Wisdom//

What It’s Like to Lose Your Biggest Role Model

My school's headmistress was a support system and mentor for me as a girl.

Dongseon Kim/ Shutterstock
Dongseon Kim/ Shutterstock

My mentor was my headmistress when I was a school girl. From the moment I first met her at my school entrance interview, she made an impact. As a leader she was charismatic — a visionary. She had standards, but showed exceptional kindness and humanity. She was a genuine role model, intelligent, had high standards, but encouraged and supported girls and young women to achieve their potential.

She came into her own at a number of challenging times during my young life.

When choosing my A Levels (at 16), she encouraged me not to do a specific subject although I loved it. In hindsight, I realised that all of the students studying this subject did very poorly due to the quality of the teaching: She managed to steer me clear of a disappointment!

When applying for university, my form mistress didn’t want me to apply. She didn’t think I was bright enough. I managed to get hold of an application from another school. I completed it and then banged on her door (which was really scary!) and asked her to support my application. I knew when I saw the glint in her eyes that she was going to support me, and I had offers from all the (top) universities I applied to. She believed in me, and I went on to attend a top UK university with her support.

A year after graduating, I was involved in a very serious accident; I had to return to the UK after living abroad with life-changing injuries, no money, and no job. She was one of the first people to contact me to offer help. Not only did she write a testimonial that got me interviews, she continued to show she believed in me.

Later on, I retrained and sought some grants to support my post-graduate fees. I received very generous grants from an organisation that I only discovered was chaired by my headmistress after she died. She kept a close eye on my new career.

I have had more than my fair share of dramatic traumas, yet at key moments, she was there giving support and hope.

When she died, I wanted to remember her legacy as well as her life. Like many other women from my former school, I attended a memorial to celebrate her life. We shared stories and memories of her; whilst no one was able to stop crying during the service, they were crying tears of gratitude, love, and amazement at her memory.

It was only during the memorial service that the extent of her good work and support in the background — including financial support to her sister and her family — were revealed. She wanted to keep it secret, and lived a frugal life in order to do this. It has made me realise that supporting others and being kind and generous are powerful attributes.

She has also inspired me to consider how I can be a role model and support younger people. After all, we learn from each other. Certainly the most important thing I have shared is not to give up; seek support and ask when you need help. If you have a couple of good people around you, who believe in you, then you will achieve.

Susan Heaton-Wright is an impact, communications and speaking trainer and the creator of the Superstar Communicator™ model. 

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