The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Mentorship — The Gift that Keeps on Giving

When Brad Zervas, founder of the Ascension Project, and I get together we cover a lot of ground. We talk about his newfound passion for cycling, and I take partial credit for it. We talk about our work, our families and the world in which we live. We talk about fatherhood, and about what boys need to grow into happy and successful adults. We compare notes on raising our own kids, and raising ourselves.

Our first encounter was at The Boys' Club of New York, where I grew up, was invested in, and later served as a trustee. Brad came aboard as the Education Program Director and rose to the position of Executive Director. We often talk about what can be done to help people of any age to become personally and professionally successful.

Brad asked me to talk about mentorship, one of the five core principles that boys need to succeed. When I think about mentorship, I also think about the word protégé. We think of protégés as apprentices or students, but the root of this word is “protection." It means creating a relationship in which a person feels safe, where questions can be asked free from judgment or ridicule, where there is trust. A protégé can ask questions that may be provocative, dangerous, obvious or silly, and still get taken seriously.

Don't get me wrong: Protection doesn't necessarily mean that you prevent your student from getting a bloody nose-figuratively, and sometimes literally. It means knowing when they are ready to experience a body blow, and being there to work through it and the consequences of it.

Mentorship requires an investment from both sides. Both the student and the mentor are challenged to explore themselves and learn. The old adage “to teach is to learn” holds true here. When we talk about the dignity of hard work, of taking risks for good, and standing up for ourselves and others, about being a good friend or citizen, father, son or brother, partner, teammate, we reinforce these values in our own lives.

Most people think that mentorship is about giving a young person an opportunity to go to school, get a summer job or get a shot at a career. But mentoring doesn't have to be about the grand gesture or the big life decision. It's also about the accumulation of small, simple things: seeking out a young man's opinion, asking him for a favor, swapping stories, sharing play lists or wish lists. You can be a teacher, but to be a mentor transcends the knowledge you may impart. There is a difference between being a technically excellent surgeon, and holding someone's hand as they go under anesthesia. It is what transforms a doctor into a healer, and an advisor into a friend for life.

Learning all about The Squeeze
I know all about mentors, because I have had several, and I still think of them frequently.

I met my first one when I was in fourth grade. Up until then I had been a pretty good student until I started to struggle with math. Arrangements were made to meet a tutor after school. I was more than a little nervous. On the first day, I walked into an empty classroom and up popped Seymour Kaplan.

It was 1969. Mr. Kaplan had a buzz cut (really short) and high water pants (really short, too) and the biggest, toothiest smile I had ever seen. “Hello," he bellowed, "I'm Seymour Kaplan, you must be Jeffrey," and with that, he thrust out his hand. How exciting it was to be greeted that way by a grownup, I remember feeling. This is what it is like to be treated like a man.

I gave him a shy, soft handshake. “That's not how a man shakes hands," he exclaimed. "You've got to “squeeeeze!!!” At that moment, I thought Seymour Kaplan was the coolest guy on the planet. I felt like he had given me a gift- a secret that he thought I was worthy of. I tried again. "That's more like it," he said. From then on, I was the kid who'd go around meeting people just so I could give them the squeeze. To this day people comment on my handshake.

Once a week Mr. Kaplan and I would meet to go over homework and prepare for tests. He was always funny and helpful, and beyond that, was a super teacher. By the following year, I had become so adept at math that I made it onto the district championship math team.

I ran into Mr. Kaplan in my early twenties. When we shook hands, I gave him the squeeze, the same one I've gone on to teach many, many children. When I thanked him for his help, his advice, and his attention, his response was as basic and as unforgettable as his handshake style. He said simply: You are welcome.

Jeffrey Emil Diaz, Corporate & Management Consultant, Executive Coach
About Jeffrey Emil Diaz