Odysseus and I go home
Today I had the opportunity to go back to a school where I used to teach — a return home of sorts — and talk to students about Odysseus and his return home. The first time I taught The Odyssey I was very young, although I did not think so, and some of the students in my class would go on to become teachers at this particular school, teachers who would teach The Odyssey (it’s like one of those Russian dolls).
When I opened my copy of The Odyssey , I saw that it was full of stars and x’s, dashes and exclamation points; there’s even a list of page numbers in the back; I felt like an archaeologist discovering traces of discussions long past. I looked around the room and remembered students who are now the age I was then; they have children; some of their children go to this school now. In fact, one of these children is coming over to my house for Hannukah dinner tonight, but still this seems impossible, as though at any moment the students of yore, Katy or Norrie, Jessica or Alex might walk in the door, as though my old self might walk in the door.
Anyways, things began well. I managed to keep the personal parallels at bay, asking the usual questions about this part of The Odyssey: Is Odysseus’ disguise the only reason people don’t recognize him when he returns home? Why does he go to the swineherd’s house first? Does the swineherd recognize him? What is recognition anyways? When suddenly, someone said the word “wander,” and I said, “Does anyone here know a poem called ‘The Wanderer’?” — an Ango Saxon poem I used to teach at this school. And one by one the students, the ones currently in the room with me, not the ghosts, started to chant the poem in anglo saxon. Immediately, my eyes filled. The poor students looked bewildered. “Does anyone know why I might be crying?” I asked. Imagine a teacher asking such a thing. I would have hated it if a teacher did this, but I had something I wanted them to know.
I told them how I used to ask students to learn a few lines of “The Wanderer” in Ango Saxon, something I knew was a little crazy, a little over the top, a little pompous even, but something I knew they could do, and something I knew they would be proud to know, and, besides, it was an homage to my favorite college professor, William Alfred, who made us learn “The Wanderer” and who chanted Beowulf with extraordinary pleasure and strength even though he was very very old when I knew him, so old he had been friends with “Tom” (as in T. S.) Eliot. He told us we needed to know Old English because this was the heartbeat of our poetry. And if we didn’t learn Anglo Saxon, it would die.
The amazing thing is that these new students, whose names I had just learned, who were strangers to me, and to whom I was a stranger, realized that we shared something even though we couldn’t quite say what it was. And I knew something more, because in this story I am the bridge between past and present, I knew that they shared this something with students of the past, people they have never met, and with my old professor, and even T.S. Eliot who had been his friend. and I realized I was home in one of the deepest senses of the word.