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February 4th, 2014

Dear Dr. King

A favorite memory of mine–among many with Dr. King–was his annual Christmas party, my sophomore year at Montreat. We were doing the normal things English majors do at any Christmas party: namely debating and discussing our favorite literature and playing “Guess the Famous Author” over a delicious spread of cheesecake, ice cream, and coffee. It was getting late, and Dr. Gray decided it was time for him to head home, which meant I needed to move my car so he could get out. Long story short, I ended up backing into the deep ditch that lines either side of the King’s driveway. As I sat there, nose deep in wet leaves, three thoughts ran simultaneously through my brain.

  1. Oh my word, I’ve had nightmares of this happening.
  2. Oh my word, I’m at Dr. King’s house.
  3. Oh my word, my dad’s going to kill me.

I think I can safely say that Dr. Gray and I, along with those who soon came pouring out of the house, all looked at the scene with equal disbelief and amusement. It took five burly men who just happened to be driving by after Holly Jolly and their huge diesel truck to get my car out. Dr. King was, of course, extremely gracious about it, though somehow pictures of it still ended up on Facebook the next day with the caption “What a way to end a great party!

When I look back on my four years here at Montreat, and memories like this one, I find the definition of a mentor:

A mentor is willing to take a chance on a student; they see a spark of something in a student, with their carefully-honed eye, and are willing to invest time and energy to see if that something will become a flame. A mentor challenges your preconceived notions of your academic limitations. They recognize your good work, but they also recognize that you can go farther and deeper – often before you even recognize it yourself.

A mentor freely gives of their knowledge. I have been to enough academic conferences in my life to know that this can be rare, though we are extremely blessed that it is the norm at Montreat College. I don’t know if I have ever seen someone so happy to share their expansive knowledge on a subject than when Dr. King was taking us around Oxford. He was truly in his element: glowing as he took us on the paths that Lewis took and showing us how all the dots—from Lewis’s books, to his professorship, to his personal life—connect together. When I submitted my paper to a scholarly journal, he freely gave from his experience as a journal editor himself, putting my work through the editorial wringer so that I would have the best chance possible. He never asked anything in return, humbly imparting wisdom to me, just as he has to the many, many students he has taught over the past 40 years.

A mentor goes beyond just the academic, though. A mentor doesn’t mind the baggage. Every student comes to college with their own issues, whether it be emotional, academic, relational, etc. These four years are pivotal, eye-opening, never constant in their highs or lows, and almost always messy. For a faculty member to invest themselves, not only in their student’s academic growth, but in their personal growth as well… that takes energy, patience, and love; most importantly, it shows the student that they’re cared for.

Finally, I would say that a mentor is a friend. This seems, to me, the most important definition of them all. I will graduate in May, and the academic side of the mentorship will end. But the friendship will not. I end with a simple thank you to Dr. King. I know this is supposed to be more scholarly and I haven’t even cited one quote from C. S. Lewis, but sometimes words are best said, even if less eloquently, from the heart. So, Dr. King, thank you for being my mentor and my friend.