The Origin of “Mentor”: Special Meaning for the Children of Prisoners
It’s not a melodic sound, whether you pronounce it men-tore or something like “menner”. But there is beauty in the story of the term that we use to describe an older, wiser individual who provides consistent, unselfish guidance and support to another. Perhaps you’ve heard or read – even in one of our own agency’s publications written by yours truly – that the word comes from The Odyssey. Homer described Odysseus asking his aged friend Mentor to take care of his property and his son Telemachus during his long quest and absence. Hold on – a presenter here at the Summer Institute informed us all that a second look at Homer suggests a much different narrative.
As it turns out, Mentor was a mediocre caretaker at best. It was Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who transformed herself and took on the appearance of Mentor in order to supply the guidance that young Telemachus needed. Susan Ford Wiltshire, in Athena’s Disguises (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), chronicles Athena’s contributions in one key episode:
The first is that Mentor is standing by, already on the lookout for the young man’s needs. The second is that she offers encouragement, but quickly turns to practical plans for dealing with the dilemma. Finally, when Telemachus asks what he should say when facing King Nestor, Mentor does not hand him a script. She responds simply that the young man’s own intelligence and insight will provide what he needs to make it through the ordeal. (p. 20)
With little effort, we can translate these details from an ancient tale into parallel actions by any youth mentor. Good mentors are standing by, consistent in their visits, vigilant about changes in the mentee’s demeanor or environmental landscape, listening carefully for needs that might be subtly expressed.
Good mentors offer encouragement but supply critical knowledge about the ways of the world that their mentees may lack. They ground the child’s emotions and help her organize a plan.
Finally, good mentors refrain from over-directing or even over–suggesting. They express confidence in what a child has learned and in the inner resilience he holds. They continue as the sounding board.
So why does Telemachus need all this mentoring anyway? After all, he’s the grandson of Laertes, the King of the Cephallenians, for heaven’s sake! He needs the attention and empathy of a caring adult because he is a youth in a distressed holding pattern, waiting for a beloved parent who will be gone for an indeterminate amount of time, left behind with a parent who was distracted and overtaxed by the stresses of managing her own life and their besieged home.
This scenario may seem familiar, perhaps because it’s an apt description of the day-to-day existence of many children of incarcerated parents. No fewer than 99% of the Seedling mentees are living in households burdened by poverty and all its accompanying stresses. Children believe that if the imprisoned parent would just come home “fixed”, that everything would be all right. We often say they are doing time while their parents do time.
Athena was not asked by this absent parent to watch over Telemachus. She does not seek to become a substitute parent. In fact, her mentoring occurs in the context of Telemachus embarking on his own quest to find his father. The echo of this detail is the mentor’s background music: honoring the relationship between the child and the incarcerated loved one. Now that’s melodic.
-Falba Turner, Director of Mentor Programs – Seedling Foundation