Hooked on Roman mythology

What do her students remember most about fifth-grade? Ovid's myths.


Twenty-TWO years ago IN THIS NEWSPAPER, Thomas D'Evelyn reviewed a book that had a huge impact on my life in general and on the last 14 years in my teaching career specifically. That was A.D. Melville's translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses."

I loved reading it, and I soon developed lesson plans for my fifth-grade classroom using this book. After several months, I decided to write Mr. Melville and explain how his book inspired this new language arts curriculum.

In his first reply, he wrote: "Your charming letter has given me the greatest pleasure. The main purpose of my translation was to introduce Ovid to a new wide readership, not confined to the academic world, to whom the poem would come as an unsuspected revelation. Your letter shows that you have discovered Ovid, as I hope, and your expertise has passed on the discovery to your pupils – and indeed their parents. That is just what I wanted. I am sure Ovid would be pleased."

Each day in my classroom, I would read from one of Ovid's myths. Students increased their vocabulary, learned figures of speech, predicted outcomes, and practiced penmanship.

I always stopped at a cliffhanging point, such as "Apollo could not suffer ears so dull to keep their human shape."

Then I closed the book. "Please write the verse and draw Midas with his new ears," I might say.

Only the next day did I reveal the actual result of the king's judgment: "he wears/Henceforth a little ambling ass's ears."

Ovid's classic work – full of timeless truths, romantic liaisons, and even gore – captivated my students. And they never misbehaved while they listened.

In 1994, Melville and I arranged to meet outside London. After seven years of correspondence, I was thrilled to finally see him in person.

We drove to his house, built in 1834, to visit. Once inside, Peggy, his wife, served lemon squash and little, triangular cheese tidbits before lunch.

He explained that after retiring from a 40-year career as a successful solicitor, he decided to pen (literally, using a pen and not a computer) the "changing" myths. In his summerhouse, he translated the original Latin into beautiful English poetry at the rate of about six lines per hour.

After a delicious lunch, I shared some of my students' work with him. He was impressed with the "remarkable" mythological ABC one student had written.

Part of her rhyme included:

"M is for Mars,

he is the god of war

N is for Niobe,

bragging too far."

Peggy served tea and hot cross buns before I returned to London. The six hours I spent at The Grove (named for its grove of elm trees), seemed to whiz by.

Less than three months after my visit, my mentor passed on. Yet I continued reading Ovid's "Metamorphoses" in my classroom every day until I retired seven years later.

Even today, there are frequent reminders to keep the text alive. For example, seeing an ordinary spider on the ground evokes the memory of Arachne, who "as a spider, still/Weaving her web, pursues her former skill." Or seeing a huge crow in the sky, how a "raven, which had formerly been white,/Was changed and suddenly made black as night."

From time to time, I run into former students.

"What do you remember most about fifth grade?" I ask.

Without the slightest hesitation, each replies, "Mythology."

Melville was convinced of the lasting value of acquainting young students with Ovid. In his final letter to me, he wrote: "Your work is most valuable, and your pupils will not forget the introduction to the classics they get in class from your teaching. Long may you continue the good work!"

My students and I were not hooked on phonics. Thanks to A.D. Melville, we were hooked on Roman mythology!

I agree that Ovid would be pleased.

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