Harrying English at the Upper School
Odysseus and Nausicaä, Pieter Lastman, 1619
by Harry Thomas
It fell to the Dean of the Faculty to introduce me at the opening assembly. We were in the cafeteria of the elementary school, seated in small chairs at the long low tables where little children ate lunch. Our knees were against our chests, or almost. The men and women around me greeted one another happily. A few greeted me, introducing themselves. I felt I was shaking hands and drinking coffee in a vast doll’s house, and shouldn’t be.
The Head gave a speech, which went on for a while, and then he introduced the Dean. I had met him in the spring during my interview for the job. A Sri Lankan, educated at Harrow and Oxford, he was short, trim, and neat, and he was in the habit, I knew from the twenty minutes I had spent with him, of saying “Brilliant!” in response to whatever you said, in an unexceptional upper crust English voice.
“Last year,” he began, “we hired eighteen new faculty.” He laughed, and the faculty laughed with him.
“This year I have the pleasure of introducing just one new teacher. He has come to us from New England, where he taught for thirteen years…” He ran through my bio, summing me up, and then ended by saying, “So it is my great pleasure to introduce our one new colleague in the Upper School, Harry English.”
I peered into my empty coffee cup, and felt my face going flush. Then, glancing up, I saw the Head, perched on the edge of the table behind the Dean, lean forward and whisper something.
“Sorry,” the Dean said Englishly. “Thomas English.”
The next day it was his duty to introduce me again, this time at the first Upper School assembly. The order was the same as the day before: the Head gave a speech, which went on for a while, and then he introduced the Dean.
“Last year,” he began again, “we hired eighteen new faculty.” He laughed at the standing joke, but the students appeared less inclined than the teachers to see the humor.
“This year I have the pleasure…” Once more he summed me up. And then: “So it is my great honor to introduce our one new teacher at the Upper School, Harry…”
He paused. We waited for him to get beyond whatever it was that was keeping him from saying my last name. When I was sure he had in fact forgotten it, or been made uncertain by his errors the first time round, I shouted from the back of the crowd, “THOMAS.”
“Right! Thomas Thomas. Brilliant!” he intoned merrily.
2. Teaching “Ozymandias”
The “team leader” told me to teach “Ozymandias” on Friday. He said I would find the poem on page 57 of The 100 Best Poems of All Time, the insultingly defective anthology with the preposterous title that he and the other three members of the department who had been at the school for a year already had selected for the five sections, two of them mine, of 9th grade English. The week before, in another instance of my absence of team spirit, I had asked my students to memorize “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Only three of the thirty-one students had been able, or had bothered, to learn it, and they and those who had learned at least the first stanza had recited the first line as “Whose woods are these I think I know,” because, I saw too late, that’s how it was printed in the anthology.
I didn’t know what to expect from them on “Ozymandias.” I thought they might need to know the meaning of “antique” (the sons and daughters of rich suburbanites, they might be misled by “an antique land”), “visage,” or perhaps even “sneer,” and the brighter ones might wonder who Ozymandias was, whether he was a real king, and how and why Shelley had written the poem. Of course, I could teach them something about the many different kinds of sonnets, and ask them about the rhyming in Shelley’s sonnet.
As always I started by reading the poem aloud, slowly, letting the phrases and sounds hang in the air, and then asking for questions. A girl to my right, a lifer—she had been at the school since pre-K—raised her hand.
“I have a question. I don’t understand what she means when she says that…”
“I am sorry to interrupt you, Elizabeth, but before we get to your question, please tell us who she is.”
The girl looked down at the page, hesitated a moment, then said, “The author.”
“Oh, Percy Bysshe Shelley was a man, not a woman. Percy was a somewhat common name among the English aristocracy. Have you ever seen the movie, The Scarlet Pimpernel?” (I learned early on that, though the students never read anything out of school, this being Los Angeles they did see a lot of movies). “Well, the English aristocrat in the movie, played by the famous actor Leslie Howard—Leslie is also a man’s name—is named Percy.”
“Okay, okay. But what I don’t understand is what she means by…”
“The poet was a man. Percy is a man’s name.”
“All right. But my question is about why she says…”
Laughter percolated in the room.
Then, as if to save her, the sweet boy to Elizabeth’s left raised his hand.
“I have a question.”
