Mentors on ice and in life | Opinion


Imagine a two-year-old dressed in knee pads, elbow pads, palm guards, a striped ski goggle and an oversized bike helmet. All this in addition to the suffocating bulk of snow pants and a puffy puffer jacket. Oh, and a very tight pair of blistering shoes with blades attached to the soles. It was me when my mom taught me to skate.

I learned to skate long before I learned to ride a bike. I can do both now, but the adage “it’s like riding a bike” sometimes subconsciously translates to “it’s like skating” in my mind. Something I’ll never forget how to do, no matter how long ago.

Recently, during a visit to Portland, Oregon, I had the chance to skate. The ice rink was a small oval in the middle of a mall, surrounded by Forever 21, Cinnabon, and a few other mall favorites. Nevertheless, it was my first time on the ice in over a year and I was delighted. I try to skate several times each winter, but the Covid-19 closures had kept me away.

Later that day, while browsing the shelves of Portland’s famous Powell’s Books, I came across the vibrant blue and red cover of “Beautiful on the outside”, A memoir by former Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon. From his writing emerges a witty, formative and unabashedly authentic story of the glamorous and exhausting sides of a career in figure skating. A few glossy pages in the middle are filled with photographs of the characters in his story. Family, coaches, competitors, friends, enemies. The attention he gives to each of them made me think of the people who defined and composed my career; those who have helped to form the most influential images of my own life. In particular, my mentors.

“Mentor” is a pretty difficult term to define in the first place. The teacher is too formal; advise feels too stuffy. Mentoring isn’t just about teaching skills or giving advice, it’s not even just guidance. In sports, you may or may not find a mentor in a coach. As essential as good mentors are, there is no set path to finding one.

The kind of mentor I think of understands, in a meaningful way, your experiences, your emotions, your story. He is someone who shares part of his story with you. Perhaps you have found mentors among classmates, siblings, or teachers. Think back to the things they told you. I would bet some of the stories really resonate.

In figure skating competitions, the “kiss and cry” is what they call the area that skaters go to immediately after playing to wait for judges’ scores. The name comes from the kisses that follow after receiving good scores and the tears that flow after the bad ones. In the “kiss and cry”, the skater will most often be accompanied by his trainer. It’s times like these, times when you have someone with you to celebrate good and help lighten the burden of evil, that a good mentor really shines.

Mentoring finds a way to travel through the generations. Rippon’s memoir recounts the journey towards his own Olympic dream to become the mentor of a new generation of Olympic hopefuls. I slowly came to understand the role a mentor played during my time at Harvard; perhaps because lately, in the most modest capacities, I have been able to play the role myself for others. I really don’t have any wisdom to impart, but I find myself sharing stories from my early college years with casual listeners. I have accumulated a few of these stories that I think sometimes could benefit someone who is just starting their journey here.

Campus life is so full of this mentorship, this sharing of stories. Navigating Harvard can be so overwhelming, but the mentors I have found through clubs, classes, and chance encounters have been so invaluable. Mentoring can be little things that sometimes you don’t even realize.

If we wrote all of these stories that we have, we would each end up with our own memories. But for now, let’s continue to share them with each other. Don’t hesitate to find mentors in the most unlikely places. Learn from their stories; this sharing is essential to the vitality of our community. Like riding a bike (or skating) some of these stories will be remembered and become part of yours – become part of you.

When my mom brought me a two year old to the rink, she didn’t just teach me how to skate. Once upon a time, long before I was born, she was a competitive skater. She shared this part of her story with me.

William Y. Yao ’22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is a Concentrator of Applied Mathematics at Kirkland House. His column “A Memoir Of Our Own” appears every other Tuesday.

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