Reflections on Hadestown
by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist
We have many figures of speech in our language that refer to hell:
- “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
- “Going to hell in a handbasket.”
- “Heaven doesn’t want me, and hell is worried I’ll take over.” (That one has been ascribed, perhaps erroneously, to Rudy Giuliani.)
I recently had the pleasure of seeing the new Broadway musical Hadestown, in which there is actually a train to hell. (MBTA riders will understand.) I was struck by the show’s contradictory appeal. While the script frankly admits that the story is sad, the message is nevertheless one of unyielding hope. How is that possible? The story and the outcome, based on Greek myth, are totally predictable. So how does the script manage to convey a message of unwavering hope? And why, by the final curtain, had comparisons to the world of education become unavoidable, at least to me?
The story of Hadestown is based on two Greek myths, Orpheus and Eurydice and Persephone and Hades. We have two lovers. One is so distracted writing his music that he does not pay attention to her. The other is so in love she cannot see the reality of the offer presented to her by Hades, so she sells her soul when her lover is not paying attention. When he learns of her fate, he desperately does everything he can to try to get her back.
Let’s pause there. How many teachers, especially in urban schools, would barter their souls to enable their students to succeed? Some already do barter their pocketbooks by buying books, food and other necessities the school system or families cannot provide. A hungry student cannot learn; a student without a book cannot read. A teacher with a credit card cannot resist stepping into the breach.
Returning to our story, in the end Orpheus, the young lover, sings his plaintive song to win his lover back from Hades. But as with all Greek myths, there is a catch. His lack of total faith in her love stymies him. The strength of her love seems obvious to us in the audience, but Orpheus is wracked with self-doubt.
A similar lack of faith seems to plague our urban school systems. Many students feel trapped in cyclical family or neighborhood patterns going back generations, like the fateful vortices of Greek myth. They find it hard to believe in their own ability to move on or up or out, to escape the vortex. Education is supposed to be the great leveler, the people mover that helps all students find success. But the system is tangled up in the threads of its own fates; so, the outcome for any one student is unpredictable.
Sometimes it seems easy to look around the classroom and mentally check off the students who probably won’t make it. Some have too many distractions in their lives to consider education important. Some may be harried by violence in their neighborhoods. Others are vulnerable to being ensnared by substance abuse. The statistics are clear. The vortex of poverty, violence and substance abuse traps many young people. The numbers of young people who are chronically absent and never graduate from urban high schools are staggering. While some do get to college, the numbers who never graduate are overwhelming. The causes are well enough known: lack of a support network, lack of understanding of how college works, lack of fundamental academic skills, lack of money, lack of faith in themselves and the system.
Statistics tell us we already know the end of the story. So why do we keep trying?
Why do teachers continue to put heart and soul on the line if the ending is pre-ordained?
In Hadestown, the audience is implored to sustain their faith even though the play keeps retelling the same sad story. Someday, the script suggests, the story may change. At the end of the show, the narrator sings directly to the audience:
It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy
It’s a sad song
But we sing it anyway
Cause, here’s the thing:
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
I learned that from a friend of mine
See, Orpheus was a poor boy
But he had a gift to give:
He could make you see how the world could be.
Every student has a gift to give. Teaching in an urban school takes dedication, charisma and skill to recognize and nurture that gift. And it also takes faith– faith that someday there might be just enough conviction to turn a student around, to stop looking backwards like Orpheus and keep moving forward. Our job as educators is to keep telling the story because every day there might be a student who will make it, and that student will find a way to make a difference.
Even though we think we know how most stories will end, we never know who that one student might be, and we may never know the success that student finds. An urban teacher’s faith is often a blind faith. Nevertheless, as in the Hadestown finale, we raise a toast to all the students who have not yet found their gift, as Orpheus has not found his, in the hope that the support provided by teachers will help our students to eventually find success. Wherever he is wandering, alone upon the earth, let all our singing follow him, and bring him comfort.
We never know how the comfort we try to provide might someday affect a student. A small gesture, a smile, a modicum of extra attention might nudge a young person out of the cyclical pattern into a new attitude that opens a new path. Instead of looking back, the view is to the way forward. When that happens, I’ll call it one hell of a day!
Image credit: [Painting] Edward Poynter (1836–1919), Orpheus and Eurydice (1862), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.