Literary Quote for Your Weekend: Navigating the Wilderness

“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
  Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
  so bitter–death is hardly more severe!
–Inferno 1.1-7

In the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Virgil meets the terrified pilgrim Dante and proceeds to be his guide.  Dante is lost in a dark wood, surrounded by three wild and predatory animals, animals keeping him from climbing the mountain he believes will take him home.

By the time his hero Virgil shows up to guide him, Dante is desperate.  Virgil explains to the pilgrim “It is another path that you must take if you would leave this savage wilderness.” There is, apparently, only one way out. A place of even more savagery. A place with a sign that says “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.” The Inferno.

I have come to believe that every teacher will find herself in the dark wood at some point in her career. Perhaps it will be, like Dante “midway on the journey.” Perhaps earlier or later. Perhaps on a five or seven year cycle.  If what I’ve been reading online recently is any indication, many of us are there now.

Educators are, like Dante the pilgrim, surrounded by predators who would love to eat American public education for lunch. These predators take many forms; any educator could make a list in minutes. They snarl as us and cause us to cower and slink away from our calling.  We debate resignation, a move that for some of us feels just like lying down in submission before a hungry wolf.

There may, however, be another way.

And if Virgil is right, the other way may just save us.

I believe without equivocation that the vision of American public education is an epic project. The idea that we can provide education, free at the point of delivery, for all children of our democratic republic, is as “hard and huge a task” as Aeneas’ founding of Rome, as any task an epic hero has ever undertaken.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is an epic that has affected me profoundly, and this choice that Virgil offers Dante is one on which I have meditated when I have faced my own dark woods in my teaching career.

Virgil presents a crucial decision to the pilgrim Dante, a decision played out over and over in epics.  Underlying his presentation is a warning: dire consequences could occur if the response is inappropriate. In order for the epic action to continue forward, the hero must respond to the wilderness with submission to a higher calling in spite of his own fear and ignorance.

Many of us are at this moment Dante experiences.  April is a month of soul-searching as we are offered contracts, as new and inviting positions open, as we contemplate all that we wish we had done better this year in our classrooms and all that we resolve to change for the next.

But the way out of the wilderness will not be easy.  In many ways it may be more difficult and terrifying than our current experience. It may get worse, as it does for Dante, before it gets better.  For Dante, however, it gets much, much better.

I would like to offer three observations and applications from this passage and from other epics.

1. In epics, the wilderness experience is one of education and formation.

Dante the pilgrim is in a time of personal crisis, “within a shadowed forest.” He is fearful and “full of sleep.” He has even “abandoned the true path” and must be guided back. Similarly, in The Odyssey, Odysseus sails the “wide sea” with his men. His watery wilderness is also savage: he is unable to control or save his men and he is vulnerable to Poseidon. His wandering is a curse—he screams out his name foolishly to the sea-god in a moment of hubris. He must learn to conceal himself better for his return to Ithaka. The rashness he displays here and in his raid on the Kikonians will not be appropriate when he returns to the city. In the African Mwindo Epic, Mwindo must learn in the heavens that there are higher powers to which he must submit. In Exodus, the Hebrews must wander in the wilderness for 40 years because they lack faith that Yahweh’s promised land will be better than the harsh slavery of Egypt. They will not be ready to enter that land until they have learned what all epic heroes must learn: submission to the calling.

In a strange way, my own wilderness experiences in my career have also been times of tremendous growth.  In my desperation, I have searched for, and found, answers that I needed to know and friends that I needed to have.  In moments like this, I have read books, taken classes, joined teaching networks, attended conferences, and generally pushed myself into experiences I would never have had if I had been more content. Even in tough circumstances caused by external factors, I have always discovered ways in which I personally needed to change.  These changes, in turn, have empowered me.

2. The proper response to the wilderness is submission to the calling the epic hero has received.

This calling is represented by the phrase Virgil uses here: “another path.” This is not a path of the hero’s own choosing or even envisioning—this is instead the appearance of Achises to Aeneas with the commission to lead the Trojan fugitives, the appearance of Tripitaka to Monkey in the Asian epic of the Monkey King, the revelation of Yahweh to Moses in the burning bush. Even Odysseus, who longs for home, would much rather take a more direct route than one that leads him through the underworld and past sirens and god-favored cattle. There is a promise of homecoming and an ultimate escape from wilderness, but the hero must submit to living in ambiguity and belief in this ultimate outcome.

We have little idea what education will look like in the next decade or century.  This road we are on to improve the lives of American children while also preparing them for the demands of the information age, to move, albeit slowly, our schools away from the industrial factory model to something else is unpredictable.  We’re tired; I get it. But we have to stay faithful to our vocation, even while facing so many unknowns about what the world will look like or need from us.

3. Before the proper response can occur, the epic hero requires a guide.

Dante meets Virgil; Mwindo has the deities who dwell in the sky and his aunt-mother; Odysseus must follow Athena; Yahweh appoints Moses to lead the ancient Hebrews; and Moses himself is guided by speaking directly with Yahweh. The wilderness is a place with no resources, a place of helplessness. All weapons or powers of the hero are ineffective, and he must rely on the guide in order to escape.

Similarly, no teacher can do this job alone.  No matter how smart, charismatic, enthusiastic, edgy, fun, whatever you are, you cannot navigate this career alone.  We must support each other, building networks, taking charge of our own professional development.  Building networks is easier than ever with the dawn of the digital age.  Meet and chat with fellow educators on Twitter; comment on education blogs or start a blog yourself; find like-minded colleagues and meet for dinner; start a book club; invent your own professional learning space. Mentor new teachers if you have experience; seek out experienced teachers if you are new.  Whatever you do, I repeat: do not try to navigate the wilderness alone.

Are you in a dark wood in your teaching career? Have you ever been?  What have you learned from these experiences? Who has helped guide you out of the wilderness?

Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Knopf, 1995. Print.

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