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When my kids were little I used to read to them out of an illustrated book of the Greek myths written for children. Being the Greek myths and full of a great many bloody battles and Zeus playing fast and loose with a bevy of mortal beauties, it had to be sanitized somewhat, but it was done very cleverly in ways that took nothing away from the original stories. It made it clear that the randy father of the gods was married to Hera, but left out the part about Hera being his sister, which might have been a bit difficult for a parent to explain to their 5 year old. I had no trouble telling them the real deal, since I had already told them numerous stories about ancient cultures where it was foolishly thought okey dokes to marry one's relatives when no one understood the importance of genetics beyond maintaining a royal blood line, and since most of the remaining modern royal houses of Europe were thoroughly inbred, it seemed a little silly. Mostly their response was, “ewww”. It seemed appropriate.
My kids loved the Greek myths and couldn't get enough of them. We read that book so many times that it fell apart and I had to buy another copy. One of the stories I read to them was about Sisyphus, a king in ancient Greece who was a very nasty character. Sisyphus thought himself terribly clever but he was venal and greedy and responsible for the cheating, torment, unhappiness, and even death of numerous people. Being something of an egomaniac and ultimately, recklessly foolish, he decided that he was so clever that he could trick the gods, never a good idea in the stories of any culture. His punishment for his hubris, a deadly sin in the world of ancient Greece, he was punished by having to spend eternity pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill. The physical labor was nothing compared to the fact that every time he reached the top the boulder would roll down the hill and he would have to start over again. Did I mention that this was for eternity? As a punishment, it was kind of ingenious.
My kids were appalled by the tedious failure inherent in the punishment. I pointed out to them that Sisyphus was a pretty horrible guy and probably thoroughly deserved it.
“If he was so clever,” said my daughter, “how come he didn't think of some clever way around it?”
Good question. I told her that the gods, being gods, had the power to rig the entire process so that it would go precisely as they wanted it to, and being a divine punishment, there probably wasn't any way around it.
They were not inclined to buy this scenario. They were convinced that they could come up with a method of solving the problem of the boulder rolling down the hill. I told them that if they did, they could then consider themselves not only more clever than Sisyphus, but able to outsmart a pack of ancient Greek gods. I said goodnight and shut the door. I could hear them whispering to each other in the darkness, working out the best plan to fool the gods. I didn't stop them. Thinking seemed like a perfectly acceptable activity before sleep.
I came to regret my decision when at 4am I felt someone gently rubbing my face and opened one eye to the vision of my two children at my bedside, illuminated by a light doming from their room across the hall.
“Wake up, Mama,” said my son in a whisper. “We figured it out.”
It took me a moment to focus on his words and what they might me. What had they figured out? The meaning of life? The unifying theory of the universe? Where Jimmy Hoffa was buried? It took me only a few seconds to remember their vow to solve the problem of Sisyphus and the boulder. I asked them, with some shock, if they had been awake all night. They assured me that they had gone to sleep but not before figuring out how to deal with the problem of the rolling boulder and since they were awake early, they felt it was important that they tell me about it right away. Their excitement was palatable in the darkness. I could tell that they were practically hopping with a sense of having conquered the enemy, won a great battle, and were practically drunk with an overwhelming sense of victory. I got up and went with them into their room where we sat on a bed together and they told me what they had figured out.
After many theories that they had apparently discussed and rejected, they came up with what they felt was the perfect plan. Sisyphus would carry some wedges, like they used to stop the wheels of giant airplanes, and a sledge hammer in a pack on his back. When he was almost to the top he would hammer the wedges in at the base of the boulder, thereby preventing it from rolling back down the hill. Then, presumably, he would stroll down the hill and go out for a bottle of wine and some good food cooked in olive oil. After telling me their plan they sat and grinned at me like Cheshire cats.
I congratulated them on their clearly brilliant cognitive and analytical skills and their determination to overcome what appeared to be impossible. I told them they should be proud of themselves, which they obviously were, and took them down to the kitchen for a victory snack of hot chocolate and cookies. They beamed with delight and a powerful sense of accomplishment.
I felt an equally strong sense of accomplishment, but for a different reason. I have always maintained that it isn't enough just to teach children, it is important to also teach them to think, and if you have done that, you have done something that really matters.
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