A mentor by any other name

Who decides who’s a mentor?

Today in a Facebook writing group I saw someone talk about how the “mentors” have come to the group to teach and impart wisdom. Who are these mentors? By the statement to this group, the mentors are the ones who’ve decided to mentor others.

To me, there’s a distinction between a teacher and a mentor. A mentor is more than a teacher. A mentor is almost a friend. Mister Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a teacher; Mister Miyagi in The Karate Kid is a mentor.

Both teachers are strict. Both are teaching a lesson. The difference is that Mister Miyagi has earned the trust of his pupil, while Mister Hand has not. The pupil must be ready to be mentored, yes, and the pupil also must trust the teacher.

We’ve all had many teachers in our lives. How many of your teachers actually became your mentors? Probably not many. And if you think about all the mentors you did have in your life, were all of them teachers? A mentor might be anyone: an uncle; the lady who works in the convenience store who asks about your day; an older coworker.

Merriam-Webster defines mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.” Trust is the critical word here, would you agree?

Teachers teach. Mentors are trusted. It’s a difference in more than just emphasis. It’s a difference in subject and object. A teacher can look back at all the students she’s taught, but only the student can look back and identify who were her mentors.

A teacher decides to teach a student, but only the student can decide that she trusts her teacher implicitly, decide that her teacher is also her mentor. When that trust happens, then the relationship develops a deeper intimacy. And in some ways there’s nothing worse than someone trying to mentor you when he hasn’t earned your trust.

I wanted to share a video clip from the TV show Kung Fu where young Kwai Chang waits with a few other boys for several days, in hopes of being accepted into the Shaolin temple. Finally, the doors are opened and the few boys that had not given up are asked in to sit with the Master, and tea is served. The other boys immediately sip their tea. But Kwai Chang does not. The Master asks why did not drink his tea. Kwai Chang answers, “After you, sir.” The other boys are dismissed. Kwai Chang is accepted. Kwai Chang has decided ahead of time to trust the monks and submit to their teachings. The monks want only pupils who can and will be mentored.

That’s the hardest thing to do, trust in advance. For most of us, with most teachers, that trust is earned over time.

Anyway, because that video does not seem to be online, I share the opposite end of that part of Kwai Chang’s journey, when he is to leave the temple and bids farewell to Master Kan.

So much happened in between those two moments in Kwai Chang’s life at the temple. Not just teaching, but mentoring. It’s why that show is still a classic.

As writers, we hope to find mentors among our peers, among our editors, among the wise folk who generously share their wisdom online, in meetups, in workshops. Those who become our mentors are not merely those who teach us, or those teachers whom we respect. They are those who teach us and whom we respect…and whom we trust.

Who have been your mentors?

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