Epic moment

Sometimes we just have to stand aside and let our students become the teachers.


David Alford
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

To be ungracious about it, most of us in this profession are closet prima donnas who secretly or not so secretly want to hold center stage. We may stand aside at the edge of the proscenium like a master of ceremonies shepherding an act, but when the chips are down, it's "God, please give me the glory." Even in the presence of the most scintillating performance by one of "my" students (notice the possessive), there is always some aspect of the spectacle that I manage to take pride in, as if excellence were not really possible without my inspiration. Actually, I am not asking God to give me the credit: I am God.

But occasionally a student breaks through the mask and sows genuine humility, which grows for a few minutes in the infertile ground and then withers before the onslaught of ego. Such a moment happened yesterday, in Humanities 1, "Old World Culture," and the event was so stunning, so immortal, I felt like I had experienced a kind of death and transfiguration.

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The class began with a fairly mundane discussion of the "Epic of Gilgamesh," an old Sumerian story from about the third millennium B.C. I tossed out a list of 34 possible connections between elements of the story and our modern consciousness, such things as "abuse of power" and "civilization vs. nature." We were meandering along in typical classroom conversational fashion: too much of me, not quite enough of them, me feeling clearly in control of the gradual meanings we were together shaping.

I asked if anybody could point to parts of the text that particularly struck them and a young mother named Rebeka raised her hand. She asked us to look at a passage in which "Man-Scorpion" asks Gilgamesh -- who has recently lost his comrade-in-arms and brother Enkidu to angry gods -- why he has embarked on his arduous journey in search of everlasting life. Then she read aloud:

For Enkidu; I loved him dearly, together we endured all kinds of hardships; on his account I have come, for the common lot of man has taken him. I have wept for him day and night, I would not give up his body for burial, I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping.

Rebeka stopped reading, staring down at the page, then repeated, "I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping." Then she stared out the window for a moment, returned to the room and said, "That's it, isn't it. I'm old enough to know what that means. Does anybody else in the room know what it feels like to have weeping not work?" She was quivering, straining to see people in the room clearly.

And then she said, "There's more," and asked us to turn to Page 99 in the Penguin edition. Gilgamesh is continuing on his quest for eternal life. She began reading quietly.

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When he had gone one league the darkness became thick around him. For there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. After two leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. After three leagues the darkness was thick, and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. After four leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

She was in a cadence now, almost like a chant. My friend and student Red Dobbins, definitive barometer of inauthenticity, eyes wild like a stallion in heat whenever he gets a whiff of it, was gazing down at the floor.

At the end of five leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. At the end of six leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. When he had gone seven leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. When he had gone eight leagues Gilgamesh gave a great cry, for the darkness was thick and he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

The girl in the front row who had been using her chair for a chaise lounge straightened up slightly. I was nodding in time with the beat.

After nine leagues he felt the north wind on his face, but the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him. After ten leagues the end was near. After eleven leagues the dawn light appeared. At the end of twelve leagues the sun streamed out.

She stopped, eyes gleaming. "See," she said. "There's no way we can stop. We have to go on, no matter what. It doesn't matter how much darkness there is."

The room was silent. Forty students and I listened. I thought of my mom and dad, dead now for 16 years, divorces, lost loves, failures of all kinds, and I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of inadequacy and sadness. I wished I could have slunk down under the desk and found my way to a spot under the pines outside.

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Rebeka continued, "So, this is an extremely hopeful story. Gilgamesh goes on, like we all do. Even if he fails. He does fail, in the end, but it doesn't really matter. We do all die. There is no everlasting life, but there's still hope."

If there had been a clock in the room I would have heard it ticking. I wanted to hand her everything I owned right then and just retire to the mountains and live like a hermit forever. Everyone in the class just sat in silence. Nobody was God.

Finally, I stepped back onto the stage. Somebody had to do it. I mumbled, "Thank you. That was great," and dismissed the class. Red Dobbins stopped by the desk to say something. I didn't hear it. Rebeka packed up her books and walked out.

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I lingered in the room after everybody left, thinking about the miracle of this profession, the vast desert of my psyche and the light that sometimes shatters the gloom.


David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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