Literary Quote for Your Weekend: The Mythos of the American Teacher, Part 2

As a ravaging fire rages through the parched valleys
in the mountains, and the dense-wooded forest burns
as the wind whips the flames and everywhere whirls them around:
just so Achilles ran everywhere, in a frenzy,
and he killed as he went, and the black earth flowed with the blood.
As when a man yokes two oxen to tread the white barley
on a threshing floor, and quickly the grains are husked
under the feet of the bellowing oxen: just so,
driven straight on by Achilles, the horses trampled
over the bodies and shields of those who had fallen,
and the axle below and the chariot rails were splattered
with the blood flung up by the horses’ hooves and the wheel rims.
And Achilles pressed on, eager to win great glory,
and his huge invincible hands were dripping with gore.

The Iliad, Book 20, lines 419-432

First of all, let’s just all take a moment to appreciate how beautifully The Iliad can describe a battlefield bloodbath. And I left out all the really gory parts: Polydorus clutching his intestines, Dryops getting stabbed through the neck, Tros’ liver sliding out of the wound in his belly. The ancient poets could tell some crazy vivid stories.

But Achilles? I don’t know how I feel about the guy. Really, I don’t. His most well-known quality is his wrath, after all. The first lines of The Iliad say, “The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess.”

Now, this may sound weird, but I’ll say it anyway: when I read about Achilles raging across the battlefield, I have the same sort of feeling that I have when I watch movies about teachers. I’m inspired, yes, but I’m also incredibly uncomfortable.

Teacher movies. Yes, the dramatic life stories of teachers who inspire everyone with their sacrifices for children. The teachers who give up their personal lives, their own money, their health, and possibly their marriages because, at the end of the day, “it’s for the kids.”

I’m going to call these kind of teachers “Achilles Teachers”; sometimes I like to call them “superteachers.” They represent the ideal: what we would all aspire to be in the classroom, empowered by the gods for greatness.

As I try to work through my own mixed feelings about the mythic superteacher, I’m going present two categories of observations: why we need these stories and why they can be harmful.

Why We Need “Achilles Teachers”

  • Like I mentioned above, the Achilles teacher serves as a model, as an ideal. Just as the epic hero is symbolic of all that is best in humanity, the Achilles teacher is symbolic of the best of our profession. They have inspiring lessons, meaningful conversations with students, pithy comebacks, and I hardly need add, classes who pay attention.
  • As a symbol and an ideal, the Achilles teacher can inspire the tired warriors in the ranks just as Achilles breathes new life into the Achaean army when he rides out on his giant black horse and lets loose his battle cry. We do need stories about teachers like this, just as the Greeks needed Achilles to lead them into battle.
  • In her introduction to The Epic Cosmos, Dr. Louise Cowan has said that the epic is characterized by the interpenetration of the veil between the infinite and the finite. When Achilles finally enters the battle, the gods settle themselves on the mountain to watch, they rescue Aeneas, and they bring about the death of Hector.  Just as the presence of Achilles pulls back the veil, and we see the workings of the gods, the stories of heroic teachers help us glimpse again the epic vision of education. When we are inspired, when we see behind the veil, we are reminded of why we entered the profession in the first place.
  • Ultimately, Achilles’ sacrifice works: he turns the tide of the battle, the Trojans flee to their walls, and he slays Hector, the Trojans’ greatest warrior. So too, can teachers achieve much greatness and change the lives of students with their sacrifices.

However. . .

Why this Model May be Harmful

  • The Achilles teacher, again, is the ideal, an archetype. Hardly anyone can achieve the level of greatness that Achilles does. He is half-immortal, after all. He is chosen by the gods for a great destiny. He is the best of the Greeks, the representation of all that is noble and strong. But he is unique. As an inspiration, he’s great. As someone to live up to, he’s impossible.
  • Achilles achieves great glory, but let’s remember that he has only one moment of glory. Everything he has, his strength, his physical appearance, his honor, and his godlike wrath, is all poured into this one instant. His mother has prophesied that if he enters the battle, he will achieve glory, but he will die. He’s a candle burning at both ends, a fireworks show that is spectacular but oh, so incredibly short. Similarly, it’s not unusual to find that teachers having their careers portrayed in books and movies or otherwise doing superteacher activities have a relatively short tenure in an actual classroom. (This is not always true, of course, but it’s true enough to be troubling.)
  • Achilles doesn’t exist in any sort of community. While his literary foil, Hector, has incredibly poignant moments with his wife and child, Achilles is not married, he will never see his father again, his best friend is killed because of Achilles’ own refusal to join the battle with his comrades. When he achieves his moment of glory, he is utterly separated from all other human contact. Similarly, superteachers face the temptations to separate themselves from colleagues and never ask for help, never joining forces or sharing resources, never building the collegial relationships that help sustain a long-term career.
  • Achilles denies the needs of his body. He refuses to eat as he prepares to join the battle; the gods have to force-feed him ambrosia. Superteachers may neglect their own health, giving up sleep, exercise, or fun to grade papers or plan lessons or sponsor activities.

If you want to be Achilles in the classroom, if you are living to achieve a blazing but short-lived glory from gods and men, these unhealthy practices will work. You will achieve your spotlight, but you may be left spent, unhealthy, discouraged, and bitter. Your story may be told in books and movies, but you may be essentially dead to the American classroom after your glory is over.

We do need stories like this, but perhaps instead of holding up the superteacher as an attainable model, instead of evoking guilt from movies with well-placed music and students who always have epiphanies at just the right moments, I wonder if we could learn to see these stories as stories, inspirational ideals, myths that tell us how the world should be rather than how it actually is.

Then maybe, just maybe, we could return to the actual world of the classroom inspired but not guilty, with new glimpses of our epic vision but without self-loathing at our imperfections in the face of that vision, sacrificial but not obliterated, unique but not alone.

Allums, James Larry., and Louise Cowan. “”Epic as Cosmopoesis”” Introduction. The Epic Cosmos. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1992. 1-26. Print.

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