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Teaching “The Odyssey” at San Quentin

The opening of “The Odyssey” describes Odysseus as polytropos, a man “much turned” and “much turning.” He makes much happen, and much happens to him. When I selected “The Odyssey” as the first text for my English 101 course at San Quentin Prison, I worried about the choice. It’s a difficult work for readers of limited literary background, and I wondered how a population of mostly black and brown men doing long prison terms would relate to the story of an ancient Greek king. As it turned out, I had them at polytropos.

The theme of the course was life as a story, and at the first class, I asked them to tell a story from their own lives. A few declined; most spoke. One recalled his boyhood in Cambodia, the day he saw a river filled with floating corpses, victims of the Khmer Rouge. One had been unable to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother because he was in prison. A black man from Arkansas had seen his cousin murdered by white supremacists. One shot a man in a drug dispute. Another had grown up as a neighborhood protector and admired the way Odysseus “took care of business,” saving his crew from the Cyclopes and killing the suitors. Another man had gone berserk when the love of his life sent her brother to tell him their wedding was off. My students were polytropos aplenty.

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