Kindness and Classicists

View from the Life is Cool Cafe, Warsaw
View from the Life is Cool Cafe, Warsaw

This is a photo from my visit to Warsaw for the Present Meets the Past workshop of the OurMythicalChildhood project. It is taken from inside the Life is Cool café, during an experimental afternoon in which two of my colleagues, Susan Deacy and Edoardo Pecchini, talked about their work using classical mythology in relation to mental health and different abilities. We were all piled somewhat on top of one another, in a venue far different from the usual formality of a conference room, and as I listened, I watched the attentive faces of the audience, which comprised some of the Life is Cool community, as well as students and academics from around the world.

I was tucked away by the window, and occasionally looked out, over the pretty flowers on the sill, into a very rainy Warsaw afternoon, to watch (and photograph) the red-and-yellow trams pass in front of the orange apartment building.

Warsaw buildings are colourful: in shades of blue, green, yellow, pink, and more. But not obtrusively so: you don’t notice them at first, and they creep up on you later. Every day there is something more to like about this lovely city.

You can’t see the people of the cafe in this picture, but it encapsulates for me the warmth and comradeship that the project embodies. I think of it as Classics with Kindness: using knowledge of classical matters to do good in the world. Susan and Edoardo’s work is the most tangible aspect of that approach (see Susan’s blog post on her workshop) , but I think the work of the whole project is infused with kindness, and it’s an important theme within the subject of classical reception in children’s culture more generally.

Over an extraordinarily stimulating week, we heard talks about

  • what happens when children start to recognise classical signifiers in their books, and where it can take them (Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer);
  • how to classify the types of reception represented, and what to do with them next (Markus Janka, Raimund Fichtel);
  • how to mix things up and experiment (yours truly, with help from Tina Matthews and Sally Zwartz);
  • how to gather information about the good work done by classical educators the world over (Lisa Maurice, Ayelet Peer);
  • how to think about myth as a living force in diverse cultures (Daniel Nkemleke, Eleanor Dasi, Divine Che Neba);
  • how to think about, recover, and honour the lives of classicists in Communist countries (Jerzy Axer, David Movrin, Elzbieta Olechowska)
  • how to organise one’s thoughts about reception in productive ways (Helen Slaney);
  • how to move myths through animation, and to create your own ancient vase (Sonya Nevin & Steve Simons);
  • how to dance like an ancient Greek—or as a bird, a tree, a river, a wolf (Helen Slaney);
  • how to use myth to work with autistic children (Susan Deacy);
  • how to promote mental health through classics (Edoardo Pecchini);
  • how to think about museum guides for children (Katerina Volioti);
  • how to think about crossover texts for children and adults (Karoline Thaidigsmann);
  • how writers research classical material carefully in order to write well for child readers (Valentina Garulli);
  • the part mythical creatures play in early children’s literature (Sonja Schreiner);
  • how contemporary writers treat animals in fantasy literature (Anna Mik);
  • how Soviet animators drew on a wealth of classical material in their work for young people (Hanna Paulouskaya);
  • how space and time meet in particular ways in the relation of the present, the past, and children’s literature (Jan Kieniewicz);
  • how Siberian nationalism is represented in the resurrection of the myth of the Cold Bull at the end of winter (Kunnej Takaahaj);
  • the transmission of Buddhist ideas in Mongolic literature, through the genre surgaal and folk knowledge (Ayur Zhanaev).

I don’t want to give short shrift to the students who also presented excellent work, so I’ll write another post shortly. Suffice it to say that in their presentations, a similarly wide range of material and ideas was covered.

The themes of care (in both senses of caring, and of carefulness), of kindness, of contribution, hard work, thoughtfulness, and insight were powerfully present in these talks and workshops. And nowhere was it more evident than in the oversight of OurMythicalChildhood’s extraordinary leader, Katarzyna Marciniak. In one discussion I compared her and her colleagues to a shepherd and sheepdogs, leading, and tending to a flock of sheep—rounding us up, making sure we ate, moving us towards our destinations, but always, always caring: about the team and the individuals, about the conversation, about the vision. Sometimes sheep, like academics, pull in different directions, go astray, wander off, get a little lost, but with guides like Katarzyna, never for long; I know that we are all eager to return to Warsaw next year to look at History.

Kindness is not always a dominant value in academia, where the pressures can be significant, and the competition fierce.  I’m heartened by events like The Present Meets the Past, and by endeavours like The Sportula, which facilitates microgrants for classics students in need, and by being part of the community of kind and supportive scholarship that OurMythicalChildhood represents.  So I conclude this post with thanks to Katarzyna, to her team (Hanna Paulouskaya, Elzbieta Olechowska, Karolina Kulpa, Anna Mik, Agnieska Maciejweska), and to the Faculty of Artes Liberales which provides such a wonderful nurturing ground for the project.  The Polish for ‘thank you very much’ is Dziękuję bardzo, and so this Antipodean on her Odyssey, says Dziękuję bardzo!

–Elizabeth Hale

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