Monday, 15 September 2014

Age of Heroes

Every night before bed, The Girl and I go over lessons that I prepare, trying to teach her some of the things she won’t learn in regular school. And as I’m at work most of the day, we have to squeeze in a lot in a little time. Sometimes we sing old folk songs, and then I start the lesson for the night.

I try to organise them by days of the week – Monday for history, Tuesday for biology and so on. I also try to organise them by week so the different types of lessons fit together; in other words, the history for that week ties in with the biology ties in with the theology and so on. Thus we have been studying the rise and fall of the Sumerian empires, one of which fell when the climate changed, another of which fell when they over-irrigated the land and accidentally salted the earth. At the same time, for biology we’ve been studying how plants need certain compounds and are poisoned by others, so she knows what salt does to plants. At the same time we’ve been reading mythology and the legend of Gilgamesh. At the same time we’ve been studying Genesis, and how Abraham fled Sumeria around that time, and so on.

That’s all in theory. Then we start talking, and the conversations and lessons take us where they will, and lessons that I planned to take a week stretch out into a month or more. That’s all right, though, as long as we get there and learn a lot of other things along the way.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned, we covered what happens when empires rise and fall – they discover some new resource and grow as they use it up. Eventually, all empires fall, and all fat years are replaced by lean years. I asked her to draw the Sumerian empires’ rises and falls on a timeline, and she did so – a gradual rise followed by a fall, and then a second rise followed by a fall, and finally the Babylonians and others. What do you think happened when the empires were falling? I asked.

“Well, a lot of people died,” she said. Yes, I said, and that’s where a lot of legends come from – when times were tough, people told stories about the good old days. The story of Gilgamesh seems to come from that first decline and fall – at least, that’s the earliest we know it was told. The second fall saw all kinds of warlords taking over, and making war on each other – do you remember the worst one?

“Oh, yeah …. The Iron Vulture?” she asked. You’re getting it a bit muddled, love, I said. It was Lagash the Terrible, and his legend was carved into the Stele of Vultures.

“That’s right,” she said – we had play-acted being Lagash vs. Sumerian peasants, like a re-enactment of the Magnificent Seven. When empires are rising and falling, I asked her, when do you think most of their works of art are created?

 “When they’re rising,” she said. Very good, I told her – why do you think so? “Well, because people can see that the good times aren’t going to last forever,” she said, “so they create music that will take them through the bad times.”

That’s a brilliant idea, I said – I’m sorry to say, though, that most people don’t have that foresight. Remember, this all happens so slowly in human time. No, it’s because when times are good, some people have the spare time and wealth to make music, or sculpt, or perform plays. When things are bad, some of that gets lost. All the great works of art, the great buildings, the roads - - they’re all built during the height of empires, not their fall.

 “Does anybody do anything during a fall?” she asked. “I mean, besides just trying to survive.”

Well, I said, when times get rough, it’s good to have a few people left who remember the secret knowledge from the old days. During many empires some people – usually aristocrats in the imperial cities – write down whatever science or proverbs they know, and students learn it in classes. When empires fall, the people who remember that sort of things seem to have special powers. Any idea who they would be?

“Librarians?” she asked. I was going to go with wizards, I laughed, but you can call them librarians.

Finally, I said, do you notice where a lot of our legends came from on this timeline? Gilgamesh came out of the first fall, Lagash out of the second. Abraham let his people out of Sumeria during that first fall, and Moses led the people out of Egypt around the time of the second. What do times like that create? “Leaders?” she asked. Right, I said, some who become vicious warlords, and some who become heroes. When things fall apart, the Age of Heroes returns.

“I’d love to see that,” she said. I hope you don’t see too much, I said, but I’m sure you’ll have a chance to be a hero in your life.

And with that, she curled up with me and we went back to reading Lord of the Rings.


Brian Michael said...

As an educator I love this Brian! I am amazed at the love you have for your daughter and life. It is uplifting to read your posts about how you teach her about life. I loved the bit about your week lesson taking months! The sign of a great teacher. Thank you for your blog. It is so inspiring. Peace, Fr Brian Flanagan

Brian Kaller said...

Father Flanagan,

Thank you! That means a lot coming from an educator. What do you teach?