Sunday, 8 January 2017

Home schooling

Every night, for many years, my daughter and I have done home-schooling lessons together; I write them during my three hours on the bus, and we go over them when I get home. She goes to a regular Catholic school in the village, but the lessons were meant to pass on the things I wish every child learnt, and that schools no longer teach, or never did.  

Some nights we read ancient stories: Baucis and Philemon, Samson and the lion, Horatius on the bridge. Some nights we talked about ecology: what soil needs and where things hibernate, indicator species and seres, convergent evolution and niches. Some nights we talked about logic: attacking straw men and moving the goalposts, ad hominem and post hoc ergo propter hoc. Some nights we just talked, and I listened. Then we read books together, as we have every night since she was a toddler.

Now that she is an adolescent she has more schoolwork and hobbies, wants her own space, so we have been shedding layers of this ritual like snakeskin, leaving them behind as she grows. First she no longer wanted me to read to her, then she asked to no longer do the sing-a-longs of Irish folk music, and finally we cut the lessons down to week-ends. We have no plans to abandon them altogether, however, as there is much more to teach, and I’m adapting them to her new maturity. 

And some nights I just quiz her on what she’s learned, and our conversations start meandering. The other night we started talking about the Trojan War.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, I said, took place in an Age of Heroes, with lots of little warring city-states that would fish, farm, trade, raid, and colonise all over the Mediterranean. Some of them lived in what we now call Greece, some on the other side of the Aegean Sea in what’s now Turkey, in a land they called Ilium around the city of Troy –

“So Troy was the city, and Ilium the state,” she said. “like Ireland and Dublin.”

Correct, I said – hence the war against Ilium was the Iliad. And the Phoenicians were a similarly seafaring people with colonies – in Tyre, the impregnable city Alexander the Great would later …

“Impregnate?” she asked. Well, you could put it that way, I said.

“That was the offshore island, wasn’t it?” she continued. “And he had his men build a peninsula?”

Yes, it’s still a peninsula to this day, I said. The Phoenicians also founded Carthage in North Africa – at the time of the Trojan War, was ruled by Queen Dido, the one who fell in love with Aeneas.

"Who set herself on fire," The Girl said. “That’s where Hannibal was from, right?”

Right, I said – about a thousand years after the era we’re talking about, he fought Rome and almost beat them. Latin for Phoenician is Punica, so they were the Punic Wars.

Around the time of the Trojan War, though, in this barbaric Dark Age for Greece, a lot of these city-states would band together in alliances and raid the wealthier empires to the east, and the Egyptians were called the Sea Peoples.

“They were vicious,” she said.

Yes, I said – they took down the Assyrian Empire, and they took down the Hittites.

“And you do not take down the high tights,” she said.

I know, right? I responded. Otherwise they’d all be like those baggy-pants teenagers today.

Who were the original Laconic people? I asked.

“SPARTANS!” she said, pumping a fist in the air. She likes Spartans.

Excellent, I said – why is it called being laconic?

“Because Sparta was in Laconia?”

Excellent, I told her. Can you give me some examples of what it means to be laconic?

"Sure, like that author who sent the telegram to his publisher, and it was just a question mark?"

Victor Hugo, I said. After he wrote Les Miserables, he went on holiday and didn’t want to write anything anymore, because he’d just written a book the size of the Bible. But he was curious how it was selling, so he sent a telegram to his publisher “?” The publisher responded “!”
Anything else? I asked. Any instances of the actual Laconians being Laconic?

“If,” she said.

Excellent, I said – to whom?

“Um… that I don’t know,” she admitted.

Phillip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great – before battle with the Spartans, he sent them a message saying that they should surrender, because if he won, he would not just burn their city, but take all their belongings, kill their families, and so on. They sent him back a one-word message – “if.”

“They did that a lot to the Persians,” she said.

That’s right – you know that before the battle of the Hot Gates – Thermopylae – the Persians sent a spy to check out the Spartan camp, and he returned saying that the Spartans were a bunch of nancies – they were all getting their hair trimmed and styled before battle. They didn’t realise that when a Spartan cut his hair, it meant he was preparing to die.

 “If you’re going to die, you might as well look good,” she said.

Can you think of any other examples? I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “In that same battle, the Persians told the Spartans they would send so many arrows they would block out the sun. The Spartans said, ‘We will fight you in the shade.’”

