From Mentees to Mentors: Teachers’ Tales

Julia Robbins, Staff Writer

Chidi Asoluka

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” English teacher Chidi Asoluka said. “I pitied teachers. I pitied their job. I knew that a lot of my classmates didn’t read or do the homework.”

It only took one job interview to change the entire trajectory of his life.

Asoluka grew up in New Jersey and attended St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. Everyone in his grade knew that his dream was to attend Georgetown University in Washington D.C. In his senior year, Asoluka applied early decision and was accepted.

St. Benedict’s alum and CEO of MBNA America Bank, Charles Cawley, then met Asoluka and gave him a full scholarship to Georgetown. While Asoluka still isn’t entirely sure why Cawley gave him a scholarship, he thinks that Cawley had heard about his potential as a student and how much he wanted to attend Georgetown.

Besides granting him a scholarship, Cawley gave Asoluka internships at MBNA America Bank during his summer breaks from college. “I worked in advertising, marketing, everything you could think of,” Asoluka said.

Despite his focus on business over the summer, Asoluka majored in English at Georgetown and spent much of his free time writing and performing poetry.

“I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a banker’” Asoluka said. “I know I’m writing poetry and stuff, but I’m gonna be a banker,” he said.

During his senior year, Asoluka became interested in the management development program at MBNA. If accepted into the program after college, he would be on track for a senior level position and a high salary, Asoluka said. When the day of the interview came, he put on his best suit and headed to the company’s headquarters in Delaware.

At first, Asoluka aced the interview, well-versed in the business model and inner workings of the company after interning there for four years. But then came his interviewer’s final question: “what would bring you the most happiness in life?”

“I was like, ‘what?’” Asoluka said. Then the interviewer asked, “What if you had the chance to design your own course with books you loved and kids who wanted to be there? And what if this course had the potential to impact their lives? Would you rather do that or be one of the Vice Presidents of this company leading us to record growth?”

“That question really cut something in me,” Asoluka said. “I never thought about life that way. I was like ‘ummmmm….working at the company, working here, yeah working here, working here is going to give me the most happiness, absolutely.”

But Asoluka knew this wasn’t the truth, he said.

Instead of ending the interview there, his interviewer said, “I don’t believe you. You’re very talented and you would be an incredible banker, but I need you to try and interview to be a teacher. I need you to do that for me.”

Asoluka still isn’t sure why the interviewer believed he would enjoy teaching, he said. He thinks she must have seen him as a successful communicator from his summer internships and recognized his passion for  English and writing, Asoluka said.

“If it wasn’t for that one woman, I would’ve been a banker right now and hated it,” Asoluka said. “But she found something in me that I didn’t know I possessed.”

He followed her advice and interviewed at a job for Prep for Prep, an organization that prepares students of color for success at independent schools. “This is how we frame Prep for Prep: Education is the civil rights movement of our times, and at Prep we’re on the front lines. Do you want to be on the front lines?,” the interviewer at Prep for Prep asked Asoluka.

“Yes,” Asoluka said. Currently, he has been in education for 14 years since. “When I teach, I get goosebumps,” Asoluka said. “It’s what God put me on earth to do.”

After Prep, Asoluka earned a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Rutgers University. While studying for his Masters, he taught Composition 101 to college freshmen. “I loved facilitating conversations,” Asoluka said. “I loved using literature as a window into how the students saw themselves and the world that surrounded them.”

After graduating, he taught at a charter school in New Jersey, leaving after one year because he disliked the curriculum dictated by standardized tests and college acceptances. “I was in the liberation business, not the memorization business. I mean, I thought that getting young people to talk about books was an opportunity for them to free themselves and become stronger.”

Asoluka then took a job teaching at Germantown Academy (GA), a high school where, according to its website, students of color currently make up 28% of the student body, and faculty and administration of color comprise only 10% of educational professionals. GA had offered him a different pitch than Prep for Prep:

“A lot of these students have probably never talked to a black man in this capacity…they have never had one in the classroom who is more knowledgeable than they are, and that could be incredibly powerful,” the interviewer said. “You could be a game changer.”

In his final years at GA, Asoluka introduced the New Community Project, NewComm, to his class “One day I had a dream. What if [students] read companies like books?,” Asoluka said. This idea combined his two interests in college: business and writing.

