Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Halcyon Days

After more than a decade of teaching, I still find it fascinating that the best and the worst days can be one in the same. 

Today was so...odd, and horrifying, and lovely, and frustrating, and invigorating. In other words, today was a normal day in middle school. 

Vocabulary word of the day: Halcyon

As usual, there's a story behind the word of the day. Once upon a time, Aeolus, the King of the winds, had a daughter, Alcyone. Alcyone was one of the Pleiades, married to Ceyx, the King of Thessaly. When Ceyx drowned (thanks to a thunderbolt from Zeus), Alcyone, overcome with grief for her husband, threw herself into the sea. Instead of drowning, she was carried on the winds, in the form of a bird, usually identified as a Kingfisher. In legend, the Kingfisher builds its nests on the open ocean, so Aeolus decreed that there would be a time of calm while the eggs of the Kingfisher are in the nest, waiting to hatch out the vulnerable offspring. Consequently, the fourteen days surrounding the winter solstice, the days in which the Kingfisher hatches her eggs on magically calm open seas, are termed the "halcyon days."

The Kingfisher, or the bird alkyon or halkyon, from the Greek hals "sea, salt" and kyon "conceive, to swell" is allowed to brood her eggs on a sea of calm thanks to her father Aeolus. Appropriately, there's a genus of the Kingfisher family called Ceyx, and another called Halcyonidae. 

Ovid wrote: 

The Gods their chapes to winter-birds translate,

But both obnoxious to their former fate.
Their conjugaal affection still it tied,
And still the mournful race is multiplied:
They bill, they tread; Alcyone compressed, 
Seven days sits brooding on her floating nest:
A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,
Calms ev'ry storm and hushes ev'ry wind;
Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,
And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.

Today was not a halcyon day. Today, there was no calm, there was no hush. Today was chaos. My boss was away at a conference, and I taught six classes in a day of seven periods. Today, there were disciplinary actions, "talks" with students, and at one desperate moment, a nap on my office floor seemed the only reasonable option.

But it's April in New Hampshire, and I am used to unsettled weather. Today, for example, Lyme had bright sunshine, torrential downpours, hail, and high winds. On such a day, my scheduled lesson, the short stories of a few despairing Russians, was not working for my eighth graders. Dostoyevsky's An Honest Thief, Chekov's The Bet, and Tolstoy's God Sees the Truth But Waits was not going to happen. The stories - and my entire short story unit, no less - may have been inked into the schedule since September, but that does not mean I could force the Russians down my students' throats. They needed a change in the weather.

I happened to have a stack of King Lear, ordered for next year's class. I hadn't planned to use them, but they were sitting right there, on my office floor, taking up my nap space. I figured it if it is my favorite story, I could make it their favorite story. At least until May. 

And so far, so good. They needed a change, so I switched up my plans. They needed energy, so I will give them all I've got. No reading from seats; all reading will be done from the front of the room. No homework in Lear; all reading will be done in class. Performances and enthusiasm, not innate comprehension, will be graded. The play's the thing.

We started reading, and the skies cleared over my classroom. The howling winds died down and I heard laughter instead. The boy who read Cordelia's part today day gave his all. The girl who stood tall, delivering Lear's words as he struggled to reclaim his dignity in the aftermath of his disastrous love test earned a ten out of ten for her efforts.

Where boredom dominated, enthusiasm now reigns. 

And that's how middle school works. The winds may rage, but inside the walls of our middle school, I provide the calm waters my students need in order to emerge from their nests unscathed. Because sometimes, when they are at their most chaotic, they require my stability, my quiet, the solace of my classroom. Today, I had to shield them from the hail and high winds and create artificial halcyon days. Like Aeolus, I will provide it, but I will also retain my parents' prerogative to be frustrated and exhausted from the exertion that this protection demands.

Today, I played the benevolent Prospero. Today, I conjured some magic, changed the weather, and calmed the seas under their nests. Tomorrow, who knows. 

Tonight, the evening is suffused with that golden light that peers out from a clearing in dark, stormy skies. The dark and rain will return, but for a little while, it's what Walt Whitman saw when he envisioned his "Halcyon Days."

As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky, 
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air, 
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree, 
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

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