1989: I love my first-grade class this year. They are still such believers, not yet cynical like the fourth and fifth graders upstairs. They come running in one morning after a big thunderstorm the night before and tell me, “Miss H.! Miss H.! The angels went bowling last night!” After a rainstorm a few weeks later, a child who takes CCD classes Wednesdays after school tells me God had been crying.
I am not a Catholic or even a devout Presbyterian, but I loved the idea that God could cry and angels could bowl. It made sense in the world I lived and worked at that time in my life.
That winter, my co-teacher and I taught these first graders a combined social studies/language arts project about Greek Mythology. I told the class they’d be learning some of the best stories in the world, stories about ancient superheroes, and jealous goddesses who turned mortal women into spiders and cows. I also taught them some myths about mortals, regular people like us, who messed up and got into trouble. Sometimes the Gods and Goddesses sympathized and helped us mortals out. Other times they went off to bacchanalias and seemed to forget about us. Prometheus, Athena, Hermes, Zeus – they held true and offered me reflection during a time when I felt that I’d failed at so many things and had been failed by so many people.
Some teachers at my school thought that Greek Mythology was way over the heads of six-year-olds.
Stick to Frog and Toad, they said, referring to Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad chapter book series. I loved Frog and Toad, but my co-teacher and I didn’t think that they had much to do with first-grade social studies. Besides, I also believed that many six and seven-year-olds could relate to some of the themes in the Greek myths. Most, for example, had probably already experienced the desire for power and control, along with feelings of jealousy or betrayal, especially if they had older or younger brothers and sisters. You could see them play it out every day after lunch on the blacktop at recess, running around, trying to figure out their place in the world and where they fit into it.
In my own life at that time, my fiancé T. was supposed to join me in Philadelphia after a two year wait for his Visa. His arrival was going to fix everything that was wrong with my life: problems with my health, an unscrupulous landlord, my school principal, who I deeply mistrusted. I could just about tolerate these people and situations because I knew they would vanish once T. arrived.
That winter, as I felt the waiting time coming to an end, I taught my first graders the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice We made them into life-sized painted characters, using paper maché and tempera paint. After they dried horizontally for a few days, we stood them up against the walls in our classroom. Sometimes at the end of the day, after the kids were gone and it was dead quiet except for the sounds of a vacuum above or below us, my co-teacher and I would be so tired we’d almost be hallucinating. At those times, it seemed as if the paper maché characters were almost human, in a gently creepy kind of way.
In case you don’t remember the story: Eurydice, Orpheus’s beloved bride, is bitten by a snake at their wedding, and dies. Hades, God of the Underworld, closes her eyes and leads her down to the Underworld. Orpheus searches desperately for an entrance to the Underworld. When he finds it, he goes down there and sings to Hades, begging him to return Eurydice. Moved by Orpheus’s voice, Hades relents, but only on one condition: Eurydice must walk behind Orpheus the whole way back up to the Land of Living Things. If Orpheus turns around to look at her, Eurydice will disappear and return forever to the Underworld.
Some days, I felt as if I were Orpheus, trying to get my own love out of the Underworld. We’d met in my world, Philadelphia, three years before, and then I visited his world, a place where men and women lived separate and segregated lives, and Islamic censors ruled television and radio airways. If I turned around to look for T., would he disappear forever, too?
Winter morphs into Spring at my school at 42nd and Spruce. Orpheus started walking back up the path from the Underworld, doubt starting to descend on him: was Eurydice really still behind him? He couldn’t hear anything. Had Hades tricked him? Finally, Orpheus can’t stand it any longer, even though he can see the sun shining ahead in the Upper World. He turns around.
Another airmail letter arrives from T: he has decided to stop trying for the Visa. My world loses color and starts to tilt. My principal says, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do, Kim,” and does nothing. I go on leave for two weeks. I start taking antidepressants that make the inside of my mouth dry and fuzzy when I talk. I get my hair cut short. I adopt a cat.
When I return to school, my co-teacher and I decide to begin the myth of Helios, the Sun God, and his child, a mortal named Phaeton. Helios drives his chariot of horses across the sky every day, making the sun rise and set. His son, Phaeton, goes against his father’s orders and steals his father’s chariot. Disaster results. I am driving home from school early one evening. It is still light. I am almost there. I roll to a stop at a two-way. I see a young woman, maybe in her late twenties, approach the other stop sign that is at a right angle to me. It takes a minute for me to realize that even though she is at the stop sign, she is not stopping. She is plowing through it, plunging towards me. It takes another minute for me to realize, at that minute, that she is going to hit me. I am going to get hit. She is going to hit me. Everything switches to slow-mo. This is taking so long…
They veered off the heavenly path and brushed
By the dangerous constellations that lurked on
Both sides of it…Zeus threw a thunderbolt…in a
Shower of sparks. (from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythology)
Kimberley Jessen lives and writes in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She works as an Academic Literacy Professor at Northampton Community College.