debbie millman

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Commentary: Charmed

When I was a little girl I had a baby sitter named Nancy who watched me every Saturday night when, after getting all dolled up, my parents went downtown to go out for dinner. I remember being so taken with Nancy that I attempted to emulate everything about her: I tried to dress like she did; I parted my hair on the same side, and I wore ponytails in the identical style that she did. At that time, she was the most glamorous, sophisticated and kindest person in my life. She always brought me a pack of gum when she came to baby sit, she would let me watch television when my parents were gone and she read to me before I went to sleep. I loved her.

Nancy had a very unusual, very beautiful necklace. She wore it all the time, and it fascinated me. Describing it will be difficult, but I will try: essentially it was a gold chain necklace that held a small spherical charm in the shape of a cage. The charm held brightly colored loose stones. This sparkly necklace mesmerized me. Whenever she came over, she would let me wear it. I would hold the necklace in the center of my palm for hours on end and imagine that the cage held all of the stars in the solar system. One year Nancy promised me that she would try to find me a similar necklace when I turned seven. I waited with breathless anticipation for my birthday to arrive and on the Saturday that Nancy was to watch me, I could barely contain myself. Looking back on it now, I don’t really know what it was about that necklace that so captivated me, but in analyzing it all of these years later. I think that this was my first encounter with an object that I believed contained both beauty and magic.

Sadly for me, Nancy was not able to find the exact same necklace that year, and instead she gave me a different one: it was a flower charm with a pearl center. Though I admired it very much, it wasn’t the same as the one she had, and my disappointment was palpable. Nevertheless, I wore it all the time.

Several months later my dad got a new job and we left Howard Beach, Queens to move to Staten Island. I was sad to go, I had just started third grade, I had made some nice friends, and I knew that Nancy would not be able to travel all the way to Staten Island to come and baby sit me. I didn’t know what I would do without her and cried when we said goodbye. As she was about to leave my house, I could see she was sad too. Before she left, she opened my hand and put a little box in it, and told me to open it after we left. I knew what it was before I even opened it: the magical necklace. I was elated.

Somehow, in the chaos of our move to Staten Island, my magical necklace got lost. I was devastated and swore never to wear the other pearl necklace that Nancy had given me. I wanted to keep it my jewelry box forever to insure that I would never lose it, and in doing so, be forever connected to the memory of my beloved babysitter. And to this day, nearly four decades later, I still have, and treasure, that little flower charm with the pearl in the center. Yet not a year has gone by wherein I do not think of Nancy and my lost little cage charm with the loose sparkly stones. I have scoured flea markets and eBay, vintage shops, jewelry stores and junk shops in an effort to find this necklace again, but in 37 years, I have never, ever once come upon the same little gem. I have never told anybody about my quest, but I have never stopped looking.

What has remained is the memory of Nancy: her generosity, her warm encouragement, her caring and her love. So it was with a deep sense of returning and giving back that in the fall of 2003 I became a mentor to a 15-year-old student in the High School of Art and Design in New York City, Alexandra Alcantara.

Alex is incredibly cool and lives in Harlem and is amazingly talented and loves anime and horror movies and her boyfriend Mark, and she has one of the most extraordinary sketchbooks I have ever seen. She’s had a vastly different adolescence than I had, and I find that I am learning a lot from her. But via this experience, I have come to realize that mentoring is about more than just giving back. Mentoring is learning about yourself and the world. Mentoring is hard work and great fun and a big responsibility.

I believe that mentoring is necessary. Last year, in an issue of Communication Arts, there was a provocative, compelling article about mentoring by Sanjay Khanna. In it, he poses tough questions about the role that experienced designers have (or don’t have) for young designers. One of his key issues is this: “Young designers need encouragement. It needs to be reinforced that as young people they have a unique way of seeing and that they carry the images, hopes and fears of their generation within them. They are intrinsically important and their vision requires a good measure of support from their elders (us).” And in the same article, Paula Scher states, “I hire students from my classes as interns. I teach, hire and mentor them, closely observing their progress. I stay young because I get to borrow their eyes. In fact, I get more out of it than they do.”

