A Former English Teacher Takes On Joseph Campbell. … My Definition of “Hero”: A Fantasy of Visibility, Transformation, and Coherence

 

Some context: This blogger is a former high school English teacher, now a doctoral student, currently designing, with researchers and teachers, a curriculum module organized around the concept of “hero.”

 

When I was I was a student in high school, I had a recurring dream that I could fly. This was a fantasy certainly inspired by superheroes like Superman, but, unlike Superman, I was no tiny figure soaring over steel skyscrapers and glassy stretches of ocean, no. … In my dream, I was flying in the school auditorium.

 

The dream went something like this: The middle schoolers would be performing a musical sampling from that season’s evening performance when I would waft up near left-balcony seating, where the seniors sat, hovering dangerously close to the ceiling fans, flapping my arms.

 

I know what you’re thinking: This fantasy lacks ambition—sounds a teensy bit humiliating even! But hear me out. If I were flying in the sky, Brett, my perpetual high school crush, might not see me. And that would be too much like real life.

 

My fantasy was also about transformation. As a teenager, more than anything, I wanted to transform from the piano-and-lacrosse-playing-slightly-above-average-English-student-below-average-math-student into someone else, someone like no one else: someone who could fly.

 

And … I could control what people were thinking! They were thinking this: “She had a secret. All along. We didn’t know. To think, she knew she could fly and didn’t tell us!”

 

See, my fantasy was also one with a storyline, one that gave me an inner life that was fantastic, yes, but also neatly discoverable—a satisfying narrative complete with a surprise ending: coherence.

 

And here the former high school English teacher in me kicks in. …

 

Like Jane Eyre! If you read the book, you know she’s homely (a fact ignored by PBS, the BBC, and A&E Television Network, to name just a few of the book’s production companies), but Rochester sees past all that, beyond Jane’s skin, to the language of her mind: “he seemed to read the glance, answering as if its import had been spoken as well as imagined—“ and “I read as much in your eye (beware, by the bye, what you express with that organ; I am quick at interpreting its language).” …

 

By the end of the novel, she has transformed from the governess water-coloring cormorants and icebergs in corners of a remote mansion to her employer’s independently wealthy nurse and lover. (Brontë, mysteriously, conflates the two, anticipating yet another genre of fantasy. … But I digress.)

 

And it is on account of moments like this that everyone should get the chance to be an English teacher: “Eyre. Sound like any other word? Anyone? … Spell it, ‘h-e-i-r’?” … Jane is not poor after all! She is h-e-i-r to the long-lost uncle Mr. John Eyre’s fortune! Ah, now, see, it all makes sense. She is deserving of Rochester, for she too is a wealthy European, and Rochester, having dispatched of his pyromaniac wife from Spanish Town, Jamaica, is now, conveniently, back on the market. Clearly, this coupling was meant to be.

 

Sarcasm aside, here the pieces of the novel, and Jane’s life, come together and give Brontë’s storyline coherence. … Unlike this blog. For some reason, I’m not satisfied sharing my definition of hero in a single mode today. Case in point: I’m choosing to close with a poem I wrote several years back, after hiking in Vermont. It’s another fantasy of sorts, and I’m flying again, but now on the page, and this time I’m flying in the sky.

 

If I could jump off Snake Mountain. …

 

and land on my toes,

on that sharp line of horizon,

tight-rope walking a New York mountain range,

above yellow squares of farmland, green pines,

white ranches and silos, red barns,

truck drivers would stare up I wonder

at my figure cartwheeling at skyline,

dipping a toe in Lake Champlain,

then rocking

with the rise and fall

sway beneath my feet,

a circus train of tail to trunk, tail to trunk—

slow-moving, blue

breathing.

 

In the poem, I think you’ll agree, the narrator is seen, and, by the end, transformed, from lithe tightrope walker to lumbering elephant. As for that “sharp line of horizon,” in keeping with my thesis, I’m going to suggest it is a fantasy of a linear trajectory: a personal history that can be described in a few sentences, easily understood, and categorized: journalism-student-turned-arts-publicist-turned-English-teacher-turned-grad-student-again-turned. …?

 

Coherence (that old bugaboo!). But, as I was saying, the idea of hero, and all the images and feelings it conjures—for me, for you—is, just that: an idea. We need heroes because they allow us to indulge in imagination, in our most outlandish hopes and dreams.

 

As for coherence, that’s for the birds.

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