I was given a copy of David Aubrey Berger‘s The Power Of The Circle for Christmas; I’ve read it before, but didn’t have a copy of my own. It’s a brilliant book (I’ve gone on and on about it many times before), but one point has really struck me with this reading: teachers and mentors.
I was trying to explain, the other day, the difference between “teacher” and “mentor” to one of my students. It was amazingly difficult (the Chinese language, by the way, does not differentiate between the two; is this limiting or logical?). What is rattling around in my brain is this: I’ve had many teachers, good and bad and in-between, all of whom have contributed to my life significantly. I wouldn’t be who I am without any of those teachers.
Mentors are a different thing; I’ve had only one who fits the traditional definition.
dictionary.com defines “mentor” as, “1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher”. Actually, when I think about it, very few people would have thought him “wise”, but I did. “Trusted”, “counselor”, “teacher” – he was certainly all of these. Apparently, he saw something in me I couldn’t see, and wouldn’t see for some years. After he had a breakdown (several -nervous, marital, vocational, etc.), and he left his position as a high school art teacher to move to British Columbia to flounder for several years, he continued to kick-start me by means of letters. Sometimes I would be the recipient of a polite little note in which he wondered how I had been, and sometimes I would be the victim of 18 pages of violent literary instructions. In either case, I would suddenly be inspired to write.
My mentor died several years ago, but he still drops into my dreams occasionally, or leaves my journal and a pen on the table just when I need to write. I don’t know that I can hold him responsible for arranging for Simon and Garfunkel songs to be played on the radio, but I do suspect he’s behind this, too.
Why was he better than a teacher? What’s the difference between what a teacher can achieve and what a mentor can achieve? I think, because one has to “click” with a person before they can be a mentor, mentors are friends. This gives them more leeway, more chances to make mistakes and be forgiven for those mistakes. My mentor often pushed to the point where I was angry with him, but he knew what I needed: how my writing should change to give me pleasure from it; when I was tackling something from entirely the wrong direction; when I was swallowed whole by reality (especially when my children were very young) and I required the fantasy.
There were several teachers who actively encouraged my writing. Some of them were even helpful. But no one made my writing breathe and grow like my mentor did.
I am a teacher. There are many teachers in the world. There aren’t too many mentors. I think I’d like to be a mentor, and I look forward to the day when I can kick-start some person who doesn’t realise exactly what they’re leaving to die.
I’d also like to think I would have another mentor. Perhaps that’s a little greedy… I’d better hope for many more teachers. I don’t see that as settling, in any way.