s journey.

    • Thanks, Diana! While these are all matters to which I’ve naturally given much thought over the years, Mr. Bott’s death in April compelled me — to my surprise — to reconsider the experience anew, certainly with respect to our relationship and how he affected my life. As I don’t need to tell you, having impressions and notions in the soup of your cerebrum is one thing, but when you write them down — when you have to shape events and feelings into a coherent narrative — you find correlations and causalities between seemingly unrelated things. (That’s the thrill of the creative process, isn’t it?) It’s like emotional detective work, in a way. And like a good detective story, the more you uncover, the more you begin to appreciate that there are complexities and nuances to the events and relationships that comprise the grander narrative, and nothing’s as simple as it first appeared. That’s the great gift of what we do: By refining our thoughts into writing, impressions become insights, and insight — if we’re lucky — begets catharsis.

      Anyway, it’s a long and personal post, and I appreciate that you took the time to read and internalize it. Thank you.

      P.S. Apologies for having been somewhat absent from the blogosphere lately; I’m putting the finishing touches on the draft of my manuscript that goes to beta readers, and have thusly fallen behind on pretty much everything else in my life! I plan on rejoining the human race in another week or two, at which point I look forward to catching up with all of my friends on their own blogs!

      • Great post, and I like your response to Diana about the connections we find while writing…so true and valuable.

        • Thanks, Sheri! That’s the very magic of writing: discovering those little connections, correlations, and causalities between seemingly unrelated things and events and ideas. Stephen King once called writing a refined form of thinking; I’ve been thinking about a lot of this stuff for a long time — over twenty-five years — but I never really sat down to write about any of it. And it was only in the process of trying to construct a narrative out of it that others could understand that I myself came to see the little causalities that conspired to create the conditions that put me and Mr. Bott in conflict with one another.

          For instance, in junior high, I was a huge Beverly Hills Cop fan, and there’s no question that I thought I was Axel Foley: a smart-mouthed bullshit artist. So when I wound up at the Prep, I probably did feel a little like Axel when he arrives in Beverly Hills: Here I was this uncouth public-school kid in this very conservative, buttoned-down environment, and I knew right off the bat I didn’t belong. So when I doubled-down on my antiestablishment attitude (taken straight from Axel’s playbook, because I didn’t yet have a worldview of my own), of course that was only going to invite more trouble for me. And from that conflict emerged a surer sense of self: I developed beliefs and principles and an identity all my own — not Axel Foley’s — for having endured the experience.

          But I never really thought about any of that — not concretely, anyway — until it emerged from my fingertips as I was typing. That’s the gift writing gives us: It turns impressions into insights. Through narrative, we give shape to the nebulous, and from that shape we can find — and take — meaning. It’s an alchemical process, when you really stop to think about it.

  2. Hey, Sean. In last-shall-be-first fashion, let me remind you that I’m happy to be a beta reader if you need one. I’ve been looking forward to this thing becoming reality since we met.

    Here again, in this post, you’ve blended your “brand” (i.e., inclusion and discussion of movie analyses) with meaningful windows into your personal life — and it’s a great pairing.

    I think it’s important that you mentioned toward the end, for all the hindsight realizations you had about Mr. Bott, that he was being fully him, and that you were being fully you — the you that you still are today, in many ways.

    We tend to impose our present self on all of our past selves, wondering how a five-year-old boy (or ten or twelve or fifteen) couldn’t have said/done/thought this or that. But we were not the same person then. We could not have been. We are very harsh with ourselves, in fact, if we’re not careful to remember these things. A kid simply doesn’t have the life experience (or even cognitive development) to have deep perspective, developed empathy, reasoning skills and a host of other things we develop only gradually over time. They teach themes in Literature during those years, because our then-selves don’t innately see them, neither in literature or in life. We’re more inclined to see life in synecdoche than in well-developed metaphors. The school is a not me. Not-me feels bad. The dean is the school. The dean is bad.But our current, adult self should have these things in place to some degree. And that includes having empathy for Mr. Bott … as well as for your teenage self

    • I appreciate the offer to beta-read, Erik, and I know you’ve been kindly anticipating the project over the last two years since we’ve gotten to know each other; that kind of support has been the fuel that’s kept me going! Sincerely. As it happens, Escape from Rikers Island is about two ideologically opposed men — a gangbanger and a Gang Squad detective — who learn over the course of the story to see through each other’s eyes; both men have worldviews that are equally truthful in their own right, if entirely incompatible, and the story is very much about the empathetic understandings for one another each comes to reach. Having been in that mindset now for so long, I’m sure that helped shape, in some subconscious way, my recent reevaluation of Mr. Bott’s role in my life; that with full acknowledgement and defense of my own then-grievances (which I can objectively say were not unjustified), he was coming from a position that wasn’t wrong from his point of view. I reacted to what I perceived as disrespect — a dismissal of my social and educational background — with an expression of disrespect of my own. Mr. Bott simply got caught in the middle of that. Obviously, I would’ve handled things differently — less passive-aggressively — if I knew then what I know now.

