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Put up your Dukes: A story about mentors and inspiring others

I am a damn good writer. You may not think so, but I do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I am the best writer, just a damn good one. Now, before you get all well-isn’t-he-arrogant on me, suspend your judgment and hear me out. My story is about self-perception, not actual reality.

The fact that I think I am a good writer doesn’t mean that I am, in fact, a good writer. Thinking and being are two different things. But when it comes to writing, believing in one’s own talent is better than not doing so. Thinking I am a damn good writer gives me a confident “voice.” And in ninth grade, I learned that having a confident voice is central to being a damn good writer.

I didn’t always think this way

Your judgment about my arrogance might be softened a little if you knew my starting point. When I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Dietz, told me that I was “the dumbest kid” in her class. I kid you not, she really used the word “dumb.”

I actually got her point. She was trying to inspire me by confronting me with the huge gap between my potential and my actual performance. She certainly had no evidence that I was smart. I daydreamed all the time, I turned in my homework late or not at all, my handwriting was atrocious, and I was a poor speller. In the words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

My performance as a student was lackluster, for sure — just as lackluster as Mrs. Dietz’s ability to inspire students.

Enter “The Duke”

In ninth grade, I signed up for a creative-writing class. My teacher was Duke Schirmer. While I might be a damn good writer, using ordinary words to capture this extraordinary human being is a real struggle. In all my years, I have never met another person like him. He is the only teacher I ever had who regularly dressed in an undershirt. Just as regularly as he chain smoked — in the classroom!

The best words to describe Duke are “indignantly encouraging.” He refused to give up on us, and he would use any means necessary to help us embrace the potential that teachers like Mrs. Dietz used as an instrument of guilt. No matter how poorly written our stories were, no matter how bad the grammar was, they were our stories. When we would read our stories to Duke, he would be transfixed, like he was beholding a sacred scripture for the very first time. He would sometimes have to pause you in midsentence so he could stop crying. Duke loved our writing to the point that we started loving it ourselves.

Outing the inner voice

Duke helped me find my voice as a writer. More importantly, he helped me believe in my voice as a writer. This is the essence of leadership: believing in another person until they believe in themselves. Duke Schirmer was more than just a fantastic creative writing teacher, he was a leader. He didn’t point at my unused potential and shame me with it. Instead, Duke showed me my inner sacredness, and how important it is to honor it by letting it emerge. He took me waterskiing across the lake of my creativity, and showed me what a blast it is to create.

Everyone needs a Duke

Who is your Duke? Who is the person that you credit with helping you live into your potential? Who believed in you long enough for you to believe in yourself? More importantly, who are you now because of the goodness that person showed you way-back-then? I’m sure you’ve been the beneficiary of many good role models. You’ve probably had many Duke Schirmers in your life. Let the world know! Put up your Dukes!

It’s been over 35 years since I was a student in Duke Schirmer’s creative writing class. Since then, this dumb kid from Larchmont, N.Y., has written three books. My latest, “Leaders Open Doors,” is about how mentor leaders make a positive difference in people’s lives by giving them opportunities to grow and develop. Duke’s story isn’t in the book, but he’s what the book is all about.

Today I think of myself as a damn good writer. Duke Schirmer told me so. And that’s good enough for me.

Bill Treasurer is the founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. Treasurer is the author of “Leaders Open Doors,” which recently became the No. 1 training book on Amazon.com. He is also the author of the internationally best-selling book, “Courage Goes to Work,” of “Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace,” and of “Right Risk,” which draws on his experiences as a professional high diver. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. To learn more, contact info@giantleapconsulting.com.