Education is a shared journey of discovery, and that was most evident on a recent evening at North Central High School. As I have shared elsewhere, our Latin V students, those who started Latin in 8th grade, have spent most of their senior year exploring topics of particular interest to them. From philosophy to historical linguistics to bees...yes, bees...these intellectually curious and motivated students have demonstrated the best in what we hope for from lifelong learners.
During the final quarter of the year, they decided to work together to pursue something that few high school students even know exists, the tragedies of Seneca. Tradition has Lucius Annaeus Seneca born about 4 B.C. Despite his having once been the tutor of Nero, the emperor ordered him to commit suicide A.D. 65. He is famous for his philosophical writings in the Stoicism and his tragedies, which are decidedly not Stoic. To quote one of his modern translators, "Seneca's tragedies are intense. They show us people who push themselves too far, beyond the limits of ordinary behaviour and emotion. Passion is set against reason, and passions wins out. Seneca's characters are obsessed and destroyed by their emotions: they are dominated by rage, ambition, lust, jealousy, desire, anger, grief, madness, and fear." (Emily Wilson, Seneca: Six Tragedies, p. vii.)
Into this dark literary world that has influenced Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy and has sparked almost unbroken interest for two millennia, a small group of Indiana high schools seniors dared to enter. They read several of Seneca's works and settled on Thyestes, the revenge story that tells the tale of Atreus, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus of Trojan War fame, feeding to his brother Thyestes his brother's own children. They explored the vexed question of whether or not Seneca's plays were ever performed in antiquity and then set about the task of imagining how to perform this one in the 21st century. I should add that I had little to do with this. Other than providing some resources and asking questions, I left the students to their own devices. The result was the fulfillment of a dream for me.
On the night of their performance, a handful of parents and students gathered in a small auditorium at our school. The set and costuming were minimal by design, and for twenty-two minutes, four students presented their version of Thyestes, which drew heavily from the translation of Paul Murgatroyd. Immediately following the performance we engaged in a time of question and answers. We explored their choices in editing the play, their decisions regarding makeup, and whether or not there was any development or progression in the characters.
So that explains the "bloody vengeance" in the title of this post, but what about the rest of the title? For nearly twenty-five years I have wanted to see high school students work with Seneca, but it just never happened. What these students did was beyond my hopes, for they inspired me to think, and that is the reason for the second part of this post's title. I simply love exploring the world and journeying with students on the quest for truth, goodness, and beauty. Does that sound a bit lofty? Perhaps it does, but then again, education is a lofty endeavor. High school students are curious without being jaded as, sadly, too many undergraduates seem to be. What my students did with this play raised questions for me that I am eager to explore with students yet to come. I like to learn. I like to explore. I like to seek the answers to questions, and very often, my students are the ones who have inspired the most provocative ones.
I have been blessed to be able to pursue my own academic work as a high school teacher. Work with high school students has inspired my articles on translation theory, Latin poetic composition, textual issues with Vergil's Aeneid (and here), and the mind-body problem in philosophy. Without question, I would never have pursued these and other works were it not for my primary work as a teacher.
In the film Without Limits, which tells the story of long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, Coach Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon tells his runners, "If you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you can find meaning in...life." I hope my students have found meaning in our Latin studies, for I know that I have. What I have found is nothing less than life itself.