“What does the poet mean when she says…”
“Daniel! Percy Bysshe Shelley was a man! Percy is a man’s name!”
From the back of the room came a booming voice, a girl’s: “Give it up, Mr. Thomas. He’s a woman.”
“Thank you. He certainly does seem to be on the way to being transgender.”
At this point I was remembering that scene in Moonstruck when the aged Italian grandfather, sitting at the kitchen table with his bewildering family, lowers head and, his eyes watering, mumbles, “I’m confused.”
I decided to give up on “Ozymandias.”
“Do you know who Shelley’s wife was?” I asked.
The wag at the back: “Joe?”
3. Teaching The Odyssey
Now, I told myself, I have them. With Book VI they’ll see as they haven’t seen before how extraordinary The Odyssey is, how surprising and strange and incomparably beautiful. It is a good thing really that I have given up assigning any of the poem as homework, for now we can read it all aloud in class, going as slowly as we need to, verse paragraph by verse paragraph, line by line, phrase by phrase, even word by word, attending to whatever and however many questions the students might have, clarifying as much as I can in an hour, deepening their understanding of Fitzgerald’s translation and, through it, Homer’s epic. Who cares how long it takes us to finish? If the other teachers finish by the first of December, and I need another month or more, I can defend myself to the chairman and the team leader by saying, Look, I love this poem, and I want my students to comprehend it and love it. I’ve taught it every year for twenty-five years. My copy of the book is several editions old, it’s held together by rubber bands, and the margins of every page are crammed with notes. There’s so much I want to teach them.
The school’s rotating schedule meant that the first of my two sections of 9th grade English started right after lunch. The students dribbled in, some of them still eating the chips and cookies and drinking the soft drinks that constituted lunch for them, took off their headphones (the students had recently demanded and won from the administration the right to wear headphones all day at school—“it helps us to concentrate when we study” was the argument that had prevailed—helps, apparently, everywhere except in class), heaved their backpacks onto the tables, and, after chatting with one another for a minute or two, decided to look at me.
“Please take out your copies of The Odyssey.”
The fifteen of them began to fish in their backpacks. Gradually copies landed on the tables.
“All right. Let’s begin. You’ll recall from yesterday’s class that at the end of Book V, Odysseus washes up on a beach. He doesn’t know where he is, and he’s exhausted from his ordeal at sea. He has to choose between spending the night on the beach, where he might die of exposure, or walking into the forest, where he might eaten by wild beasts. He decides to risk the beasts, and Book V ends with the famous scene of Odysseus building a bed of leaves in an olive thicket and laughing at himself, the sacker of Troy, for having fallen so low.”
Then I read straight through the first three pages of Book VI in order to get us to Odysseus’s meeting with Nausikaa. She is playing some sort of rhythmic ball game with her maids when, awakened by their laughter and screams, he stalks out of the bushes, naked and looking like a hungry mountain lion. All the maids run away, Homer writes, “But Alkinöos’s daughter stood her ground.”
A hand went up.
“What are those two dots above the second o in that guy’s name?
“It’s called an umlaut.”
“UMLAUT, UMLAUT,” Michael chanted. Then: “Why is it there?”
“It indicates that the first o in the word should be pronounced as its own syllable. Alkinöos has four syllables, with, as you see, the accent on the second. You’ll recall I told you at the start of our reading of The Odyssey that the accent in Greek falls on the antepenultimate syllable.”
“Antepenultimate: that’s another cool word. Are there other marks like the UMLAUT?”
“Well, I’d like to get back to the scene in the poem, but yes, there are. On the next page you’ll see that Alkinöos’ wife’s name has two circumflexes: Arêtê. And in Spanish, for instance, there is the little squiggly mark above the n in words like señor and mañana, and in French there’s a curlicue called a cedilla under the letter c in some words, like façade.”
I got up and wrote the words señor and façade on the whiteboard.
So Odysseus, I said, returning to the poem, needs this woman’s help, as the poem says, and he doesn’t himself know whether he is going to speak to her sincerely or practically or both ways at the same time. He addresses her:
Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?
If one of those who dwell in the wide heaven,
You are most near to Artemis, I should say—
Great Zeus’s daughter—in your grace and presence.
