Friday, September 14, 2007

Up Late with Homer

Hey John and Rhian, we’re back to school here in California. Unlike most high school teachers, I have the luxury of selecting which books to teach, and therefore which books to ignore. Students are, of course, obligated to exert suspicion of any required book, which limits how much pleasure I may earn from putting these books into their backpacks. Each fall I feel some revenge against my own high school curriculum. I get to escape the books of the Cold War--Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, etc. (Jane Smiley has discussed this, as has Francine Prose. Also Charles Baxter.) I think of them as Cold War books, whatever their origins, because they were appropriated to encourage a kind of Jesuitical patriotism, through which one is allowed to question the foundations of American belief as long as you come round in the end.

If I were designing a real curriculum for others to teach, one I had to explain to a Board, I would probably falter. But I can be idiosyncratic, so I’ve been able to explore what works. Students, those who are interested in writing (in my experience), long to be serious. I am myself not very serious, probably. But last night we got Serious, and spent the night in the woods reading The Iliad by (AA battery-powered) lantern-light: twenty high school students, freshly arrived, chomping doughnuts and cracking open cans of orange drink in the dark, taking turns reading from the Fagles translation. They read in the strange accents from Prague, Kabul, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Idaho, and Chicago. They giggled at Hera’s seduction of Zeus, and oh-grossed at the battlefield gore. Most fell asleep after a few hours, a core continued trading the book back and forth until book XVI, when we put it aside for tomorrow.

Our choice of The Iliad puzzled some veteran teachers. Teenagers, if one can say they like anything at all, the idea goes, prefer the adventure and children’s-book monsters of The Odyssey, the cleverness of Odysseus and the fairly happy ending.

But I don’t think so. Achilles sulking in his tent—that’s something they understand. Astyanax getting freaked out by his father's war helmet. And Priam’s struggle to recover the corpse of Hector—there’s another fantasy, the grieving parent. One student put into words what she liked most about the poem, that despite the grotesque situation of having to die, it somehow matters to the world (not/not just to the soul) whether you were good and loving and noble in life. Also, Achilles has been played by Brad Pitt.

I'm glad they like it, at least provisionally. These epics were never required reading for me, not in high school, not in college, not in graduate school. I had a class in Milton and Paradise Lost changed my life, and I worked backward from there. Otherwise I didn't have to read much at all. (Or did I? I was addicted to skipping class in favor of the library). I'm still not the best reader, too slow, quick to abandon. Stephen King and Hunter Thompson were enough for me in high school, until a Vietnam vet/tennis coach put The Sound and the Fury in my hands. My first real encounter with The Iliad was driving across the country, listening to it on tape from approximately Amarillo to somewhere around Flagstaff. I scratched in my notebook at a highway Carl's Jr.: "The Iliad is the Great American Novel." My notebook is full of adolescent hyperbole, continues to be even as my hair gets grayer. There are also drawings of shoes.

We’ll bury Hector today around 3:30. Next up the Great Greek Epic Mosquito, by Gayl Jones.

What do you wish you'd read in high school?


moonlight ambulette said...

wow. I wish I'd had you as a teacher when I was in high school.

bigscarygiraffe said...


In high school, we had to read Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove right after Jane Eyre. That seemed silly. Me not reading outside the curriculum seems silly now. I think if I hadn't waited until my freshman year of college to read Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I'd be much better off as a writer, and much less angsty. I can't help the angst now, though. It's a sexy addiction, and besides, most of my favorite writers are uneasy. I just have to learn how to morph from teenage love pangs to grown-up worldly altruism...or something..everything is so unclear.

rmellis said...

I wish I had started in the beginning and read everything, in order. Maybe right now I'd be getting to Flannery O'Connor.

jrlennon said...

I wish I'd read less in high school, and had more sex.

bigscarygiraffe said...

That's what Sting look at him.