Sunday, April 7, 2013

Arma Virumque Cano

In last night's dreams, I was on a frozen pond with my students, teaching English. Robert Frost, specifically. The ice may be thawing in reality, but in my dreams, my students stand on the thin, fragile ice of Post Pond. As we walked and talked, the ice under my feet began to give way. I did what any good New Englander would do; I fell flat, and spread my surface area out over the weak ice. My students did the same, and lay on their stomachs, reaching their arms out to pull me off of the soft ice. I heard a loud crack, and the surface of the pond gave way under my students. I knew right away I was going to have to get in the water and swim away from the safety of the ice, behind them, to make sure each one was able to grab on to the solid promise of safety. People on the shore brought long branches and hauled my students out, one by one, and I woke up as the last one was pulled out, on to the surface of the pond.

Becoming a teacher was much like becoming a parent, in that I had completely underestimated the weight of the job when I got my first post. Sure, I assumed I would feel a sense of duty toward my students, but I had no idea that it would extend outside the classroom, past graduation, into long term relationships with my former adivsees. I expected to attend graduations, but I was caught off guard by the weddings, births, and particularly the funerals.

I know there are teachers out there who choose to confine their duties to the classroom, but I can't be that kind of teacher. I feel a greater duty. I feel pietas.

Pietas is most commonly translated from the Greek as "piety," but this definition is inadequate. In his translation of The Aeneid, Robert Fagles translates the word as "devotion," but that's not quite right, either. Pietas is one’s duty and expected behavior toward all those to whom duty is owed. Just as I owe pietas toward my students, my family, my boss, any gods I worship, these people owe pietas to me in return.

Pietas can suck. Pietas is hard. Pietas wakes me up at night.

But what am I going to do? I am a teacher; it's my fate. Some days, I want to stay in bed, have more time to work on my writing projects, maybe even use that law degree I'm still paying off. In the end, though, I would know that I had strayed from my path. Even when other opportunities threaten to burn my world down to the ground, I can't keep from running back in and saving what I can.

Just as Aeneas could not ignore his fate, just as he felt obligated to toss Anchises and his household gods over his shoulders and stumble to safety, I, too, have to get out of my warm bed every morning so I can make sure all of my students are hauled to a place of learning and safety.


  1. As I've said before, if I'd had a teacher like you at any point along the way, I probably would have stayed in school. You're a life-changer, you are.