A Letter to Students
Why We Read The Odyssey
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
By Deborah Stokol
I’ve been full-time substitute teaching English at Harvard-Westlake, my Alma mater, for six weeks now, lecturing on The Odyssey and covering Creative Writing. A few of my 9th graders have asked why we read the epic piece, and I thought I’d write them a letter in response. Here it is:
To my dear 9th graders:
At some point this week, one of you asked why we were reading The Odyssey in the first place. And I made some joke along the lines of “…in three years, you’ll be walking along a leafy college campus, and you’ll step into a coffee shop. You’ll see an [insert attractive individual here] studying classics, perhaps, poring over The Odyssey. And won’t you be happy you read it then?”
And, jokes aside, I have to admit there’s a certain truth to that. What that really addresses, though, is how many people can relate to having read that book. It is everywhere; I am not kidding. Pretty much every high-schooler — around the world — reads it at some point within those four years. It will come up in conversation. It will be a point on which you can bond with others — perhaps simply disparaging what you feel is the boring or confusing nature of the text or perhaps remembering that it was pretty cool after all.Or you’ll notice it crops up in so many other places. I can’t even begin to name the number of cultural references The Odyssey’s yielded these past 2,500+ years. You’ll watch a movie, and there’ll be a siren scene. Or somebody will talk about how much of an “odyssey” these past years have been. Or you’ll read Tennyson’s Ulysses or James Joyce’s Ulysses or, having enjoyed The Big Lebowski or Fargo, you’ll rent O Brother, Where Art Thou? and pick up on reference after reference after reference.
It’s about more than simply trivia, though. There are reasons folks have been fascinated by Homer’s long and lively tale of escape, adventure and the attempt — and eventual ability — to return home, for this long. On a fundamental level, The Odyssey shows us how this monolithic passage of time still hasn’t done much to change human nature. We still have close friends and make silly mistakes. We’re still grouchy and petty and glory-seeking and superstitious and vain. We’re still restless and brave and sometimes cowardly. When we’re away too long, we still desperately wish to come home and see those we know will give us unconditional love. We still crave contact with the world around us; we still want respect. And, most importantly, we still wish to see those for whom we care, who know us best and who we know will wish us well.
Moreover, there’s a beauty in the language of the book that is elegant, but, I think, poignant and still…relevant. Maybe it seems strange to analyze a text that was not written in English, but 1. This is one impressive translation, and 2. It’s still quite possible to pick up on the pristine and evocative poetry. It may not build bridges or heal those who are sick, but it adds to life just a bit more of that beauty. So it will have an effect; you may not feel it now or in five years. But in some way, whether it’s because you simply won’t be left out from that very large group of people who have enjoyed (or at least read) The Odyssey, or because it will touch you in a way unexpected, it will have an effect.
I realize this may sound random and grand. But I’ve been thinking about that question. Until now, it had been a long time since I had read The Odyssey, yet it never fully left me. It still turns up all over the place; people still make some reference to a long journey or to feeling like Penelope or Telemakhos or to wondering where their Ithaka might be. In the end, it’s just a story that explores humanity — with its emotion, social structures (civilized or otherwise), fallibility and loyalty (to a belief system, to other beings, to one’s own sense of self)—with the obstacles it faces and the redemption it seeks.
I hope this helps,
Deborah Stokol is a Los Angeles native who attended Harvard-Westlake School before double majoring in English and Music at UC Berkeley and pursuing a Master’s in Journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. There, she received the Director’s Award for Excellence and followed a path in Journalism, helping to found USC’s Neon Tommy, working for the Los Angeles Times, interning at Los Angeles Magazine, earning a Carnegie- and Knight Foundation-funded Reporting Fellowship, and freelancing for various media outlets and websites. She substitute taught at Harvard-Westlake and other prep schools in Los Angeles and went on to teach full-time at La Jolla’s The Bishop’s School, where she currently works. She is in her third year as a high school English/Writing- and Journalism teacher, while also heading the school newspaper, The Tower. She loves spending her days volleying ideas with bright, eager students, discussing the finer points of literature and essay-esque writing with them, and delving into what makes fine prose so fine during heated editorial discussions and writing workshops with these young scholars. On her own time, she writes essays, poetry, short stories, and songs, and plays the piano and sings.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Deborah Stokol for graciously granting us permission to reprint this letter, which was originally posted on her website. “Why Read The Odyssey” is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.
Illustration: Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. 2nd century A.D.
When will you read The Odyssey in Excellence in Literature?
Honors: The Iliad by Homer