Both for my students and for me, the past several days have felt like important steps on a literal and metaphorical journey. For many of our seniors, after the Awards Day ceremony on Thursday, there were a few final, frantic hours of preparation for their Graduation Project presentations. The school has required a capstone project like this from its inception, long before the state developed its version. It’s traditional, of course, for seniors to complain about the workload and the various requirements, but over the years most have found it valuable and rewarding … at least in retrospect. It’s definitely a lengthy journey for them, a journey with many steps.
With those presentations Thursday afternoon, and with the first of two graduation practices on Friday, there was a strong sense of winding down and moving on as the week drew to its close – a feeling as if one journey was drawing to a close, a new one beginning. Friday, for the Latin II classes, featured a “self-paced collaborative review” in which small groups worked through an old version of the Individual Written Response portion of the final exam, the one thing that sometimes causes concern. There’s some grammatical analysis (using our “traditional symbols and marks” instead of our “traditional hand signals), some guided Latin composition, and a story to read and answer questions about individually – nothing really scary or unfamiliar, of course, but everyone seemed to appreciate the opportunity to practice the format even if they were too tired to do much practicing. We’ll be winding down that task today, the Last Day Before Final Exams. The schedule is a bit different today, with the first and last-hour classes “flip-flopped” so that the last class today is the one with the exam tomorrow … and idea, simple in its logic, which will probably leave Ms. X and Mr. Y angry and upset because they “forgot about it” over the long weekend.
On Friday afternoon, after a very long but very good week of school, I set out on a journey to Baltimore, where my good friend Emily and the amazing a cappella group she sings with were performing … well, if you have any interest in music or Norse mythology, you just need to go and look at their Kickstarter page and make a contribution. I’ve been to a number of conferences in the past few months, but it had been quite a while since I’d taken a “mostly for me” trip. In fact, I really can’t remember the last time I did take such a trip; even the one to New Orleans last summer, amazing and life-changing as it was for me personally, was motivated by a professional need.
This trip was different, on so many levels. I usually make travel arrangements well in advance, but not this time. I had a few errands to run before I left on Friday; unsure whether I’d have the energy or desire to drive all the way to Baltimore that evening, I deliberately didn’t make hotel reservations. I’d promised the members of Sassafrass that I’d bring them these amazing apples and some Zaxby’s chicken and sauce … so, cooler filled and ready, I drove north until, around Richmond, I realized I’d driven enough. Saturday morning was a great time to finish that journey, especially since DC-area traffic was heading the opposite direction. Saturday afternoon and evening were a blur of meeting people, helping to fetch things, providing extra hands and ears, and attending one fascinating panel about the Heroic Journey.
A few months ago, I’d had a dream in which I was attending (0r journeying to attend) services at Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore and reading the famous poem associated with it … so it seemed appropriate both to read the poem and to attend services there Sunday morning. The trip into Baltimore proper was much less difficult than iin my dream, the service was lovely, and – an unexpected treat – the touring choir from the Alabama Choir School provided service music. Then came a quick lunch, a truly remarkable concert, a bit of rest, a celebratory evening with new-found friends. The long weekend ended with the drive back home, pleasantly interrupted for lunch in Washington, DC, with a friend I hadn’t seen in years.
So it was a most unusual weekend … and the whole thing felt like a metaphorical as well as literal journey. As I was selecting books to bring with me, not sure how much time if any I’d really have to read, I rediscovered this one which I’d received at the author’s panel at SXSW Edu in March. I haven’t finished it; it’s designed to be chewed slowly and deliberately. But it, plus the complicated heroism of the Norse myths and all the quests my students are involved in, got me thinking about journeys and heroes and quests in a new and different way. That panel about the heroic journey – and about its “uses and misuses,” particularly in recent science-fiction and fantasy novels and films – contributed an amazing insight.
“The heroic journey,” someone said at the panel, “isn’t a plot device, but a character arc.” And somehow that made things clearer. As we’ve been working on the latter phases of the Tres Columnae Project, and as we’ve been developing the idea of Corgito Ergo Sum and some other projects, I’ve been thinking again about the different ways that writers – and participants in story-creating communities – go about their craft. Where do you begin? With the plot … or the characters? With a forced plot arc, or with one that spontaneously emerges as you write? There’s not a single right answer, of course! But for me, characters always come first – usually with a vague notion or two about plot. The plot – the journey – emerges from the characters themselves.
I’d hardly label myself as a gamer, but I enjoy the company of gamers … and I met and conversed with manyover the weekend. At one point, late on Sunday evening, I was talking with a group who do extensive role-plays together regularly. They’re a joyful community who build meaningful things together, and as I listened to them, I heard many of the same conversations I hear when my own students build stories and scenarios with the Tres Columnae characters. I’d been thinking about Joe Bower’s recent blog post about 3 major shifts that education (and educators) need to make, and as I listened to these new friends – and talked with them about their own school experiences – the importance of our shared work became ever clearer.
Is it a heroic journey, as the 20th century would have defined heroic? I’m not sure. Does it involve life changes and, on some scale, changes for a greater world? Yes. So do the journeys our almost-graduates are embarking on; so do the struggles of the Norse myth cycle I saw depicted so beautifully on Sunday. What’s the next step, and where will we find the companions and the resources for our journey? And how will we invite Ms. X, Mr. Y, and so many hesitant others to take their next right steps?