In NewComm, students analyze companies like pieces of literature, and, at the end of the year, each student creates a product that helps a non-profit company.

After seven years at GA, Asoluka decided he was ready to take NewComm to Horace Mann, where he had been thinking about working for a few years, he said.

“I wanted to be a part of a community that also supported the work that I was trying to do and not just me being the only cheerleader; I mean, I was the only black man in the high school for seven years,” he said. “I just felt I needed more than that.”

Horace Mann offered him the opportunity to work alongside engaged students and faculty who cared about his course’s purpose. The mission of NewComm is about “rooting social justice in radical and transformative love, meaning empathy, not pity,” Asoluka said.

NewComm is more than one class at the school: Asoluka has also done various NewComm-inspired projects in Philadelphia, Newark, and New York. “They have mainly revolved around digital storytelling projects where young people engage in conversation about social issues,” he said.

He hopes NewComm will become a national organization with a mission of  bringing communities together by working with young adults, non-profit organizations, businesses, and other entities to create meaningful impact.

Asoluka’s parents, originally disappointed in his career switch from banking to teaching, now boast   about how their son taught his own course during his first year as a teacher at Horace Mann, Asoluka said.

“It worked out for me, but in the beginning it was tough,” Asoluka said. “I just had to be strong and say ‘you know what Mom, Dad, I know you’re not happy with me right now, but I just really, truly believe in it,” Asoluka said.

“At the end of the day, if you’re not out here trying to find that thing that gives you goosebumps, none of this stuff happens,” Asoluka said. “I truly, truly believe that if you just follow what’s in your heart, the universe just opens up.”

Ellen Bales

History teacher Dr. Ellen Bales grew up in Savannah; a town of a few thousand residents in the northwestern part of Missouri.

“It’s rural, and it’s rural Missouri,” Bales said. “There’s nothing cute or romantic about this at all; this is basically a town surrounded by agricultural land. Most of the people I grew up around were living at, or below, the poverty level.”

A minority of the town’s roughly 4000 people inhabitants went to college, and of those who did, nearly all attended a Missouri or Kansas state school..

Bales’ 10th grade English teacher, Irma Zapf, was a guiding force who helped her realize she could exist in a world outside of this environment.

Bales was already an anomaly given that both of her parents were college educated and worked as teachers in the local public school system. “There was never really a question whether I was going to college; that wasn’t up in the air,” Bales said.

But Zapf was the influential factor in showing Bales that she could aspire to a private college  out of state.   

Although Zapf was very respected among adults at the school, many students disliked her  exacting and rigorous teaching style, Bales said.

“In a public school in rural Missouri, that was really kind of a special and treasured experience because this was not a community where intellectualism was necessarily widely valued,” she said.

Zapf’s appreciation for language led her to teach serious and complex works of literature in her class, including Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Bales said.

“I remember having this sort of complicated relationship to that book,” she said. It wasn’t always a pleasant experience to read Great Expectations, but Bales understood the importance of her teacher trusting her with such a classic piece of literature, she said. “This made me feel like one could do this kind of thing seriously and think seriously about literature.”

Zapf’s class also included a journaling component. “She really invited us to write in our own voices and to write humor if we wanted to,” Bales said. “And she was critical of that writing in productive ways, but she was also really celebratory of it.”

This combination of high standards and investment in students’ success has influenced Bales’ own teaching style, she said.

For Bales, it was transformative that someone besides her parents believed in her work, she said.

“I don’t think I ever had a reader as appreciative of my work, and I think she really changed my relationship with writing and my belief that I could do it,” Bales said. “And that meant a lot to me in terms of thinking of going to college outside the state.”

Bales ended up attending the University of Chicago, where she majored in English..

After graduating from UChicago, Bales worked at her alma mater for several years in admissions before moving to admissions at Columbia University and then college counseling at Trinity School. By the time she began applying for graduate school, she was already in her 30s, older than most applicants.

It was Dr. Catherine Carson, a renowned physics historian, who took a chance on Bales and accepted her into the graduate history program at UC Berkeley. “She was kind of taking a risk on me because I hadn’t been a historian before, and I really appreciated that opportunity,” Bales said.

