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.