Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What is a Mentor, and Where Can I Find One?

I used to think that the word "mentor" was derived from mens, the Latin word for "mind," or men, the Indo-European root for "thinking," and the suffix -or, meaning "one who does or creates" the thing described by the root of the word. Thus a mentor would be one who uses the mind or forms a person's thinking.

But of course the word mentor doesn't come from such a derivation at all. Mentor was the guardian of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and in The Odyssey the goddess of wisdom assumed Mentor's form to aid Telemachus, one of her favorites among mortals (as well as to escape notice by Penelope's suitors).

Homer's Mentor is a mere minor character, however, without all the attributes of the "experienced and trusted advisor" the Oxford English Dictionary leads us to believe such a figure should have. Where do we get the archetype of a wise teacher who cares about, nurtures, and encourages the learner - who builds up the learner's intellect rather than doing the opposite, sucking out the student's soul, as J.K. Rowling's DE-mentors do?

For that sort of character we have François Fénelon to thank, whose enormously popular book Les Aventures de Télémaque, published in 1699, was "a continuation of The Odyssey from an educational vista," according to author Andy Roberts. It brought Mentor to the forefront as a major character with tremendous influence over the story's hero. "It is Fénelon," Roberts continues, "not Homer, who endows his Mentor with the qualities, abilities, and attributes that have come to be incorporated into the action of modern day mentoring." The word mentor came into modern usage in English in 1750.

I am rambling on about these literary and historic niceties because I enjoy them. But I am also having a hard time writing about an actual mentor. From what I can gather from my own experience and from other people, finding a mentor in medicine usually happens by a great stroke of luck; it's not automatic. You'd think that in a profession supposedly built on compassion and learning, mentors would abound. The word doctor, in fact, means teacher in Latin. But it's not that easy to find good mentors. It may be harder still for those who long for a mentor who is a woman.

There were many teachers, of course, who gave me terrific lessons I carry with me to this day; but a mentor is more than a good teacher or role model. A mentor is someone with whom you have a relationship - someone who truly cares about your formation and expends energy, real work, to help you through it, and wants to do so. A mentor believes in you and communicates that faith; a mentor listens, and can be trusted with your struggles and your successes; a mentor teaches and guides without resorting to a power differential to exert influence; a mentor has a personal stake in the education of the whole learner - intellectual, moral, physical, spiritual - and, therefore, cares deeply about the learner's character and responses to the world as well as his or her knowledge.

I do have a couple of people who always come to mind whenever I hear the word mentor: my med school anatomy professor, Dr. Matthew Pravetz, who also baptized my youngest child; and from my days in pediatrics, Dr. Indira Dasgupta, a woman whose dignity, intelligence, compassion, and humor I hold in my heart to this day. There have been few people in my career who have helped me believe - as they did and as every mentor should help his or her "telemachus" believe - "You can do this. You are good. Your work will make a difference. I'll be there for you if you need me." Even the most independent-minded and confident person needs guidance at one point or another, or loses faith, or needs help. Mentors ultimately stoke the fire and help keep the faith. Happy are those who are blessed with some good ones

1 comment:

  1. This is beautifully written, a lush piece of writing. As usual, T!


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