On Mentors

Emo photo of Willingham straight out of 2004

I attended Mercer University from 2004-8. It was an exciting time to be a student there, but maybe it’s always exciting to be an undergraduate. Beneath the heavy, humid stillness of Middle Georgia, the college was in upheaval, and discussion cropped up all over campus over what, exactly, it meant for the institution to be Southern Baptist, to be situated in that hazy, noble thing called the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I was a scrawny student watching from the sidelines, becoming increasingly vocal in our round table classes on Paradise Lost and Pascal and Jane Austen. But I was perhaps most captivated by the children’s literature class I took with a young and dynamic professor, Anya Silver.

Outside of the classroom, I was reading in the Macon cherry blossoms and thrift shopping with my roommates and pining for my high school sweetheart back home. And a future was taking shape in front of me as I wrote and re-wrote my honors thesis under Anya’s guidance: a life of books and academia, marriage and family.

At the time, Anya, then still Dr. Silver to me, lived a few blocks from campus with her young son and professor husband. They alternated teaching days and their lives fascinated me: I was being courted by the son of professors, and he was starting to head in that direction himself, even as I fell in love with scholarly research in chipping away at my thesis.

Anya and her husband Andy were some of the first adults I could see myself wanting to be. They weren’t the only married couple in my department– he-Stege and she-Stege were still the reigning monarchs in my first couple years at Mercer — but the Silvers were approachably young and had a child, a possibility that I was beginning to come awake to in my early twenties.

After college, Anya and I kept in touch as I applied first to English PhD programs and then, after Uganda, shifted my gaze toward library school. She cheered me on as my dreams changed, never making me feel like she considered them a devolution. We passed book recommendations back and forth; she admired photos of my children; I went back and re-read her poetry. She had this kind of warm, involved presence in the lives of many of her former students.

One afternoon last week, a college roommate thoughtfully texted me the news of Anya’s passing. I drove back to my friend Trish’s house with my van a turmoil of noisy kids and my mind a turmoil of scattered sadnesses and fragmented prayers. Anya had never not been touched by cancer in the years I’d known her, and had somehow grown invulnerable in my mind. She could stare down prognoses with unflinching poetry, crack jokes about harrowing treatments. In facing death, she became all the more alive to wonder.

My friend Trish, at whose home we were staying, has been for years another mentor of sorts. In age I fall almost perfectly between her and her oldest daughter, and she’s been someone I can look to for one model of the life I’ve come to seek: a life still crammed with books and marriage, family and faith, even if it crowds out, at least for now, a formal career. I was struck by the depth of impact these two women (and so many others) have had in my life, offering themselves transparently to younger women seeking guidance. These are women ahead of me in raising their children, in running a household, in crafting their writing. Their generosity and humility in laying bare their lives, their choices, so that I may choose alike or find my own way–this is surely gift.

As my time as an undergrad recedes further and further into the past, as my reading of Charlotte’s Web in an old chapel classroom plagued by wasps is superseded by subsequent readings with my own children in the bright sunlight that filters in from the back deck, I hope I can find the strength and patience and humility to hold up my own life so that others can see it and consider. Maybe that has always been a part of this blog: here, then, is what I have learned, and how I have lived. Learn from it as you will.

I’ll close with one of Anya’s poems:

Late Summer

August evening, church bells,

light shattered on the quick

creek as in a Seurat painting,

grass thick with Queen Anne’s lace,

the summer sun still so late

in setting that bedtime comes late

for the children scattered in a garden

to catch the slugs eating their plants.

Late summer, and the roses in second

bloom know what’s coming.

But for now, bells, water, laughter,

my mother and I walking together

arm in arm, because happiness

is a decision each of us has made,

without even discussing it.


5 thoughts on “On Mentors

  1. Once again you have the best way of describing life and things that I haven’t thought of putting into words! It is the humility of my mentors and other(usually older) moms laying open their life to me to take what inspires me and leave what doesn’t fit. You do that for me as well and I hope to do that for others!

    May the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.


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