Two sides of a coin: the duality of mentorship


By Jessica Zhu

Graphic by Aleeza Amitan

I’m scared of asking for help. Not because I am afraid of admitting struggle, but because I am afraid of potential mentors.

I dislike that fact.

I was five years old at a dance class where this teenage girl worked as a teacher’s assistant. We would call her “Jie-jie,” meaning “big sister” in Chinese. Each little girl took turns getting called from the larger studio to the dressing room, where we would try on costumes and practice performing in front of Jie-jie.

Like everyone else, I was excited to go; who wouldn’t want to dress up and have private sessions? The teachers had always talked about working hard to become just as great as they were. I wanted to be like Jie-jie.

But upon my first session, Jie-jie swatted my hand away everytime I tried to dress myself. She over-tightened my dress and immediately put the music on, watching expectantly. I was thrown in too quickly and couldn’t remember the moves, so I could only stumble around, my nose stinging from oncoming tears.

Her scolding rang in my ears. “Everyone else remembered the dance, why couldn’t you?” Jie-jie said. “Your mom paid a lot for these classes, shouldn’t you practice more to make her proud?”

I burst into tears. A lump swelled in my throat and the thumping in my chest pounded — I couldn’t explain that I did indeed know the dance by heart, that my mistakes were only because the dress was too tight and the music was so sudden. 

All I felt was terror. It was scary, painful even, to have looked up to someone with admiration and been pierced with a scornful gaze in return.

The fear that sparked in me then. It’s intrinsic now. 

Now, I am reluctant to share my work. In the rare moments I do, the sight of a small, circular profile picture on the corner of my Google document makes me jump out of my skin.

They’re judging, I always think, and I would feel ashamed that they had to view the train wreck I’d created. I would feel guilty that I was wasting their time. 

It’s a butterfly effect. Jie-jie had once shown me how power could be an empty silhouette. She had made me afraid of my own shortcomings and the god-like figures who wielded the right of judgment.

But while some mentors possess hurtfully deep cracks in their “leadership,” I can’t forget about the existence of those who are indeed golden.

I had a teacher in middle school who showed me that these superb mentors do exist. Grades were the indicator of my worth for too long — every time a teacher marked my paper harshly, I would melt into a puddle of anxiety, somehow making my work worse. 

I did not have anyone to guide me out of the seemingly bottomless seas I incessantly found myself in.

This particular teacher, however, was one I felt I could always talk to, even if the gradebook was not something we agreed upon. 

They were always cheerful and knew exactly what to say. I was happy each day of the rotating middle school schedule when I was in their extension block. They were the only teacher I trusted.

One day, fate decided to be funny, and I burst into the room declaring, “I’m actually so irked by my history teacher!” An awkward two seconds of staring followed before my go-to extension teacher said, “Jessica … I am your history teacher.”

You could have heard a pin drop, but this time, the silence was not filled with the anger and fear of the dance studio’s dressing room. My teacher broke out in laughter before welcoming me over to discuss my grades and changes that could be made to their methods of giving feedback. It felt so validating. Here was a mentor who considered the feelings of their mentees, and did whatever they could to make them feel comfortable.

I await the day I can trust another mentor like that again. The way that teacher could turn any negative situation into a positive one is a trait I seek in the people I look up to.

Mentors are like two sides of the same coin: when you flip, you have no way of knowing what you’ll get. But what you can’t forget is that both sides are different, heads and tails, black and white. Not everyone with power over you will use it to help, but there will always be those who will respect and guide you in the right direction.

I am still scared of asking for help at times. But at least today, I am empowered by my understanding that the cruelty or judgment I face from those in power are reflections of their leadership skills, not my value.

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