Chiron, the Master Teacher

While I was at the Open Book Cape Town Literary Festival, I was interviewed by the wonderful Clive Chandler, a Classics Professor at Cape Town University.  He asked if the character of Chiron in The Song of Achilles had been in any way inspired by my own teaching.

Chiron is a master teacher, so this was a lovely question to be asked.  But the truth is, Chiron came much more out of my experiences as a student.  I am fortunate to have had some truly terrific teachers in my life, who were instrumental in nurturing my enthusiasm for literature, Classics, and learning in general.  Chiron isn’t based on any of them (he’s very much his own person, er, horse-person), but he does share with them some of the qualities of excellent teaching: a passion for communicating knowledge, an emphasis on the individual student, and a deep-seated curiosity about the world.  And, like them, he believes in seizing the moment—in allowing student interest, or current events, to draw the class outside the lines of the lesson.

One of my favorite memories of this kind of teaching is from my high school Latin class.  We were translating the Aeneid, the section where Aeneas’ fleet reaches the Libyan shore.  Vergil takes his time describing the scene—the natural harbor, the overhanging cliffs, the dark groves.  It was beautiful writing, but dense, and the class was finding it dry.

“I don’t get it,” a student complained.  “He’s describing all this stuff, but I have no idea where it all goes.”

“Let’s draw it,” my teacher said.  “Volunteers?”  He opened a brand-new box of colored chalk, and offered it to us.  A few students bounded to the board and started sketching excitedly.  The rest of us scoured the text, offering suggestions (“The forests should be on top of the cliff!”), intent on making the image perfectly match Vergil’s words.  The ringing bell came as a shock.  Hadn’t we just started?

It was such a simple thing for my teacher to do, but utterly transformative.  He completely changed the energy of the class, and brought us back to the material with new, enthusiastic eyes.  That kind of flexibility is something I have striven to emulate in my own classroom.  Yes, it can lead to some unproductive digressions (“Who was that guy who got pantsed by Apollo?“) but those are more than made up for by the many times that it invigorates the class, and sparks new discussion.

Three cheers for Chiron and master teachers everywhere!

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