Mentor for Life

It wasn’t very long ago that the word “mentor” became a verb. Well, maybe it was always a verb, but I had only heard it as a noun taken from Mentor, the friend Odysseus left in charge of his son’s education while Odysseus was out there becoming the legend of millennia. Mrs. Zinn (my AP English teacher) explained all of that. It was cool to me in high school that Mentor’s name had come to mean a great teacher, a model for young people. Mrs. Zinn herself actually qualified, that pocket-dynamo with a classical education.

When I was teaching, it got to be a “thing” to “mentor” new teachers. I was (obviously) never called upon to do this because I never had tenure and was, therefore, always a “new” teacher, but my colleagues were always talking about their “mentee” with great importance and fussing around.

I’ve had some mentors in my life. First my dad who taught me not to let anyone do my thinking for me. Then, various teachers — Mrs. Zinn, as I’ve mentioned, then Mr. Preston at Colorado Woman’s College who furthered my dad’s tutelage at a moment when I really needed it, and who was there to help me grow through the moment of my dad’s death. In grad school, I was extremely lucky in my thesis adviser, Dr. Robert D. Richardson who saw me for the person I am. A true mentor is, I think, that kind of teacher.

As time passed, and I became more complete (i.e. older) I still needed a mentor. I found Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. If you were to visit my house, you’d see bits of Goethe everywhere. For me, he’s not “the Shakespeare of Germany” (I don’t think he’d like that, I don’t think he’d feel worthy). He’s a friend somewhat further down the road (a lot further, in fact).

I “met” him when I checked Italian Journey out of the library of one of the colleges where I was teaching. What a surprise that book was to me! Here was a man after my own heart. I read everything I could find translated into English.

One of the amazing things I discovered was his correspondence with Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was someone I met in a Victorian lit class in undergraduate school. I kind of liked him, but at the time I was preoccupied with other things — the usual post-adolescent depressionism stuff, my dad’s illness, my mom’s manic rages and her despair, my brother’s disintegration. And school. Later I learned that my grandfather’s mentor had been Thomas Carlyle. One of my cousins showed me a well thumbed volume with brown pages that had been my grandfather’s constant companion. And here were these two men writing each other. Goethe was Carlyle’s mentor! Their letters are wonderful, human, homely, friendly. Carlyle is largely responsible for Goethe being known in Britain — he translated some of Goethe’s poetry and Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering Year.

Learning that, I felt a connection to a grandfather I never knew.

Carlyle has written of Goethe in the introduction to his translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre:

“…Goethe’s culture as a writer is perhaps less remarkable than his culture as a man. He has learned not in head only, but also in heart; not from Art and Literature, but also by action and passion in the rugged school of experience. If asked what was the grand characteristic of his writings, we should not say Knowledge but Wisdom. A mind that has seen, and suffered, and done, speaks to us of what it has tried and conquered. A gay delineation will give us notice of dark and toilsome experiences, of business done in the great deep of the spirit; a maxim, trivial to the careless eye, will rise with light and solution over long, perplexed periods of our own history. It is thus that heart speaks to heart…”

That’s the essence of it.



1932 Menu from a German Luxury Liner — the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s death.

17 thoughts on “Mentor for Life

  1. I think you inspire me to read Goethe, in German of course. I tried Faust once, but not eactly “spannend”. Mr. Swiss said he is not supposed to be “spannend”, so I think I missed the point somewhere.

    • Faust is pretty difficult because it’s so far from where we live today. I think reading Goethe’s poems is the best entry.

      And der See (about the Zürichsee)

      Und frische Nahrung, neues Blut
      Saug’ ich aus freier Welt;
      Wie ist Natur so hold und gut,
      Die mich am Busen hält!
      Die Welle wieget unsern Kahn
      Im Rudertakt hinauf,
      Und Berge, wolkig himmelan,
      Begegnen unserm Lauf.

      Aug’, mein Aug’, was sinkst du nieder?
      Goldne Träume, [kommt]1 ihr wieder?
      Weg, du Traum! so Gold du bist;
      Hier auch Lieb’ und Leben ist.

      Auf der Welle blinken
      Tausend schwebende Sterne,
      Weiche Nebel trinken
      Rings die thürmende Ferne;
      Morgenwind umflügelt
      Die beschattete Bucht,
      Und im See bespiegelt
      Sich die reifende Frucht.

  2. I have been mentored. I’ve probably been one, though I never thought of it that way. I’ve helped people, but I’ve never had an power to help someone “move on” professionally — so is that mentoring? I’m really not sure. But I’ve definitely HAD help from others. That definitely counts.

  3. Mentoring is a lot of work, as you have to be in tune to people’s needs, even the unrevealed ones. But, as a professor, I saw myself as a mentor to those students who came to office hours to just talk and discuss the course. I found that I would give them advice that I hoped made their way clearer than mine. I was an older student as a doctoral student, early fifties, and it was as though professors younger than me thought I did not need a mentor, but I did.

      • I agree. The students who still call you really make you feel you made a difference. I have been invited to a wedding of a student later this year, and I am so honored. You know what’s funny, it is often the least expected of stduents who do not forget you or your lessons. No, yes, it is so wonderful.

      • Yeah — one of the biggest jerks in my classroom years ago grew up to become a teacher. It was a radical chang from his early start as an ambitious know-it-all business student. He says he owes it to me. If I did anything, I just stood my ground when he insulted me and then I laughed and said, “Wait and see, kid,” and I went to help another student. That shocked him. You just never know.

  4. How touching, Martha. Whether you intended to or not, you touched lives. Lives of people who didn’t know they were searching, but found answers in you. Always that much more touching because it is unexpected and not something you were actively trying to do.

  5. Many years ago, we had more seasoned employees mentor newer employees in the ways of the company culture. We had all heard of the word mentor but never mentee. It kind of warmed my heart when one of our executive board members said, “Is mentee a word?” That program fell apart rather quickly.

  6. Mentoring as truly seeing someone–I agree with that. Encouraging someone to bring themselves fully to what they do.
    I’ve had a few along the way in school. I also realize that I’ve often used books/memoirs as mentors of a sort. Not modeling myself on someone else, but taking inspiration and courage from another’s journey.

    • Yep. 🙂 For me Goethe was discovering someone who had been there before me, had struggled with what I was struggling with and offered me a solution. But ultimately he is more than that as time has shown.

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