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The power of epic tales

| November 27, 2018 | 0 Comments


I have taught at St Stithians Boys’ College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, since 2004.

My passion for educating young men is harnessed in my role both as a tutor to 15 boys across grades 8 to 12, and as Grade 11 director. In the tutor group, the role I play is a pastoral one. I meet with my group of boys three times per week, besides seeing them in our larger gatherings as part of a day-house. As Grade 11 director, my focus shifts to the larger group of 148 boys, guiding them as they gear up to lead the school in matric while beginning their mentor relationship with a Grade 8 boy. In 2013-14, I conducted a programme of action research for the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC)1 in the field of character education, with particular reference to mentorship. There is a wealth of data to be found on mentorship, but I wanted to find out if there was any benefit derived for the senior partner in a mentorship relationship.2

The next step

The mentorship relationship at the boys’ college has its roots in Homer’s The Odyssey3 – the ancient Greek tale of the battle of Troy, and Odysseus’s subsequent journey home. Part of that tale relates the story of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, left behind at home in Ithaca, and the support he receives from a supposed chieftain from the island of Taphos, who is actually the goddess Athena in disguise. At the end of their Grade 10 year, all St Stithians boys undergo a period of training to introduce them to a mentorship relationship with an incoming Grade 8 boy. This relationship is designed to last two years at the college until the senior boy matriculates – optimally, a successful relationship would continue after one or both boys leave school. Part of the training involves a Socratic method of questioning,4 which can be applied to any task, goal, practice or relationship. The philosopher Socrates put forward that all knowledge was already present in the mind of a man; all that was necessary to access it was a teacher to pose questions that would cause the learner to solve the problem for themselves. My experience with the IBSC’s action research programme piqued my interest in the power of epic tales, such as The Odyssey. Our modern world is filled with such epic tales in literature, music, theatre and film, and our boys immerse themselves in one or more of these arenas on a daily basis. This year, I explored the power of epic tales with my tutor group. At the core of our journey is the belief that each boy lives a life of significance; that each boy is an epic hero on a fantastic journey.

The hero

Marvel’s Avengers, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, George Lucas’s Star Wars, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (and the associated TV series, Game of Thrones):5 these are some of the epic tales our boys are reading and watching. While the details are different in every case, there are similarities to be found that speak to our boys as they write the tales of their own lives. Every tale has a hero – often larger than life, sometimes possessing fantastic powers. The hero is one with whom we relate, the one for whom we cheer and with whom we empathise, the one whose traits we aspire to have. The boys in my group told me that the characteristics they looked for in a hero include the following: “Spiderman… [acts] like a child. He is brave and often goes out of his comfort zone”. “My dad has led me to thrive and excel and has given me many opportunities”. “Groot (from Guardians of the Galaxy),6 because he is so powerful yet humble and can get up after being knocked down”. “Batman who, despite his fortune, ‘chooses to help the less fortunate’”.

The power of a name

Guy Gavriel Key wrote a beautiful work of fantasy literature called Tigana,7 in which he explored the magical power of names. Names are at the very core of our identity; we respond instinctively to them. For many parents, one of the most enjoyable and most important moments when having a child is when they choose the child’s name. Books are purchased and read as we pore over the meaning of the name the child will carry for all their days. One of the tasks we undertook was for each boy to investigate the origin of their name – this could be in terms of geographic origin, cultural heritage or linguistic meaning. The boys also asked their parents the reasons behind their choice of name. This task was set for the boys in their mentorship pairs and the exercise sought to provide them with an opportunity to share a meaningful moment with one another. The boys discovered the following in their research: “My name means ‘knowledge’ and my parents chose it because they knew I would have it”. “My parents liked the name of the doctor who delivered me and named me after him”.

The companions

In epic tales, a hero has a loyal companion – a faithful friend who sometimes holds within him traits that enable the hero to persevere and to triumph. Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza, Frodo Baggins had Samwise Gamgee and Sherlock Holmes had his Watson.8 I asked the boys in my group to describe the qualities of their own companions and why they were drawn to them. It was interesting to note that this question was sparsely answered, and I wondered if this was because it is such a personal question. All the boys referred to their friends as people who “Help me and push me to carry on”.

The sirens

On his journey home from Troy, Odysseus passed the island of the sirens – mythical creatures whose song was so beautiful it forever ensnared anyone who heard it. Odysseus managed to avoid a lifetime on that island by blocking the ears of his men with beeswax prior to sailing past. He then tied himself to the mast of the ship so that while he could hear the song of the sirens, he would be prevented from changing course towards the island. In our modern world, the sirens are no less real, merely subtler. The tale guides us to accountability: to establish relationships with others who will keep us from straying from the path. This requires us to trust, to be vulnerable, to share ourselves with someone who will likewise trust us to keep them from their sirens. I asked the boys to identify those things which distract them and deter them from reaching their goals. It was interesting to note that despite their different backgrounds, their distractions were very similar. Social media appeared often in their responses. The fear of missing out (FOMO)9 phenomenon keeps them looking at their phones frequently during the day, and this distracts them from their studies. I also asked them how their sirens could be overcome. In the case of their phones, it requires a deliberate effort to put the phone in a drawer and lock it away while they study. Some boys mentioned their parents removing the phone for a time, but this was not a common response.

Your personal theme tune

Shakespeare wrote: “If music be the food of love, play on”.10 Give any teenager the chance, and they’ll be plugging earpieces in to have their music playing to accompany whatever task they are addressing. In the 1980s (and for almost three decades subsequently), countless rugby teams, especially at schoolboy level, prepared for matches with Eye of the Tiger by Survivor11 blaring out of whatever boom-box was available (cassette tape, CD, MP3 player, iPod, iPhone, Bluetooth speaker…). Music feeds our souls, connects with our emotions and indelibly etches memories onto our psyches. Even decades later, music heard in our teenage years can summon memories and emotions that we created and lived back then. My boys explored their own personal theme tunes and told me of their findings. I noted that the diverse nature of my group produced a variety of different music styles, each of them with deep meaning for the listener. Michael Jackson’s Earth Song12 speaks to people looking at the world around us, seeing the environmental destruction and the war that kills so many people. Our boys are very aware of their surroundings, perhaps surprisingly so. Fleurie’s Chasing All the Stars13 speaks of someone’s friend – “you’re my umbrella in a raging sea” – and the artist struggling to tell them what they mean to them. Eminem’s famous Lose Yourself provides much food for thought: Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity To seize everything you ever wanted One moment Would you capture it or just let it slip?

And finally…

This has been a fascinating time for me as the boys and I embarked on this epic journey. The tales we have told each other have brought our group together in a remarkable way. The boys have engaged with themselves deeply and with their companions in a deliberate and meaningful way, and they have engaged with their parents in activities which hopefully create ties that further bind. As an educator, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to share with my boys a different perspective of the world, to travel with them on a road that climbed and turned, that overlooked great vistas and visited quiet enclaves. I hope that my boys will live great lives, that they will be loyal companions and steadfast friends. The tale thus far is being written by the boys themselves, and it is vibrant, bright, innovative and imaginative.

Graham Jonson teaches geography and is a Grade 11 director at St Stithians Boys’ College.

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7. Kay, G.G. (2011) Tigana. New York: Harper Voyager.
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Category: Summer 2018

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