My son's school year has just started, and his teacher has given all the children in his class opportunity to introduce themselves to one another. Each child now has a small, brown paper bag; it is the standard sort, the kind many of us have used before to carry our lunch to school or to work. The bag is nondescript, undecorated, without any distinguishing marks that would signal it to be my son's.
Into this bag my son will place three objects. Instructions run that he should choose three things – none too expensive, breakable, or dangerous – that describe him and his family. When my son first brought this lunch bag home and told me about this assignment, we had a brief talk about what makes him unique.
My son is a normal 10-year-old boy: he likes Minecraft, comic books, skateboarding, and all the pop-music that he heard at summer camp. However, one can see my effects on the boy. My son has heard about Homer: this happened early in his life, and I have revisited Homer and his epic poetry many times.
So, when I heard there was an opportunity for him to share how his home life has shaped him , my first response was: send Homer to school.
Not just any Homer mind you. Any classicist worth his weight in salt could provide a 10-year-old son suitable – maybe even illustrated – versions of the Iliad or Odyssey. But I wanted to avoid the translations. I know there's that self-reflective, proud assumption that a classicist deals only in the originals. Is it a status thing? Maybe.
But I like to think it's probably something a little less class-conscious than this. Homer in Greek, even to--especially to--those who know nothing of him or the language, is an envoy and emblem of learning, poetry, history. So, I took one of my OCTs, and offered it for the boy's brown sack. The size and shape fit nicely with the bag. My son, as one might expect, groaned.
"Nobody knows this stuff, dad."
I assumed the supercilious look and air of a 19th century don. "They should." And I proceeded naturally into a sort of introductory lecture on the historical, artistic, and philosophical value of Homer and his poems both to the ancient Greek world and to all literary history that has followed.
My son was unimpressed. He is a good reader; he is someone who has learned to appreciate a good adventure story, a well turned phrase, and the value of history's lessons – both good and bad. But he knows, although his father has often forgotten it, how the majority of the 4th grade world has very little concern for any such things as these. They are moot points until a teacher brings their value forward.
I suggested more. "Every kid loves the look of the Greek language. It has a mystery to it, something perhaps found in archaeological dig or in an old, maybe magical ,book. "
My 10-year-old son was unconvinced. "Homer, "he said, "doesn't matter." He flashed me a wry smile; he was digging into his dad. I knew he wasn't being wholly sincere.
But I also knew he was telling me the truth. Homer matters, but not for a paper bag and certainly not when introducing a young man to his classmates.
The book came back out. I knew I had been guilty of classical proselytizing. I had to try when I had the chance to try. But I knew when defeat was defeat. I also knew there would other chances for Homer to go to school. Now just wasn't one of them.
My wife during all of this was lingering in the background, no doubt enjoying the self-confidence of youth in the face of a father's graying, inherited wisdom.
There will be time enough for Homer in the future.
So my son chose something else: a pencil because he likes to write; a seashell because he likes the ocean; a small wooden king from a chess set because he likes that game. Each of these things went into the plain brown lunch bag and off to school, heralds of what my son has become.