This is my third, and last semester as Alex’s “official” mentor. She is now interning at the design firm that I run; she contributes to projects and I get to see her every day. This year, my main task was to assist Alex with her college applications and encourage her to get into the best possible program. Alex had been unsure about pursuing design, she felt she might not be talented enough, and she was insecure about her ability to get into a good design school. I was insistent that she not make any decisions out of fear, but rather do the very best she could. I promised that I would do everything that I could to assist her in getting into a good design school. And last month we were able to celebrate: she was accepted into the undergraduate design program at the School of Visual Arts, one of the best design schools in the country.

I guess Alex must have told her mother about my assurances, because shortly thereafter she handed me a beautifully wrapped present. I was perplexed as to why I was getting this gift, but Alex told me that she and her mother wanted to give me something to show how grateful they were for all of my help and encouragement. Alex told me this as I was about to go into a major presentation, but she insisted that I open the present right then and there. I opened it quickly and saw a lovely bracelet with dangly whimsical charms. I hugged her, put the box in my purse and went on to my presentation.

The next morning as I was getting ready to go to work, I remembered that Alex’s present was still in my pocketbook. I took it out of my bag and as I opened the box something glinty caught my eye. I picked up the bracelet to examine at it more carefully. And my heart skipped a beat. “No,” I thought, “it couldn’t be.” But I could see that indeed it was. The familiar round globe, the sparkly loose stones, the little gold cage: it was identical. My long ago lost charm. It was on the bracelet, and now, once again, in my hand.

I saw Alex the next day and told her the story. She was as incredulous as I was. And as happy.

I think when we give something of ourselves, what we get in return is immeasurable. We might be giving back because someone gave to us, or we are giving back because we know we should. Either way, when we do this, something remarkable happens: we get a uniquely human, mutually shared experience. And in that experience, continuity develops. You give something away, you get something in return and the cycle is perpetuated. As long as we are capable, and as long as we participate, the cycle can never be broken.


Blogger Cindy said...

When I was a young girl, my mentor was my cousin Hazel (damn that Julia Roberts for making the name I was going to name one of my kids trendy) and she was perfect. She had perfect hair and eyes and was a cheerleader and could draw anything she wanted. She made a plaque (no pun intended) for her dentist with a drawing of an apple that said, "an apple a day keeps the dentist away", so I ate apples. She also painted the windows at a local deli with seasonal illustrations. I always wanted to sit next to her at the Thanksgiving table. Of course, Hazel now has one leg and lives in a trailer in Lava Hot Springs, but I still idolize her. There's a little girl who is the daughter of one of my best friends who draws amazing pictures of the Little Mermaid and it is one of my deepest desires to teach her how to draw more intricate princesses and maybe someday she'll create amazing things in the world, or at least be a good influence to other people around her.

The impact we have on each other is immeasurable and if the greatest thing we ever do is be the person someone wants most to sit next to at the Thanksgiving dinner table, that will be enough.

Um...sorry for posting such a long dramatic post on your blog for the first time. I got nostalgic.

4/13/2006 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom Guarriello said...

Your lovely childhood reminiscence was quite captivating. I was even more engrossed when the story turned to mentoring. All I could do was slowly shake my head in disbelief when the two stories intertwined.

Recently, I've been involved in the TED-conference-supported Mentoring Worldwide project. I think you and your readers would find it of interest. Here's the project blog:

Thanks for a memorable moment.

4/14/2006 06:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...

loved the post. I'm very glad you loved the pendent. Thank you for these wonderful three years , you have impacted my life in so many ways, and in each way I have learned to be better than I was the day before. Thank you so much debbie for being a mentor to me when I had no one to really talk to . You're my unforgettable "baby-sitter", and i'll remember you always.
thank you.

4/15/2006 11:00:00 PM  

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