And when the Persians ordered the Spartans to give up their arms, I told her, the Spartans said, ‘Come over here and take them.’

“You don’t mess with the Spartans,” she said, smiling.


After a while, our talked meandered over to Greek mythology, and The Girl asked, “One thing I wondered – was Narcissus the guy from Pygmalion?”

The George Bernard Shaw play or the legend? I asked – we had seen the play last year. The guy from the Pygmalion legend was Pygmalion – he fell in love with his statue.

“So Narcissus was the guy who was in love with himself?” she asked. That’s him, I said.

“How did Narcissus die?”

He wasted away into nothing staring at his own reflection, I said.

“Well, at least he died happy,” she said.

You’re good at finding the bright side, I responded.

“I would think that after starving for a while, when your face loses its colour and you can see the bones under the skin,” she asked. “wouldn’t you reach a point of negative feedback? Or you’d have to go away and nurse yourself back to health, and return to the reflection – it would be an endless loop, or until he naturally died.”

I think if you’re obsessed with yourself, you don’t care, I said. Love is blind.


foodnstuff said...

Oh, if only my childhood had been like the hers....(sigh).

Brian Kaller said...

Food, thank you! I'm telling you about the good nights, though -- on others she wishes she could be raised more like other kids.

Phil Harris said...

I read your post yesterday. This followed a discussion the day before with our youngest daughter. She is a writer in her late 20s who is with us again for a while. The subject was books for children and young adults, which is her interest. I mentioned a comment I had seen on ADR about a mother rediscovering for her child a British author Arthur Ransome. We still think in this household that he wrote well and we talked the other evening about inter-generational continuities. For example, our other daughter's 3 year old boy 'climbed Kanchenjunga' with his family on his own legs last summer - in the English Lake District I must add, the setting in the early 20th Century of many of Ransome's stories. Some of the context of the then British Empire is inevitable in the stories but local community and characters are evocatively communicated in some of his best writing alongside a heartfelt sense of place. So much so that although I lived in a very different part of the country as a child when these stories were read to me and my younger brother, when I finally reached the Lakes as an adult, the sense of recognition was immediate. (By then I had also read Wordsworth and the other poets and De Quincey's terrific (and funny) account "Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets".)

Here comes an interesting link to your post just now. (We both hang around Greer's ADR world do we not - smile.) Talk with daughter extended to another British author. Over previous Christmases when she was home and we did not have the more urgent tasks, nor the rotten coughs of this year, she (it was mostly her) read aloud to us in serial form some of Ransome and the other author, the relatively unknown but still available, Olivia Fitzroy. The latter was very young when she wrote her first story and the others came at the end of the war. (Some of Fitzroy's personal loss and war experience can be seen in a few published poems.) Similarly, I remembered when I finally reached the relevant parts of the Scottish Highlands in my 30s - I had ostensibly 'forgotten' the childhood readings and got there by other choice - the sense of sudden familiarity was very striking.

Anyway, back to the discussion with our writer daughter. She mentioned the unselfconscious capture by Fitzroy of the to and fro rhythms of teenage conversation. I recalled my early introduction to the poetry of WB Yeats in one story that opened doors for me later in my own teens. Then I remembered a highly evocative passage in another Fitzroy story that grabbed me as a child - about dozing on a hillside and then coming across a dark wood. In this story the young people turned aside from the path and stayed in the light to reach the isolated croft they were heading for. So we found ourselves the other night looking up Dante and his meeting with Virgil, which took us to Aeneas, Troy and the founding of Rome. (We regretted in passing that though daughter speaks some Italian we were not strong enough to read the original Italian). Which all brought us neatly round to your blog yesterday!

Very best to you and daughter for the coming year


Brian Kaller said...


I've never heard of Olivia Fitzroy, but I'll put her on the list. I feel sheepish saying this, but I had never heard of Arthur Ransome until long after we moved here, and neither my daughter nor I had ever read his books. Apparently he was one of many beloved children's authors, like Kenneth Graeme, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, who never became as popular in the USA as they were here.

I will keep them in mind; I love writers who can capture the flow of conversation, and the attitudes of different ages, and Yeats. Most of all, I love the serendipity of your story, something I value in conversations with my daughter - the way we jump from one topic, one story and one era to another, until we can't remember how we got where we are.

Thanks for reading.