by Jessica Lahey
Today’s cultural literacy item: Hubris.
I will allow the main characters from Rick Riordan’s novel, The Sea of Monsters, to define today’s vocabulary word of the day:
Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: The brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth: No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. hubris is worse.
Percy: what could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.
Used in a sentence: As graduation draws near, the current eighth grade class has begun to display excessive hubris in their dealings with teachers and classmates.
Fortunately, we are reading King Lear, the perfect example of a man undone by hubris. His story is a convenient conversation starter when my eighth graders get a little too big for their britches. My students may not end up on a storm-swept heath, naked, in the company of a fool and a beggar, but the lessons of Lear’s hubris are relevant and valuable.
But first, the etymology.
Hubris comes from the Greek hybris, or “wanton violence, insolence, outrage,” specifically as that insolence is directed toward the gods. Mortals who are presumptuous enough to strive for godlike status have hubris, or are hubristic. I asked the students to come up with as many examples of hubris in literature, and they came up with: Achilles, Odysseus, Voldemort, Arachne, Niobe, Phaeton, Icarus, Dr. Frankenstein (and by extension, Provis, or Magwich), Lear, Macbeth…the list on my white board went on and on.
I teach in a K-8 school with fairly rigid rules, a dress code, and high expectations for student character and conduct. The core virtues of fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence are part of daily discussion in most classes.
Despite this rigorous education in character, it is the nature of teenagers to test. When they are ready to move onward and upward – to high school, to college, to whatever is next – they push authority figures away and and feel around for the boundaries of their new territory. It’s only natural; challenging authority is a part of their process of individuation. I have my own teenager at home and I see it happening in our household. My friend, author Ann Cannon, once told me that out of her eight boys, her most dependent child had the most traumatic process of pulling away from her. If I accept her way of thinking about this process – and I do, she’s a wise and experienced mom – the deeper the attachment, the more pushing away my son will have to do in order to become his own man.
The teacher-student relationship isn’t that different from the parent-child relationship, and I have found that the more they trust me, the more likely they are to involve me in their testing. It used to bother me, but under the “it takes a village” hypothesis, I’m happy to help out.
I’m no child psychologist, but I think students test their teachers because they know they are safe with the teachers who care about them. They push us away because they know we will still be here when they return to their senses.
And when all is said and done at the end of our journey through middle school, I receive the most heartfelt graduation hugs from the students who have had to learn the most difficult lessons. The boy I had to suspend for cheating, the girl I helped through a family meeting about her self-injurious behavior, the boy who refused to speak to me for two weeks because I called him on his excess of hubris. These are the kids who test my mettle as a teacher.
And the ones I will miss the most after graduation.