by Adrin Fisher
Epics are my thing lately. Maybe it’s because I picked up a beautiful new paperback of The Odyssey translated by Fagles. Maybe it’s because my family has been loving Disney’s show The Mandalorian, the one with “Baby Yoda.” Maybe it’s because in many unexpected ways, fiction has become fact in 2020.
Epics are long, narrative poems that tell the story of a courageous, larger-than-life hero. The action takes us on a journey, the villains often have supernatural power, and the hero triumphs (mostly). There’s also a lot of talking involved.
My teacher-friends and I have talked and talked. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our emotions have been like cheap plastic kites jerked about in gale-force winds: disbelief, anger, sadness, cautious optimism, fear, exhaustion, hope, grief. Lots of us have settled somewhere in the area of resignation, our little kite selves bent and busted, but still fluttering. We’re not thinking of ourselves as particularly heroic.
In some ways, to a person born and bred in Appalachia, this feeling of resignation is home. When I introduce Beowulf to my seniors, I talk about the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Fatalism, I say. This conglomeration of conquering tribes believed that Fate ruled all. This, I say, is familiar. You know this. You’ve heard people say, “It is what it is.” You know the phrase, “What will be will be.”
Then we go to the epic. We hear Beowulf himself say, “Fate will unwind as it must,” and we remember the Fates fighting over their eyeball in that old Disney movie, Hercules. We remember reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. This we know.
We could talk about why fatalism is a cornerstone of the Appalachian ethos. We could point to it as a reason why education is not of primary value in many of our families. We could think about the vices our students start experiencing in middle school—the drinking, the vaping, the smoking. We could think about generational poverty and cycles of abuse and drugs and promiscuity and injustice and broken promises. We could mention it all. We could rake ourselves over the coals.
But we don’t. Others do that for us.
Instead, we talk about Abraham Lincoln, a fatalist through and through. We talk about underdogs. We talk about justice and paybacks. We talk about the strength it takes to live under the weight of fate.
We ask, why should we bother?
We ask, what drove Beowulf? That one’s easy: he wanted to be remembered for his actions. Beowulf voyaged across the sea. He fought a demon, weaponless. He swam to the bottom of a bottomless hot spring and killed a Water-Witch. He trekked to the mountains and slew a dragon.
We talk about strength, courage, generosity, right motives. We talk about resilience. Hope.
We, teacher-friend, are teaching through a pandemic. We are making history. It’s not pretty, but nevertheless, it’s pretty epic.
We’re navigating a patchwork of rules and regulations with unclear requirements and expectations about devices, broadband, virtual meetings, and student involvement. We’re choosing the essential. We’re protecting our people. We’re extinguishing fires. We’re dismembering demons and slaying dragons every day.
So, today, I’m asking you to fan that little flame of fatalism that may yet burn in your Appalachian heart-of-hearts. Use it as a reminder of your own strength, teacher-friend. Let’s accept the hand that’s been dealt. But let’s reframe our journey.
We’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for our communities, our students—whether they know it or not—and we’re fighting for their futures. We’re fighting for our profession, our families, our colleagues, our work-life balance, and our sanity. We here in Appalachia have been fighting for a long, long time.
We have all lost in the past nine months, to be sure, but we are not losing. And neither are the kids. There will be pieces to pick up. There will be wounds that need healed. There will be grace given.
But—as we’ve learned from epics—heroes are never perfect, but they are always moving.
You are the epic hero in your own story. Courage, dear heart.
Poem Credit: “Ulysses”
Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin