The Greek poet Homer gave us the mythological character of Mentor, who was the teacher and adviser to Odysseus' son Telemachus. Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus, was entrusted with the care of his son while Odysseus was away. Of course, Odysseus did not expect to be away for 20 years, 10 of which were spent fighting the Trojan War, as recounted in "The Iliad," and 10 more spent, as told in "The Odyssey," wandering the earth and trying in vain to get back home. Telemachus grew up in the care of Mentor and from his name come the noun and the verb we associate with a wise and indispensable tutor.
We parents, who try and usually fail to be everything our children need, are especially grateful for our children's mentors. As our children grow up, they discover gifts and talents that are beyond our expertise or sometimes even our understanding. As we gradually let go of them, of their daily care and feeding and guiding, we have to trust that the right mentors will come into their lives just when they need them. My youngest daughter, who will graduate with a bachelor's degree in June, is currently being mentored through the maze of applying for graduate programs in the field of managing university rec centers. It's not an area in which I would be of much help to her. My daughter and I recently spent a happy day together shopping for interview ensembles at an outlet mall, but unlike the choice of a blouse or pencil skirt, I can hardly advise her on choosing the right fit in a master's degree program. I have never met my daughter's mentor, but I am so thankful for the way she has taken my daughter under her capable and experienced wing, and is helping her navigate and negotiate this next step. I know that as my daughter plans for her future, she is in excellent hands. I have learned that when a mentor arrives and falls into step along our child's path, we parents are wise to move aside gracefully.
To be a mentor connotes a more personal connection than a role model. Mentors sometimes come from within the extended family, as in the case of a young person apprenticing in a family business. More often, however, they emerge from a relationship between a teacher and a student, or an expert and a novice, in which something intangible, an affection and a trust, clicks between the two individuals. We can mentor or be mentored in all professions, vocations, and avocations. My dad, a businessman, always relished mentoring the young men he called "go-getters." Over the years, I have seen my husband mentor young teachers, after having himself been mentored by master teachers when he was a rookie in the classroom. I have seen my daughters mentored in their various endeavors by people who recognized something special in them. And as a parent, of course, it is always gratifying when others acknowledge the indisputably fabulous qualities you see in your children.
About 10 years ago, I ran a local nonfiction writers group that met at a bookstore in the community. I found I was almost maternally delighted when one of the writers in my group, mostly beginners although not young, actually had a piece of writing published. One member of our group, an expert on growing and cooking with herbs, landed a recurring column in the local newspaper. I felt as proud of her as if her accomplishment had been my own.
Mentors are not always older than their mentee. I am thinking in particular of my college friend Roy, who was an English major when I was not, and who supported me in my early attempts to write for publication. "I should have majored in English," I said to him once, to which he replied, "Be glad: you have less crap to get rid of in your writing." Roy encouraged me and critiqued my work in the days before the Internet, when we exchanged fat envelopes of rough drafts through the U.S. mail. He wrote hardboiled detective stories, and I wrote essays about motherhood. He used to worry that his work would shock me, and I was sure that my work bored him. Our contact, ironically, grew more sporadic in the age of instant, easy contact. I am thinking about Roy and our long-ago, long-distance writers group of two, because I recently heard the sad news from his wife that Roy had taken his own life. I miss him and will always think of him with deep gratitude and affection as one of the formative mentors in my life.
As the ancient Greeks knew, mentoring is a rewarding human relationship, one that carries us forward to be our best selves. Whether we are on the giving or taking side of the equation, mentoring changes us, enriches us, and civilizes us, as we each wrestle with our life's odyssey.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.