The journey I am on now was not the path I intended to be on when it all began, and yet the detour I took has brought me into my destiny, a destiny I had no idea would be mine. I often am baffled about my passion for teaching African American high school students the Great Books of Western Civilization. How did I, an African American woman, find myself so passionate about teaching these books to my students? The spark first took flame when I started teaching a high school Great Books class 10 years ago. One incident comes to mind as the first opportunity to see the power of these books and how that power is revealed through discussion and engagement with the books.
My students and I had just finished reading “The Bacchae.” I’d set the class up so that it fostered open discussion and engagement, even if the students disagreed with my thoughts or opinions. There was a line towards the end of “The Bacchae” that said, “…his name was not honored in Thebes…” I thought that it was talking about the character Pentheus, but my students (all African American males) thought it was talking about Dionysius. We went back and forth about it, until Raymond (the student who often seemed the most disengaged and uninterested) said out loud, “I think it was talking about Dionysius.” I asked him “Why?” and he pointed to a line when Dionysius says, “My name has not been honored in Thebes…” This was a break through. I did not have to coax him into speaking out, but he did and was able to point to evidence in the text. This moment, this moment when that one student who always seemed so angry, so disengaged, so un-phased by the class, shone the light that pulled me into the phenomenon of African American students engaging in the Great Books of Western Civilization. The light glared and would not let me go. And so here I am 10 years later trying to put that moment, and the many other moments like it, under a microscope, in order to come to understand the lived experiences of African American students reading Great Books literature.