A song to Mrs. Anderson

Oh muse,

I sing a song to Mrs. Anderson

5th grade teacher,

Singer of mythological gods and goddesses

Zeus, Apollo, Athena

Bringing Olympus to those who worship gods of another pantheon

Captain Kangaroo,  Mr. Rodgers and Bozo the Clown

It was the 60s.  I sat in a class taught by Mrs. Anderson.  I am ashamed to say I can not remember her name, not even the sound of her voice.  All I remember is she looked old, as ancient as the gods themselves.  Which brings me to my points.  We started the year reading short stories from O’Henry and chapters from Twain, but the moment we turned our attention to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece I was hooked. 

Mrs. Anderson was the one who introduced us to the subject of Greek Mythology.  Days were spent watching Hercules clean the Augean stables, learning the meaning of the sword of Damocles hanging from the ceiling, and feeling the weight of the world shift on the shoulders of Atlas.  All of this came in large illustrated books, in drawings of bright color and ink.  The classroom was now filled with picture books of centaurs, harpies, warriors with sword and shields, and beautiful maidens.  The only world I knew at that time was the street on Woodbine Avenue, this was my universe, but under Mrs. Anderson’s tutelage I traveled with Jason and his Argonauts, slept under the stars, and saw the clashing peaks.  

From her chalkboard (do they still have them in schools?) she listed the names of the gods and the goddesses, and drew Mount Olympus peeking out between the clouds.  It was when she got to the subject of Troy, the gleaming towers of Illium, that I was hooked for life.  Who can resist the stories of Paris, Hector, Agamemnon, and the greatest warrior Achilles?  And the Trojan horse – what boy does not like secreting away inside a hiding place to spring forth to everyone’s surprise?  What boy can resist the darkened raid upon the town, and burning Trojans from their beds?  To take the town by stealth is every boys dream, a ten-year-old is a natural marauder, a Spartan just inches below the skin.  Boys are barbarians barely civilized by their parents, restrained to sit at the table while fireflies cover the backyard to be chased, and home-made forts are waiting to be taken on the battlements next to the garage.  I dreamed that I was the black bearded Ajax, whose shield had painted the winking man, and the tongue stuck out for his enemies to see.  A ‘raspberry’ [phhhtttt] in the face as you attack the enemies’ line. 

“I have a special project for you all today,” Mrs. Anderson announced one day.  “I want you to team up and 3 other students and act out a myth.”

A myth, AND A PLAY AS WELL!  I am paired with two guys and one girl.  I only remember the name of one of them Jim Bell, because he followed me to high school.   Jim Bell was big on plays and theatrics. 

We were assigned to read a myth and then act it out.  We were allowed to make up the lines as we went along.  I chose the myth of Philemon and Baucus an elderly couple that receive Zeus and Hermes into their home on one rainy night.  The two great gods have come to earth to destroy mankind, having great doubts of man’s goodness.  They turned themselves into beggars, and knocked on door after door, and each time the door was slammed in their faces.  It wasn’t until they got to the house of Baucus and Philemon that the door opened, and to their wonder they were invited in.    I was Philemon, the old man, and I played it to the hilt.  His character was doddering, impatient, but basically good and upon opening the door and seeing the two gods (who according to legend looked like beggars to his eyes) dragged them inside into his hut.  I did it in high-camp, with almost vaudeville effect. 

“Eh?  Eh?  What are you two doing out in the rain?  Baucus!  Where is that woman?  Set a table for these men.”

As the story goes, every time we filled their cups with wine the jug magically refilled itself.  

My eyes pantomimed the jug filling up and up again as I poured.

“This is the first time this jug has ever done that?  I got to get another one.  Baucus who sold us this contraption?  We got to get another one.”

The class loved it. 

We then reacted the part where we decide to slaughter the goose for dinner.  The creature runs for its life, and Baucus and Philemon run about the stage, limping and trying desperately trying to get a hand on his neck. 

Pandemonium followed.

“Don’t get on his lap for protection,” I said to Mr. Goose who sits on the lap of Zeus for protection.  “He won’t help you.  Sir, grab him and twist his neck.  Dinner, by the gods.”

It is then Zeus and Hermes decide to reveal themselves.  Both students (gods) drop their cloaks, and their mortal disguises as well.  

I couldn’t help myself.  I gasped: a nice long one, boarding on silly, as if I am about to die of lack of oxygen right there in front of the classroom.

(Laughter)

The room is laughing, I even hear a chuckle out of Mrs. Anderson sitting in the back of the room.

Immediately I fall on my knees to worship.  Looking at my wife  Baucus I say, “What are you doing old woman.  Get on your knees, it’s the gods!”  I turn to Zeus, “Sorry sir, women now-a-days!”

(Laughter)

Jim Bell (playing the role of Zeus) explains why he and Hermes are present.  “We came to destroy mankind.  Every door we came to slammed in our faces, but yours and yours alone opened in the spirit of hospitality.  In honor of your kindness, I grant you and your wife immortality.  You shall always be together.”  He waves his hands and Baucus and Philemon suddenly sprout branches where their branches intertwine. 

“I always liked holding hands with you sweety,” I said as we are transformed into trees. 

(Curtain)

The 5th grade class applauded. 

There’s a moral to this story.  Can you guess? 

Treat everyone with dignity and with hospitality lest they be gods.  

I think there is similar advice found in Hebrews 13:2

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for be doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

If anyone related to Mrs. Anderson is reading this (she taught at the Oliver Wendell Holmes School in Oak Park, Illinois in the 1960s) I want to thank you for what she did.  She couldn’t possibly be alive, for it was so long ago, but I believe firmly that there is a setting at the gods table high on Mount Olympus for her, a place of honor, so she can listen to the gossip of the gods.  She opened up the universe to a classroom of children who knew little else but their small neighborhoods around them.  She sparked their imaginations, and for a couple of weeks we were carried across the world and back through time to Ancient Greece and the mythology of its time.

I will never forget her. 

(What teacher or professor changed your perspective on the ancient world?  Here are a few comments from Facebook🙂

Joey Hill —  Mrs Mowery in my sophmore year of high school. World History, went from the fertile cresent to the modern age in one school year, and I loved every minute of it. 🙂

Jordan Harbour —  Dr. Shrimpton, Ancient Greek History. I walked into University a Roman man. I walked out a Greek.

William Glover — Dr. William Spallding at UCSB I learned more about archaelogy and asking the right questions of the data, over a cup of coffee with him than in hours in the classroom.   He was my mental guide in all my field work.

Justin McDonald – Mr. Anderson and Mr. Armstrong at Kingswood High school in the 80s.  Greek and Roman, both went out of their way to bring it alive, we did a extra unit of  ‘Ancient’ during lunch and before school as they wouldn’t put it in the timetable.  Great teachers, we used to have “Join the Greek Navy and sail off the End of the World”  tee-shirts.  Good Stuff.

Mark Schauss — The late Dr. Paul Avrich of Queens College in NYC.  He was the most amazing professor.  Made me love Russian history in particular.

Paul LaFountain — Dr. Carol Leonard and the link between history and economics.

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