In 1970, I had to make a choice. Do I want to launch my career as a rabbi on my own serving as a pulpit rabbi or do I want to be an assistant rabbi and learn from a skilled and wise mentor? I chose the latter, and, in retrospect, it was a good decision.
In making the decision, I recognized my limitations and thought I would be a better rabbi in the long run if I had someone from whom I could learn. In Akeelah and the Bee, eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson makes a decision to acquire a mentor as she prepares for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, and that makes all the difference in her performance on game day.
African-American Akeelah Anderson resides in South Los Angeles, a tough neighborhood with poor schools. She is bored with being in an unchallenging academic environment. However, in spite of her surroundings, she has developed a talent for spelling. Principal Welch notices this and encourages Akeelah to enter the school’s spelling bee, which is the first step towards qualifying for the National Spelling Bee competition.
Akeelah, feeling that participation in the academic competition will brand her as a nerd, is reluctant to participate. In the face of consistent encouragement by the administration of the school, however, she relents and competes in the school’s contest and easily wins. This is the first step on the road to the national competition.
Along the way, she becomes friends with Javier Mendez, a spelling bee competitor from another school district consisting mostly of white middle class and wealthy families. Unlike her preconceptions of such students from affluent homes, Javier is friendly, supportive, and always has a smile on his face. In her conversations with him, she begins to see the world differently, becomes willing to step outside of her comfort zone, and starts to enjoy the challenge of competing in the national contest.
At first, Akeelah thinks she can win purely on the strength of her ability to master rote spelling skills. But as she competes in local contests, she realizes she will need a coach who will teach her about word roots and how to figure out how to spell complex words with obscure language origins. Serendipitously, Dr. Joshua Larabee, former chair of the UCLA English Department, becomes her mentor and coach. He is a harsh taskmaster, but ultimately Akeelah recognizes the value of his advice and follows his recommendations.
What Akeelah does conceptually is follow the advice of The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, which states “make for yourself a teacher (1:6).” The Sages interpret this to mean to get yourself a mentor, someone who will give you good advice as you navigate life.
Yaakov Astor, writer and Jewish educator, explains this aphorism. To get the most benefit from a mentor, you first have to acknowledge your own limitations and lack of perspective on certain issues. Once that is done, then you can seek out someone with wisdom and life experience to assist you. The mentor does not have to know everything, but he possesses more knowledge than you and can offer you perspective on your problems. He is objective where you are subjective.
Akeelah and the Bee demonstrates the positive effect that a mentor can have on your life. First, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Second, you can learn much and overcome challenges in life if you open to the perspective of an older and wiser person whom you respect and trust. It is then more likely that you will achieve success in life.