      And I guess that goes to what you’ve so eloquently said above: that we take a very myopic view of things in our youth because we haven’t yet developed the empathy needed to fully assess a situation, particularly one that directly involves ourselves. As smart as I thought I was back then, I didn’t possess the facilities to distinguish the institution (the school) from the man (the dean), and to understand that they were just being what they’d always been before I ever showed up. They weren’t singling me out for chastisement; I was the one who came through their door, after all, and they had every right to expect that I fall in line with their practices. They weren’t wrong. And I wasn’t wrong, either. So I tried, with this piece, to present as truthful an account of the events as I interpret them, and that meant nobody — myself included — got a fully flattering treatment! I don’t hold anything against them, and — much as I see how I could’ve handled things differently — I don’t hold anything against my teenage self. Everyone in the scenario was simply trying to deal with an ill-arranged marriage — we were kind of foisted on one another — the only way we knew how. Like I said: It was a bad fit from Day One. If anything, what I take from the whole experience is the comfort that I wouldn’t handle a situation like that the same way; far from a regret, it’s a marker of personal growth. Like so many of life’s lessons, it leaves a bittersweet aftertaste.

      And as for harmonizing this particular personal anecdote with the blog’s “brand” (narratology and/or horror fiction): I’ll only do that sort of thing when it’s organic, and in this case it was. I don’t try to force it. Like I said to Diana, writing allows us to draw connections between seemingly disparate or unrelated things — to find “signals in the noise.” Mentors play a role in damn near every story ever, stretching all the way back to the Odyssey, and even have their own subgenre (“Mentor Institution”), which includes Dead Poets Society and Wall Street and Whiplash, and the reason the archetype resonates is because it’s relatable on a very primal level. As someone who mentors professionally, I don’t need to tell you! When you get to my age, you start to look back at the people you met along the way who helped shape you — personally, professionally, and otherwise — and you are grateful for the role they played in your life (even if it wasn’t gratitude you felt at the time). These are the people who took an interest, or who offered advice when we needed it, or who gave us a push when we didn’t necessarily want it. They’re worth recognizing, if only, in some cases, posthumously. So this is my little story about a man I couldn’t wait to be apart from, but imprinted an echo of himself on me forever. Life is full of surprising twists and turns, isn’t it? And if there’s one thing above all a storyteller should embrace, it’s unexpected twists and turns.

      Thanks for leaving such a nice response, pal.

  3. Fantastic post! I have to say, though, that your mention of a “safe space” was my favorite part. It’s a disturbing trend in schools these days, stifling free thought and speech.

    • Thanks, Jeff! For the record, I certainly didn’t mean to equate the Fordham Prep experience with what’s happening these days on college campuses; my intention was only to reach out to anyone else who found (or still finds) the experience of Jesuit/Catholic/private school less than ideal, because I’ve never quite been able to reconcile my utter disdain for it with that of my peers, most of whom have only fond memories of it. But I’m willing to bet there are more out there like me and Jimmy Iovine!

      From my perspective, the problem with putting teens in a same-sex environment where everyone is required to look exactly alike is that it can be a social and developmental retardant. There are certain rites of adolescence that occur only between the ages of, say, fourteen and eighteen — like dating for the first time, and getting your ear(s) pierced, and indulging ill-advised fashions, and cutting class with your friends — and when you place teenagers in an environment in which all of those opportunities are restricted, you deprive them of adolescence itself.

  4. I can’t recall having heard the term “resistance mentor” before, but I understand it perfectly, though I became acquainted with mine my junior year of college. I ended up earning an A in each class of his, out of spite probably (and also because he assumed I was not smart, and oooooh! did I resent that!) I think it’s cool that you can see your high school self, and see that some of your quintessence has been in you the whole time–even Mr. Bott couldn’t Fordham Prep that out of you! I really enjoyed the comments made here previously too–you weave such a tale that people can’t help but respond.

    • Hey, Wendy! No, I hadn’t ever heard or used the term “resistance mentor” myself before this post, but as I considered over the past four months the role Mr. Bott played in my life, it seemed to fit the bill. The example you draw from your own experience is a great one: Sometimes there are people in our lives — not enemies or antagonists, necessarily — who challenge us in ways we don’t like, but who nonetheless bring out a better, stronger side of us. It’s through resistance, not encouragement, that they compel growth. And we can both dislike the experience of having been pushed, and still be grateful for the “better self” that emerged from the ordeal; both things can be true concurrently.

