“We live two lives…the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”
— Bernard Malamud
When I was teaching Homer’s Odyssey to a group of ninth graders this year, I was struck by how many messages exist within that most central of texts. For the kids, Homer is a primer to the notion of the Classic Hero, the “sacred voyage,” the “monomyth” of selection, departure, trials and suffering, lessons learned, and the long journey home. “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” the Fagles translation begins, “the man of twists and turns.” The journey home is not only long, it is never straight. There are no maps; there is no GPS.
From Homer, I could draw fairly straight lines to my students’ own epic heroes, to Harry Potter, to Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen. From them, in turn, students began to imagine the magicians and wanderers and warriors who populate their own lives. Heroism only seems exalted and mythic at first, but my students learned, it is everywhere and often most easily found not by venturing out, but by simply looking back. After we finished the Odyssey, I asked them to prepare speeches praising their own heroes. Most of them claimed that they didn’t know any. “Look for them,” I told them, “you’ll find them,” and so they did, typically, waiting behind the very doors that closed behind them on their way to school. They found their heroes at home.
The speeches were journeys fraught with nervousness and index cards, frustrated stomping and the plea, “can I start over from the beginning?” My students spoke of their parents and their siblings, many of whom had gone off to real wars, or escaped them. My kids “sang” their odysseys often through tears, as they shared stories about their families and their hardships, their journeys, both geographic and metaphoric, about the people who loved them making sacrifices to find new homes and new lives.
As a new, freshly-minted teacher, one who has come to teaching after a career in healthcare and a lifetime of learning both hard and easy lessons, I almost missed the lesson in Homer that lay in wait for me. It didn’t involve heroism so much as humility. Even great heroes, Homer seems to be reminding us, crave second chances. Midlife crises, as we seem determined to call them, needn’t be something to lament, but to embrace. Leaping from one ship on to another passing in a different direction and, proverbially, frequently at night, now that’s a leap of faith and never seems to happen without frustration, indecision, and loss.
At my last corporate job, my department was eliminated after the functions were outsourced. I was given a career coach to help me land the next job with a desk and a plant and a water cooler. My coach looked over my resume and said, confused, “well you started out in management making a lot of money and well…that is, you started out big and now…” She smiled nervously. “And now things seem small?,” I asked. Her smile became fixed. “Well it does seem like you’re moving backward,” she confessed. That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. But what if I’m not moving backward as much as I’m heading home? Maybe I paddled out too far, and now, wanted to search for the place that had the most meaning for me, back to the man who wanted to teach? Maybe it’s less about “big to small” and more about those “twists and turns” that Homer mentions? Perhaps my story begins with leaving the bigger battle, the place of prestige, and ends when I’ve returned to my own private Ithaca. If so, then I’ve found it. (Well. At least, I can see its shore.)