This week I finished my first-year teaching online with the CiRCE Academy. I was privileged to teach Classical Rhetoric and Greek & Roman Epics to some amazing students. My encounter with these young men and women challenged me to think more clearly, read more deeply, teach more passionately, and to repent more often.
I made mistakes and had successes – though the successes do not belong to me. They belong to the students, who became thinkers who want to know the truth, readers who slow down and contemplate, and writers who want to express something of value.
I discovered, on a new level, how profoundly students long for the good, the true, and the beautiful – especially the true. It was inspiring to see which lessons made them come alive and which lessons made them want to check the box and move on. It was even more inspiring to explore the why behind it.
This occurred to me most profoundly the day we took a step back and talked about the canon of arrangement and why we do what we do in classical rhetoric. I attended to a form of this when we introduced arrangement, but I saved the day I am referring to for the end, as a review. During the review, we went deeper, beheld some general examples, and used Scott Crider’s book, The Office of Assertion, as guide for our discussion. It was equipping and enlightening. It sparked something in several students. It went so well that I repeated this review in my local class and the students there had the same response. I will not wait until the end of the year again for this kind of discussion. I see now that weaving the why throughout the life of the course has the power to be something that lights fires and irrigates deserts in students and their studies.
I also discovered more deeply the beauty of the communal nature of education. This became more clear to me in the Epics class. It was a small class of young men, and then me. At first I was nervous about being a woman teacher to a class of boys. On top of that I was nervous about trying to teach the greatest literature of our world. Intimidating? Yes. I feared that I would not be able to help them because my perspective was a female one and because my experience with the epics was still a novice one. I remember going to the CiRCE conference and hearing Eva Brann speak and thinking, “Wow! There is still so much to learn and behold in these Epics, how in the world am I worthy to teach these?” I went up to Mrs. Brann after her talk and told her I would be teaching Homer for the first time. I was hoping to get some advice or a pat on the back with a welcome to the world of teaching Homer. Ha! Instead, she said nothing about the teaching and with a sparkle in her eye she said “Oh then you get to read them too!”
I was humbled, and I got it.
It was not about me or what I could bring to the table. It was about inviting people to behold these epics in community and about respecting each of the learners as individuals, with a living soul. The Epics would do the work if I got out of the way and stewarded the moments well by simply attending to some basic reading skills, asking good questions, researching when needed, reading slowly, and reading out loud. The amazing thing is, it worked. The more we moved through the epics in this spirit of scholarly stewardship the more insights, questions, truths, connections, and life lessons we encountered. We ended the year with more questions than answers, but I think that is the only fitting way to end. The truth is I am not worthy to teach these books. I need these books just as much as my students do and I get to read them with some incredible people. I can’t wait to do it again.
All of this is beautiful, true, and good, but it is also hard work. At least for me. Sometimes what I face feels like blows: blows to my lack of understanding, blows to my pride, and blows to my flesh. In that way, it is like a wrestling match, albeit a beautiful one. It reminds me of the words the Sybil shouted out to Aeneas as he stood at the edge of the underworld in Book Six of the Aeneid.
“Never shrink from the blows.
Boldly, more boldly where your luck allows,
Go forward, face them. A first way to safety
Will open where you reckon on it least,”
Aeneas had no idea what was on the other side of his journey there. He had no way of knowing that his journey through the underworld was a form of dying to his old nature and rising again with inspired vision, purpose, self-control, and strength. Education is like that, a way of dying to the old nature and rising, better than we were before, over and over again. What a mercy and a grace that we do not have to remain as we are.