The Opportunity to Create Themselves

Three stories about mentor-mentee interactions.

1. When my two older daughters were in high school, I would take them to a few YU basketball games each year. It was a good parent-child bonding experience and just over the bridge, and enabled me to relive some of my student days at MTA and YU as an avid basketball fan.

I also knew YU’s coach, Johnny Halpert, who was two years ahead of me in school and one of the stars of the teams of my youth. I especially enjoyed watching how he, YU’s coach for 42 years, handled his players. So we would often sit just a few rows behind the YU bench during games.

I particularly remember one very close game. In the last minute, a YU player, surrounded by four players on the other team, grabbed a defensive rebound. As he attempted an outlet pass, a defender slapped the ball away. That team then called a time out, and the YU player, with a hangdog look on his face, slowly walked off the court. As he reached the bench, Johnny patted him approvingly and said quietly “great rebound.” No snark or sarcasm and certainly no criticism for the lost ball; just a sincere recognition of the player’s achievement. (P.S. YU won the game.)

2. In 1986, Stephen Sondheim gave a master class at the Guildhall School of Music. One of the available YouTube clips shows him working with a soprano singing his masterpiece, “Send in the Clowns.” Sondheim carefully explains how the very last line, “Well, maybe next year,” should be sung, noting that “well” should be separated from the rest of the line and clarifying that in the next phrase the emphasis should be on “next” and not “year.” And then, one of Broadway’s greatest composer/lyricists adds sweetly and self-deprecatingly, “this is a place where the lyric and the music aren’t as apposite as they might be. That’s my fault, but you as the singer have to overcome it.” And overcome she does, as she sings it even more beautifully than before.

3. In the worst case I ever worked on, the major problem was not the other party (though he was quite terrible), but my adversary. I can sum him up using the words Mary McCarthy used about Lillian Hellman: “Everything [is dishonest about him]. Every word he writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

When it came time to take that party’s deposition, the partner in charge of the case, Judith Kaye, later chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, asked me to handle it. Which I did, over four horrific days. Not only was I personally insulted several times daily, but our adversary completely obstructed the deposition by objecting to more than 150 questions while directing his witness not to answer a single one.

We had expected something like this and therefore had ordered daily transcripts. At the end of the four days we quickly made a letter motion, enclosing the entire transcript and seeking an order directing the witness to answer the objected-to questions and sanctioning the lawyer.

At the hearing the following week, Judy, arguing first, spent no more than three minutes explaining briefly how the objections and direction were in error, with no mention of the invective hurled against me. Since I knew what to expect from our adversary’s response — another strident personal attack — I whispered to Judy as she sat down, “That’s it?” She squeezed my arm and softly responded, “Never say more than you have to. Don’t worry. It will be all right.”

What followed was a 30-minute harangue, exactly as I expected, much of it directed against me. As I shook in embarrassment and anger, Judy again squeezed my arm and whispered “Don’t worry. It will be all right.” And when our adversary finally sat down and the judge, U.S. District Judge Milton Pollack, known for his strict and fearsome oversight of attorneys in his courtroom, turned to Judy and asked, “Any rebuttal Mrs. Kaye?” she answered “I have nothing more.” My repeated, anguished “That’s it?” was again met by a third “Don’t worry. It will be all right.”

She was, as usual, dead-on. Judge Pollack immediately read a decision from the bench explaining he had reviewed the entire transcript the previous night and ruled on each objection. (He upheld four.) He excoriated our adversary for his violation of basic discovery rules and sanctioned him personally. And vindicating Judy’s confidence in me, he added: “I pass as ill-advised and unctuous remarks by plaintiff’s attorney directed at his adversary and the evident contempt in which he held a member of the bar who was doing the examination properly, cautiously, and intelligently.” (A copy of excerpts from that decision hung on my office wall from that time until my retirement.)

(Side note. I was also working with Judy on an appellate brief in an unrelated case. Two weeks after this hearing, that brief was ready to go to the printer, with only one item missing: the attorney’s name after “to be argued by.” I asked her whose name should be inserted. She smiled and said, “I guess I owe you for those four days.” I returned her smile. And that’s how I got my first appellate oral argument.)

Back to the stories. There is, in talmudic language, a tzad hashaveh — a common denominator — among the three. Each is a short master class in how those with outstanding talent and abilities act as mentors: with a gentle touch, a genuine fondness for their students, and a true concern for those students’ inner selves as well as their abilities.

I thought about these stories while reading too many articles about coaches who direct emotional abuse at those they are training. The result is untold damage to the psyches of their charges, championships and Olympic medals notwithstanding. These players deserve so much more; they merit being looked at not only as athletes competing for victories but also as young people with a desire to learn their sport and excel at it, while feeling good about themselves.

It’s not only athletic coaches, of course. While I loved “The Paper Chase” as a book, movie, and television series, academics employing Prof. Kingsfield’s imperious manner, as striking and enjoyable as it is in fiction, harm more students than they help. And as opposed to Judy’s warm mentoring style, which aided many young attorneys achieve successful law careers, the overly aggressive style used by some partners who berate, yell at, and insult those who work for them often results in early burnout.

But there’s good news too, as illustrated in Joanne Palmer’s wonderful article (I recognize that’s a tautology) in the Standard about the career of Rabbi Jonathan Knapp. What particularly struck me was the belief of Rabbi Knapp, Yavneh Academy’s principal, that “education and the school experience should be enjoyable,” and that hearing “happy kids in the hall is music to his ears.”

That’s not a Bob Knight grabbing a player by the throat, or an Olympic gymnast and swimming coaches fat-shaming athletes. Rather, it’s an educator who understands, like Johnny and Steve and Judy, that being a mentor means, in addition to conveying skills and knowledge, building people up rather than tearing them down, and making them feel good about what they are learning and doing. And this approach still achieves admirable results, as Yavneh’s well-known reputation for academic excellence demonstrates.

One of the things I liked best as a lawyer was working with younger colleagues, helping them learn to navigate their way, intellectually and practically, through an often difficult and complicated discipline and profession. It gave me the chance to be the opposite of a litigator; to be a teacher rather than an adversary, a friend rather than a foe, a supporter rather than an antagonist. I might not have had as soft a touch as Judy, and I certainly lacked her intellectual prowess and elegant writing style. But I tried hard to emulate her tone and spirit.

And so, after teaching younger attorneys what I could, I tried, at least metaphorically, to squeeze their arms and whisper to them “Don’t worry. It will be all right.”

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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