      And thanks for the nice words about the post itself, and the comments it inspired. Like I said to Sheri above, writing this stuff refines your own understanding of it: When you force yourself to turn thoughts (which are abstract) into words (which are concrete), you’re often rewarded with new insight for your trouble. (And comments from readers only further refine my apprehension of the subjects I write about, so thank you for that.) I assume that’s why you yourself have blogged so consistently about your own experiences as a parent of a child with muscular dystrophy: I have to believe that writing about it has offered a measure of meaning — and perhaps catharsis — that you wouldn’t have otherwise gained.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Wendy. Your time and input is very much appreciated!

  5. I want to hear the story about how you were dropped off at the wrong school. That story must be full of comedic action ripe for a middle grade, if not YA, movie.

    When you mentioned Mr. Bott wouldn’t have been doing his job if you liked him when you were a teen, my first thought was why does that have to be? Can’t teens have role models in their lives who inspire them? But as you went on to explain the resistance mentor, I see where you were going with that.

    And believe me, I’m all for setting standards teen should rise to. In my humble opinion, as a mother of two teens, the bar is often dropped so people can step over it rather than push themselves into spaces they didn’t know existed and miraculously excel.

    I can’t recall one teacher or the principal of my high school that truly inspired me or challenged me in a way that shaped me. Kind of sad. It probably means no one was excelling at their jobs. Many of my college professors had far more of an impact thankfully.

    I’m sorry you lost your mentor without having another chance to tell him all the things you were able to share with us. But I believe, Mr. Bott knows. And I have a hunch, he pushed you continuously because he knew exactly the kind of decent, successful, respectable, man you would become.

    • Haha! I’m saving the full story of what happened for a fictionalized coming-of-age novel I’ve been planning to write for over six years. That’ll cover fourth grade through the end of high school; it’s an epic Buddy Love story about me and my best friend — our adventures as penniless kids growing up in the Bronx in the late eighties/early nineties. Like so many of my planned novels, I’ve had it outlined for quite some time… I just haven’t found the time to get cranking on the manuscript.

      With respect to your second point — that the way I initially framed my association with Mr. Bott (under the “Heat Is Rising” subheading) doesn’t reflect some of my takeaway conclusions on the matter — all I can say is that that was a very conscious strategic approach to allow me to explore the adversarial relationship at the heart of the essay with a greater degree of emotional nuance than “pain-in-the-ass fourteen-year-old comes into conflict with hardnosed dean.” It’s one of my favorite storytelling techniques — what my mentor Dave Freeman calls competing truths; that is, truths that are equally valid yet utterly irreconcilable. In the final tally, Mr. Bott was right and I was right: He was right to enforce the school’s standards, and I was right when I recognized that those parochial precepts were incompatible with the secular norms to which I’d been thoroughly indoctrinated and had become unalterably accustomed. Both of our truths were equally legitimate… they were just culturally irreconcilable. So, emotionally and thematically, “Goodbye, Mr. Bott” is not a simple or neat story — it’s a complicated, messy one. But those are the best kinds, I think.

      You know, one of the great gifts of being a writer is the sensitivity we develop (and the insight that yields) the more practiced we become at our craft, and the more of ourselves we’re disposed, with experience, to “leave on the page” (neophyte writers aren’t often willing — or simply self-reflective enough — to put the embarrassing and unflattering truths about themselves in their work). And one of the things I’m beginning to understand with greater clarity is that the impact the people in our lives have on us doesn’t need to be especially profound or dignified to resonate. Before I sat down to write this piece, I never thought of Mr. Bott as a particularly influential figure in my life — he was a guy I couldn’t wait to get away from 25-odd years ago — and yet the more I developed the essay, the more connections I made between seemingly unrelated things, and the more “ripples in the pond” I identified.

      We’ve all had people in our lives that have had an appreciable and ascribable influence on us — teachers, spouses, lifelong friends — but it occurs to me now that sometimes we don’t take stock of the effect (both good and ill) the “background players” have had: the grade-school bully who chased us off the playground; the barber who’s cut our hair for the last twenty years; the local shop owner who gave us our first job at sixteen; the best friend we made at summer camp then never saw again; the eleven other jurors we were cooped up with during a harrowing deliberation on a criminal case. All of them have shaped the course of the river that is our lives; some were merely pebbles plunked in and passed over, while others were tributaries with which we merged, gaining speed and volume — and others still were dams that stood in our way — but all have played a part. The more we sharpen our own artistic acumen, the more sensitive to that we become — and the more that’s reflected in our own fictions with characters that live and breathe as opposed to just serving a utilitarian function.

      And thank you for those kind closing words, Stacey. My friend Spinner — the classmate who made me aware of Mr. Bott’s passing — has long insisted Mr. Bott was quite fond of me, and Spinner has always been an honest friend and a skillful judge of character. I only hope Mr. Bott enjoyed the remaining years of his life and career, and that he never again encountered such a relentless nudnik as I was!

  6. Great post! I loved the Groucho Marx reference — I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me.

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