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It was early in the days of personal computers. Word processing and spreadsheets were common applications among early adopters. But computer-to-computer communication was in its infancy and no one had a web browser yet. Enterprising school administrators were getting their first computers, but computer labs in most schools were still a few years away.

In our diocese we were meeting with school principals to explain the concept of email and to help them get started installing computers and modems so they could communicate with one another and with folks in the diocese’s education office.

One day my phone rang and it was the principal of a K-8 parochial school. She wanted to know if her computer had a modem. Everything was dial-up at the time, so I asked her to look all around the computer’s chassis for a socket that looked like the one that her phone line connected to on the wall. She seemed very unsure of herself.

I tried another tack. “Where did you buy it from?” I asked, hoping to encourage her to contact the vendor for the information she needed. “Oh, we didn’t buy it,” she replied. “One of our families gave it to us. They got a newer one so they give us their old one.” I was delighted. No doubt such a generous family would be happy to help her connect all the dots – and anything else she needed to connect – to start using the computer as a communications tool.

“Are any of the kids enrolled in your school?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “They have a first grader here. It used to be his computer.” I couldn’t believe our luck. It was like we had died and gone to heaven. All she had to do was pull the first grader out of class for a few minutes and ask him a couple of questions. If the computer had been connected to a phone line, he would know it. He would also probably know where the connection was, and possibly know how to run its communications software.

“That’s great news,” I replied. “Why is that?” she asked. I was a bit surprised, but I tried to cover it and explain: “Well, if it was his computer, he probably knows all we need to know about it. All you have to do is bring him down to the office and start asking him questions.”

There was a moment of silence and then she said, in the most astonished tone, “But he’s a first grader!”

At first I didn’t see the problem. I had been learning about our computer at home from my kids for a couple of years. In fact, when we got new software, I would tell my son what we wanted it to do for us and then pay him to find out exactly how to do it.

A monsignor friend of mine with a techie’s heart had observed, “We only need to know about 10% of what the software can do; the problem is we don’t know which 10%.” He was right. So I paid my son to find out for me. He had fun, learned a lot – and it was an incredible bargain for me.

It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would be reluctant to learn from anyone who might have something to teach. Age didn’t matter to me. Neither did roles or titles. But what I was suggesting to this middle-aged principal was nothing short of heresy. After all, she was a knower and the first grader was a learner. To let a learner teach a knower broke all the rules. It was clear that wasn’t likely to happen in her school.

I lamely suggested that maybe one of the first grader’s parents could spare some time to visit and help her with her computer issue, and she liked that suggestion. I half hoped that if the parent was willing to help, he or she might end up asking to get their kid out of class for some assistance. That would be God’s own justice!

Recently, I was reminded of that phone call when I came across a story about how we usually think of mentors as people who are older than we are – but that doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes it is better to have a younger mentor.

The story focused on Paul Smurl, an attorney who held several managing positions for the New York Times for nearly 12 years before he became president and COO of an internet publishing company. Soon after he rose to the rank of COO, he went looking for a younger mentor.

Click here to learn why he did it – and three tips for making such a relationship work.

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