Bales had reached out to Carson after becoming interested in the history of physics from taking two years of mandatory science classes at UChicago and reading books on the subject, she said. “History of physics seemed sort of attractive to me because it engages a lot of major philosophical questions and questions about the context in which physics is done,” Bales said.

Under Carson’s guidance, Bales studied the histories of environmental risk, quantification of risk, public health issues, and labor trends. During Bales’ seven year graduate program, the two communicated frequently, often multiple times a week.

Watching how Carson worked and observing the disciplined and rigorous qualities of her mind were very influential, Bales said. Learning how she approached the study of history and archival research was also very informative, she said. “It enabled me to change my intellectual and professional direction in a way that for me has been really satisfying and great, and I really do credit her with quite a bit of that,” Bales said.

“The need for mentors or the inputs of other people, I don’t think that ever really ends, not if you’re really honest about it,” Bales said.

Adam Casdin

“I met a man once, and he said to me, ‘In your life, you will have seven mentors,” English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin said. “I thought to myself, this man is crazy.”

While Casdin hasn’t had seven mentors, one mentor in high school did change his life, he said.

Casdin grew up on the Upper West Side and attended the Collegiate School, an all-boys school known for its academic rigor.

“I was one of the worst students in the class,” he said. “I didn’t know what was happening or how to do what they were asking me to do, and it just progressively got worse. And because I was struggling academically, I started to act out socially in class.”

From seventh through ninth grade, the school advised Casdin to leave Collegiate, but each time, Casdin’s mother, a member of the Parent Teacher Association, convinced the school to let him stay.

In 10th grade, the school said, “This is it. If he doesn’t go to a tutor, we’re not going to want him because he’s just not functioning. He’s not doing the work,” Casdin said.

The tutor, George William Mayer Jr., changed his life, Casdin said. “He was a former department chair at Trinity who I think had problems working with an institution,” Casdin said. .

Twice a week in 10th and 11th grade, Casdin was sent to his tutor’s home for several hours. Sometimes he would sit in Mayer’s bedroom all of Saturday doing homework while other students came in and out for tutoring.

Casdin had to walk between stacks of books to reach Mayer’s desk, which was filled with papers, books, and knick knacks. Mayer was a chain-smoking, denture wearing, well-read man, who taught Casdin how to challenge his own ideas, he said.

“It was like walking into the mad genius’s laboratory,” Casdin said. “That was the way it felt to me. Sometimes I would come to work with him, and he would be eating some shriveled, overcooked piece of meat and drinking warm soda and smoking,” Casdin said.

Mayer showed him that he was a strong and capable reader, Casdin said. “He was the first person I met who didn’t say, ‘this kid’s out of control, he’s crazy.”

Mayer told him to write down his ideas about literature and handed Casdin a book after each meeting, which he had to read.  The authors ranged from Tennessee Williams to Franz Kafka, and together, Casdin and his tutor investigated the books’ meanings.

“What I learned from him was not just to trust my own ideas, because it’s easy to say trust your own ideas, but to really evaluate them and interrogate them,” he said. “He wasn’t so much interested in what the correct interpretation of Gatsby was, he was interested in how I was responding.”

While Casdin had always been a reader, Mayer showed him that reading could translate into profound thoughts and ideas, he said.

“We would have these conversations about literature which seemed to me just off the cuff, and he would show me that [what I was] thinking was actually interesting,” Casdin said. “What he was helping me to do was discover for myself what I thought, and what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it,” he said.

Their relationship was one surrounding literature, but “was fun and lively and personal,” Casdin said.

“What he gave me was the gift of having something I could do; I was still having all sorts of trouble in school, but I knew that I could do something,” Casdin said. “He opened up this writing ability in me, and that basically was the foundation for everything that happened after.”

Casdin was accepted into Vassar College after high school, but eventually dropped out and began working at a bookstore instead. Later he returned to college and received his undergraduate degree in English from Columbia University before going on to earn a PhD in English with concentrations in British Eighteenth-Century Literature and British Romanticism from Stanford University.

When Casdin returned to college his second time, at 27 years old, he reconnected with Mayer. They got lunch in the park and went to the theater together occasionally. At that point, he was no longer a mentor but a “trusted old friend,” Casdin said.

“I do wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met him,” Casdin said.