Riffing with Cavafy

“It does not bother me if outside
winter spreads fog, clouds, and cold.
Spring is within me, true joy.”
          -CP Cavafy

Last week I got to teach.

It has long been a promise I’ve made to myself that every year of being a principal I will set aside time to step back into classrooms and embrace the reason I got into education in the first place: to teach. Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with middle schoolers and high schoolers, walking the foggy streets with Sherlock Holmes, talking hope with Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, and even teaching a little cartooning. This engagement with students is far more than magical; for me connecting with kids is a fundamental reminder of the reason I do what I do, the rationale behind my decisions as a principal, the “why” of my work.

Last week that work brought be to the plains of Troy and five classes of juniors and seniors who had just finished reading Homer’s Iliad. I’d taught the epic a lifetime ago, or at least large swaths of it, in a unit I called the ALIliad, a mashup of Homer’s heroes and Muhammad Ali. It was rollicking fun, perfect for spring term Senior English, and I had fond memories of those busted brain-pans and ancient heroes. For my return to Troy, however, I opted for something more …traditional: CP Cavafy.

Cavafy is an early 20th century Greek poet who lived and wrote in Alexandria. His work, seemingly simple and certainly powerful, captures ideas political, passionate, and personal, and his ability to discuss history and epic in very human ways suggested him as a nice follow up to the hard work the students had already done with Homer. Cavafy builds on the traditional as well as anyone, and I figured some of the students might dig making connections, juxtapositions, and discoveries between and about the two poets.

IMG_1359As rain battered the classroom windows, we started with a little music. To set up the notion of a modern artist riffing on something grand and established I’d given the students the homework of listening to “My Favorite Things,” first the recognizable Julie Andrews version from The Sound of Music film and then John Coltrane’s take on the tune in all its modal glory.

The students, particularly those ridiculously talented student musicians brought amazing perspective to a discussion of the two versions of the tune, juxtaposing Coltrane and the Rodgers and Hammerstein original like professional critics. They led us to where I’d hoped they would: the idea of an artist, to use Coltrane’s line, “looking back at the old things to see them in a new light” and creating something new, something different, something meaningful.

That ACMA is filled with passionate student artists made our discussion richer than I’d imagined.

We followed this Coltrane preface with two essential questions and dove into Cavafy with aplomb. After reading “Trojans” together, students broke into groups and wrestled with four of Cavafy’s poems: “The Horses of Achilles,” “The Funeral of Sarpedon,” “Night March of Priam,” and “When the Watchman Saw the Light.”

I wanted the students to see not only a different take on Homer, but also understand the humanizing Cavafy does to the familiar characters, even immortal ones, and dig how this more modern Greek poet looked “back at the old things and [saw] them in a new light.”

Discussion sparkled, creative students applying their intelligence and spirit to Cavafy’s texts. That they brought insight I hadn’t thought of when planning the lesson shouldn’t have come as a surprise; some of the best things about teaching are those moments when students startle you with an unexpected perspective and creative approach.

We talked about art and grief and love and beauty, and class after class I found myself more and more thankful for the opportunity to spend this time with the students. Classrooms truly are where the magic of education happens.

We ended with “Ithaca,” of course, because, well, Cavafy.

And in that poem of appreciation I heard echoes of last week’s teaching journey.

…do not hurry the voyage at all.
it is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way…”

Last week’s lessons were best when they were unhurried, a luxury limited to the first day and compromised on the second by a shortened schedule and looming assignment justifiably on the students’ minds. But even then, even when the minute hand pushed me forward like a Trojan into an Achaean spear, the experience of connecting with students is one that I am profoundly thankful for.

I walked out of the classroom tired, energized, and happy. For a principal to step back in front of a classroom is a reminder of what an exhausting and exhilarating job being a teacher really is. It is a reminder that the interaction between students and teachers is unique, magical, and (sometimes) profound.

It was raining outside, but my spirit was there on the plains of Troy with Homer, Cavafy, and some of the best students I’ve ever known.

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