Becoming Athena

Posted on August 30, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


Megan sat on the steps, fidgety and red with frustration.  She blinked back tears, too proud or stubborn to cry in public.

“There’s got to be someone,” her teammates moaned.  “Just pick a name already.”  They, too, were frustrated. We’d been waiting 10 minutes after everyone else finished for Megan to come up with a name. Just one. Single. Name.

The goal of this Girls on the Run exercise was to identify the characteristics of a good role model.  The girls were to come up with the names of women who had an impact on them.  Megan couldn’t think of anyone.

Her mother?  No.

Sister?  Didn’t have one.

Cousin, aunt, family friend? Nope.

Surely there was a teacher or coach who had one good quality Megan wanted to emulate?  Nada.

Lucy Stone, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart…anyone public, famous, renowned?  There was none.

Megan wasn’t the only one fighting tears.  The other coach and I clenched our teeth against them too.  How could a girl reach adolescence and have not one woman to look up to?  We didn’t know how to feel.  Frustrated and outraged for starters, but by the end of the day just plain sad.

The assistant coach—my sister—and I talked about this for weeks.  We dissected our childhood to come up with the names of women who had an impact on us.  We couldn’t think of many.  Our mom, an extraordinary woman, topped the list, but there weren’t too many others.  The fewer names we came up with, the more we felt the gravity of our role with this team of young girls. Whether we knew it or not, and whether we liked it or not, we were there to be role models.  Our behavior and our words mattered in ways we would probably never know.  They were watching (whether they knew it or not) to see how two ordinary women handled life.

Once I realized this, I wanted to vomit.  If they only knew how many mistakes I had made, how often I still screwed up, they’d laugh me off the playground.  But when my stomach stopped churning I recognized that this was part of what drew me to Girls on the Run to begin with.  If I had only had someone to show me how to be, how to think for myself, how to choose, perhaps my life would have taken a different turn here and there.  What I was looking for as a child was a mentor.  I simply didn’t know it at the time.

Where did it come from, the idea of the mentor?  Not from the world of business or education, but from a poem.  Remember the story of Odysseus from Homer’s The Odyssey? Odysseus went off to fight a war, leaving behind his wife and son, and after years away wanted only to get back home.  It took him nearly a lifetime to reach his destination.  Along the way, he encountered peril after peril and was often unsure how to proceed.  He needed advice and was fortunate to have someone watching over him, to help him through the rough spots:  Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy.

When Athena appears not only to Odysseus but also to his son, Telemachus, she does not come as herself.  Rather, she takes on the guise of someone else:  Mentor, Odysseus’s old and trusted friend.  Her role is to whisper words of wisdom into Odysseus’s ear to guide him home.  It is also to help Telemachus not simply adjust to his life circumstances, but to evolve.  It is Athena’s guidance—the counsel of the goddess within the (hu)man—that sparks the courage already kindling within both men.

This is the role of the mentor:  to set someone on the path of success, of living well. Mentoring requires we give all of our wisdom, our wits, and our hearts.  It requires the mentor to reach deep inside to call on reserves she might not know she has.

I still run into Megan from time to time.  She shouts me down, waves, smiles broadly, and calls me by the nickname she gave me:  Miss What’s-Yer-Name.  She never could pronounce my last name, refused to call me by my first.  I don’t mind.  I’m just glad she remembers me.


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2 Responses to “Becoming Athena”

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Minka, I see a book about your GOTR experiences! The posts about them are so moving and inspiring!


Thanks–I’m actually working on one. 🙂


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