Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Humility is a Luxury

"Alright." Dr. Dunnum's pleasant mid-western accent blanketed the inane buzz of the classroom. Voices and pencil cases quieted with beginning-of-semester immediacy. "So, Beowulf. Everyone should have read Beowulf for today. Epic poem. Sort of the first piece of English literature that we have. Today I want us to sort of look at the notion of 'the hero.' Heroes illustrate what a given culture admires. Someone name another famous ancient hero."

Faces turned with expectant disgust on the girl who had--in one previous class alone--singled herself out as the socially inept know-it-all. Sure enough, her nasally voice rang out:

"Well, Odysseus, of course. Of Homer's Odyssey."

Dr. Dunnum nodded, clearly aware of the potential minefield of unwelcome information he was walking through. "And what was Odysseus known for?"

"His cleverness." Her deep breath and raised eyebrows warned of an impending torrent of  explanation and opinion. Dr. Dunnum neatly cut her off.

"Right. A lot of texts will translate his description as wily. He was wily:  very clever and willing to lie. And this suggests to us that wiliness and deceit were actually admired traits in the Greek culture."

Dr. Dunnum strode to the whiteboard. "What I want us to do, is get into our groups and come up with a list of adjectives we'd use to describe Beowulf."

After the exercise came a time of sharing. Dr. Dunnum wrote the suggestions on the whiteboard in his cramped, curly handwriting. Adjectives like valiant, strong, generous, loyal, and transparent were offered.

Dr. Dunnum turned his sharp blue eyes on the girl who'd offered "transparent."

"What do you mean by that?"

The girl straightened in her chair and gestured slightly with her pen as she answered. "He's open about his strategies and motives. He tells the people exactly what he intends to do, and that he expects to receive glory for it. He doesn't hide the fact that he wants recognition."

Another girl threw out the word "boastful." Dr. Dunnum nodded and scribbled the word at the bottom of the list.

"So, pride was a big deal for these people." He raised an eyebrow in an inviting expression. Students nodded. "And yet, no one seemed to really have a problem with that. Boasting and glory are huge parts of Beowulf's character, and yet he's the hero. This suggests that the Angelo-Saxon culture valued arrogance."

Dr. Dunnum switched gears with a swing of his head, eyes gleaming. "How about heroes today? Who can we compare Beowulf to? In your groups, pick a modern hero and write down some of the traits associated with him or her."

"Transparent" Girl glanced back at her group, shades of condescension showing behind her thin smile. "Who do we think, guys?"

"I 'on' know, man," said her closest neighbor, leaning his chair back on two legs. "Like Supe'man or somethin'."

Something genuine leaped in the girl's eyes. "That's what I was thinking! There aren't really a whole lot of wholesome, superhumanly strong characters out there."

She got to work on her list:  honest, just, wholesome, worthy, loyal, humble...

Dr. Dunnum invited the groups to write their heroes and traits on the board. When the chaos of voices and the squelching of dry-erase markers faded, the board held three Supermans, a Thor, a Captain America, and a Batman.

"Transparent" Girl gave a throaty noise of disapproval as her eyes passed over the lists. Chair-Tipper glanced at her expectantly. She looked embarrassed through her annoyance. "Under 'Batman'," she said, stabbing her pen in the direction of the whiteboard. "someone wrote 'fearless.' It's just...Batman's not fearless."

Chair-Tipper lost interest.

"Okay," Dr. Dunnum interrupted the din of unavoidable side conversations. "What are some common themes here?" He walked in front of the board and circled the recurring words:  brave, loyal, strong.  "What are we not seeing?" He paused at the Batman list and gave it a look of confusion, frowning slightly. "Transparent" Girl felt smugly validated.

Dr. Dunnum turned his eyes on the class, eyebrows raised. "Boasting. Arrogance. Pride." He tilted his head. "It's not here. We, as a culture, put less emphasis on pride as a positive thing. Why is that?"

"We have-uh lass to buh-rag about-uh," came a strong valley girl accent from across the room.

"Yeah?" Dr. Dunnum couldn't keep the chuckle out of his voice. "Penicillin? No big deal?"

"I mean-uh..." Valley Girl looked immediately enraged. "Like, we don't have like-uh one guy who could win a war alone-uh."

Dr. Dunnum nodded thoughtfully. "Okay. But do you think the Angelo-Saxons really did either? I mean, this is just a story. Beowulf was not real."

Valley Girl rolled her eyes and turned her attention apparently to her crotch, presumably to her iPhone.

"Less had already been done?" Someone suggested from the back.  "Bragging was more legitimate back then because people were doing things for the very first time."

Dr. Dunnum nodded some more. "Okay."

"Transparent" Girl put her elbows on her desk and leaned forward, suddenly intensely engaged. No one was getting it. This question required real thinking. Why did the Angelo-Saxons value boastfulness? Why did Americans today shy away from it? Why?

Her brain churned up chunks of thought, which she examined and mentally threw over her shoulder. No, no, no. What positive outcomes could occur from bragging?

The answer leaped to the front of her mind with an electric stab of understanding. Her hand raised itself. Dr. Dunnum caught her eye and wrapped up his acknowledgment of another mediocre answer.

"Yes?" he raised his eyebrows at her.

"Back then, your reputation was a way of protecting those you loved," she offered.  "By boasting, inflating his reputation, Beowulf was actually ensuring that no one would attack his people. It wasn't all selfish. He was trying to help his family."

"And what did everyone think when Beowulf died?"

"They expected to be invaded."

"Yes." Dr. Dunnum walked back to the center of the whiteboard and addressed the class. "Today, in the modern world, we have such impressive technology and are so strong that..." He shrugged. "We don't really need to brag. Our reputation goes without saying."

He pointed to Beowulf's name, written in red dry-erase maker. "Could we maybe even argue that the people of Beowulf's time bragged out of weakness, and not strength? That their need to assert their reputation grew out of fear and anxiety?"

It was 1:50pm. The students began forcing their notebooks and textbooks back into their backpacks.

"Transparent" Girl left the classroom on a dreamy Idea High. What a thought. Humility:  a luxury of the strong.