Education, Philosophy

Sisyphus, Spring Break, and the Middle School Student

Sometime during the month February, when winter break is a distant memory, and middle school students and teachers dare not yet start dreaming of spring break, I read an abbreviated version of the myth of Sisyphus to my sixth graders. On this one of many “Philosophy Fridays,” we talk about how Sisyphus, King of Corinth, was notorious for his cunning ways. He lied, cheated, and stole. He locked up Death and tricked the gods. He even weaseled his way out of the Underworld by commanding his wife not to bury him and then complained to Persephone that he should not have been given passage across the River Styx. He convinces her to let him go back to Earth and be buried properly with the promise of his return, but of course, he had lied to her as well. He had no intention of going gently into what the poet Dylan Thomas called “that good night.” Sisyphus lived his life with passion and without apology. By the time the gods caught up with him for the last time, Hermes personally escorted him to Tartarus where the gods had conjured up a fitting punishment. He was made to roll an enormous boulder from the lowest level of the Underworld to the top level, just below Earth, and each time he got to the top, the boulder would roll back down again.

I ask the students if Sisyphus deserved his punishment. In our interactive discussion online, most of them conclude that he did. They think that since he willingly wronged the gods, he earned his consequence. I also ask them to answer (on a Padlet wall) what they would do with the rock if they were Sisyphus. I love reading their creative responses, which range from “blowing up the rock” to “refusing to push it” to “tricking the gods into pushing it for me” to simply “just push it.” Then I ask them to consider whether or not their responses about the rock are indicative of the ways they treat their own responsibilities sometimes. Somewhat begrudgingly, they acknowledge that they do, and this leads into a wonderful discussion of the “rocks” they have to push. Students talk about their homework loads, their household chores, responsibilities to sports teams, caring for siblings, and taking care of their pets. “Why do we do it?” I ask them. “Why do we get up every day and push our rocks?” They tell me that they want to go to good colleges and get good jobs someday. They tell me that they don’t want to eat off of dirty dishes or in a house filled with garbage, that their pets will starve if no one feeds them, and that they don’t want to let their teammates down. In short, they do these things because they are fulfilling their responsibilities.

Next, I summarize Albert Camus’ essay about Sisyphus, reading some excerpts to them along the way.  I tell them that Camus argued that essentially, Sisyphus won. The gods did not defeat him with their eternal assignment; rather, he took up the assignment and decided to abide by Nike’s famous slogan and “Just do it.” I ask them to consider how it is possible that Sisyphus won. Their answers astound me. “He had a purpose,” one student said. “It was his rock,” another stated. “He is getting stronger each time,” said a third. And my favorite, “He got to feel the sun on his face a little bit each time he got to the top.” These are the thoughts of philosophers. They accept what Camus believed to be the fate of the “absurd hero.” These kids know that they will work in school for many more years so that they can get into college, where they will work even more so that they can have a career, where most of them will continue on until retirement. They know this, yet they accept it because in their young minds, there is meaning to be made from pushing their rocks.

Finally, I ask, “How can we win? How can we learn to love our rocks?” They tell me that they love the feeling of being able to do things easily that were once a challenge. They tell me that they enjoy their soccer games, their cheer competitions, their dance recitals, and even, sometimes, school. They tell me that winning in life is about finding a way to do the things that you love, even if it means that you have to work hard in order to do them. And they tell me that they are getting stronger.

As we near the much-awaited spring break, teachers will tell you that the wheels are coming off in the classroom. These kids have been pushing for a long time, and like Sisyphus, their rocks are often burdensome and come with little reward. Students are ready to toss their rocks aside and feel the sunshine on their faces, even if it is just for a little while. I don’t think that we can blame them.  In the words of Camus, “One always finds one’s burden again.” They will return from break ready to take up their rocks again. They will complete projects, give presentations, and take tests. They will struggle, fail, and try again. They will lose. In fact, they need to lose, but my hope for them is that in the end, they will win. For my part, I hope that I can, at the very least, least help my students to make meaning of the struggle.

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