Mentor was the tutor of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. He easily could have been Michael or William, but he happened to be named Mentor.
Today, then, when we say that someone is “a mentor,” it is like saying they are “a mike” or “a bill.” Somewhere along the line, the name became a title, then a common noun, then a verb. Maybe it’s because Mentor sounds so much like “editor” or “creditor” that we’ve bestowed new parts of speech on it.
Considering that, what should we do with the word “mentee?” Almost everyone recognizes what it means: the person who is receiving the mentoring. But is it a word? Does it have meaning just because people think it does?
The answer is no. And yes.
Mentee does not appear in my dictionary. And yet, a quick Google search will yield about half a million results. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the word has been in use for only about 50 years.
If Mentor were in fact a real person, he would have been alive somewhere around 1,000 B.C. His name has been known to Western Civilization, then, for more than 3,000 years. That means that “mentee” has been a word for one-sixtieth of the time that “mentor” has. A lot has changed since 1,000 B.C.
About two years ago, I wrote a piece wondering at the woeful state of mentoring in this time, this place. What I had hoped to find when I entered the world of work, in the way of a mentor to guide me, has never materialized. It has left me disappointed and disoriented, searching for what seems to be missing.
Over time, along with the word, the idea of a mentor—the person of greater experience who takes you under their wing and fosters the knowledge and skills for you to succeed—has become contorted, it’s true meaning lost as it has become institutionalized, incorporated, and marketed. (Alarmingly, “toxic mentor” is a term in circulation these days.)
What we’re really talking about, after all, is the act of having a more experienced, more mature person (or people) provide support, knowledge, and perhaps even love to the novice learner. While these people don’t have to be that far apart in age, it’s usually the case that the mentor is older.
This inter-generational relationship is how societies have been run since the dawn of humankind. Only in recent centuries have we destroyed the model, making it unrecognizable and ineffective. This loss can be correlated to many of the social problems we have today. It’s time that we revived the practice. Surely we have nothing to lose.
It’s hard to “give back” when you feel you’ve never gotten—I understand that. And what has taken hundreds of years to develop won’t be changed overnight. But like anyone who has had to turn their life around, there’s always the first step of recognizing the problem.
Poor Mentor. I think he’d be shocked to see what’s been done in his name. Maybe it’s not too late to change that.