If you are one of the earth’s inhabitants,
how blest your father, and your gentle mother,
blest all your kin. I know what happiness
must send the warm tears in their eyes, each time
they see their wondrous child go to the dancing!
But one man’s destiny is more than blest—
he who prevails, and takes you as his bride.
Never have I laid eyes on equal beauty
in man or woman. I am hushed indeed.
Seeing her for the first time, he is astonished by her beauty. She is so beautiful that he even asks her if she is a goddess, perhaps Artemis.
“There is a wonderful book, On Beauty, by a woman named Elaine Scarry, who teaches at Harvard, and she says that the lines I just read present a sort of manual of how we respond to beauty. What is beauty? How do we know it when we encounter it? That’s an important question not just for Homer, but for us, too.”
Zak, one of the brighter boys in the class, the son of a well-known actor and a movie producer, who bore a striking resemblance to James Dean, raised his hand. The passage in Book VI and Scarry’s ideas about beauty had reached him, I thought.
“May I go to the bathroom?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
Zak rose from his seat and then walked around the back of the room and down the other aisle to the door. I felt as if someone had struck me in the chest. But by the time he opened the door and let it close behind him, I had recovered almost all my enthusiasm for the glorious passage.
“So, what is beauty, and how do we respond to it? First, Elaine Scarry says, it feels unprecedented, which means it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Odysseus tells Nausikaa, ‘Never have I laid eyes on equal beauty/in man or woman.’ Second, beauty leaves us speechless. Odysseus says, ‘I am hushed indeed.’ He can only stand and stare at her. He seems to be in a daze for a moment. But then he goes on, saying an amazing thing—that he has never seen anything as beautiful as Nausikaa unless it was ‘a young palm tree/at Delos near the altar of Apollo.’ ‘That slim palm tree,’ he says three lines later, ‘filled my heart with wonder.’”
Again Michael raised his hand.
“How long do you think Zak is going to be in the bathroom?”
I felt an urge suddenly to kill myself, or to kill Michael. Of course, I shouldn’t have allowed Zak to go to the bathroom, but he made the same request almost every day, and if I denied the request he would squirm in his chair as if he were on the verge of pissing himself, a routine that kept the rest of the students from doing anything but stare at him. At first I had simply permitted him to leave, but after watching the habit develop over several weeks, eventually I took Zak aside and told him, “You must have the smallest bladder in the world.” But nothing I said, no mockery, kept him from asking me for permission the very next day.
The men’s room was just one door down the walkway from my room. From my desk against the front wall I could hear a urinal being flushed. But I knew that Zak probably went to the head simply to primp, to run his hands through his hair, adjust his collar, step back and admire himself, and then, before returning to class, to take a stroll around the building in the hope of running into one of his pals.
“I don’t know, Michael,” I replied.
Then, just as I was wondering if I could do myself in by beating my head repeatedly with my disintegrating copy of The Odyssey, the door opened and Zak strolled in, his long blond hair visibly wet, his sunglasses riding stylishly atop his head.
“I am hushed,” I said, looking at him. The students, looking at him, laughed. In their envy of his habit of leaving class, all of them had come to dislike him.
Puzzlement suffused his face. He stopped on his way to his seat. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“We were just talking about beauty,” I said, “and about one’s response to the beauty, say, of a tree. Have you ever felt the beauty of a natural object, Zak?”
I couldn’t have told you whether I was making fun of him or myself.
“Yes, I have,” he said calmly.
“The orange tree in my backyard.”
“An orange tree!” Michael cried out, his voice like a verbal blow from where he sat directly across the room from Zak. “You think an orange tree is beautiful?”
“Yes, I do,” Zak said firmly. “It was planted shortly after my sister was born, and my father got the birth fluid from when my mother gave birth to my sister, and he used it to fertilize the tree. So every time I see the tree I think I am seeing my sister.”
Again Michael’s ragging voice rang out: “An orange tree makes you think of your little sister? You think that’s beautiful?”
“I think new life is beautiful.”
We all looked at him, hushed.
About the Author:
Harry Thomas is the author of Some Complicity: Poems and Translations (Ungyve Books), and he has edited several books, including Montale in English and Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy, both published by Penguin. Later this year UnGyve Books will bring out his The Truth of Two: Selected Translations. Thomas’s poems, stories, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in dozens of magazines, American Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review, and Threepenny Review, among them.