Thursday, September 02, 2010

Roland, El Cid, fourth grade and real honor

In fourth grade, at 9 my life changed. My teacher, Mr. V. was the Vice Principal, a big black man who used to mete out corporal punishment and was infamous for it. Our classroom would get timid knocks on the glass, to have this GIANT (to a 7-9 year old) Black man open it and stare down growling “Why are you here?” equals total terror. Other teachers used to send bad students to knock on his classroom door as punishment, though only a few even in our class knew that he didn’t give out corporal punishment, just really stern looks. I was one of those.

Mr. V. was a man who managed to channel his passion for teaching into driving his students to a level of perfection that was unusual (probably as unusual as our third grade teacher reading us the Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings). Every Friday was multiplication day. When math time came around, the papers were handed out (the times tables from 1X1 to 1X12 and 12X1 to 12X12) and EVERYONE had to do it in less than two minutes. Or we did it again, and again, and then next week, and next week - we had a year, until we got it. It was timed so that first we learned the times tables, then we memorized them, then we did them so fast that we didn’t even think. To this day, I know what seven times seven, or 9 times 6 or 12 times 8 is before I can even get the words out. I don’t think it, I know it, and every student he had knows it, without ever thinking.

He and I used to play chess during lunch. My father had been playing chess with me, no holds, since I was four, and three years after fourth grade I finally won my first game against my father, then two more years until I would win again, consistantly. So I played Mr. V and lost. I don’t think Mr. V was used to a fourth grader who wanted to play chess 200 straight days in a row and lose every day. I chastised him if I thought he was taking it easy on me, in the way children do when they don't know that they shouldn't chastise 'fearful Mr. V.' - I think I amused him.

He gave me a book, an old book he owned, rebound and kept together with black binding, literally nameless. It was the tales of 11th century knights. It became my standard, because I knew after reading that book what a ‘standard bearer’ was. Because that is how Roland became the Page of Oliver (one of the 12 elite knights of Charlemange), taking the job because the standard bearer had riden from the field of battle in fear. This left Oliver alone and without a rally point. Roland, a fatherless peasant but childhood friend of Oliver stripped the standard bearer and rode out in armor, carrying the banner of Oliver, saving his life several times. As my grandfather used to say, “People either eat the broccoli or the dessert first”. That means that some people choose the hardest first, leaving the easy for later, while other take the fun stuff first and leave the hard for last.

Roland taught me that fear is faced, not run from. I was inside playing chess because as an often sick and fragile child, the playground was a little TOO violent for me. But Roland is the knight of lost causes. Because he was in charge of the 20,000 rearguard of Charlemange when faced with overwhelming odds (the tales put it at 400,000). He had been given Oliphant, the horn which no mortal could blow, by Oliver, if he was in need of help, he was to blow it.

This is where interpretation differs, as Roland refused to put into peril Charlemange and the Army. As his 20,000 knights became 1,000, they begged him to blow Oliphant, but he refused. Even with a circle of 100 knights, he continued to refuse. Only with a few knights left, and wounded did he blow Oliphant, the strain causing blood to pour from his nose and mouth and into his brain.
In some versions, Roland is seen as the reckless knight who wanted too much glory, and in one version even being killed at the end by Oliver for his foolishness of these deaths.

The book was very unusual, in that it had one theme, that of individuals who, regardless of exile, of the orders of those with greed or other motivations remained ‘true’. And to be true means to take full meaning of the task given you, the ‘spirit’ of the word. Roland did not blow the horn Oliphant because that was his job. He was to ensure the security of army of Charlemange and guard it, not save himself, so he only blew Oliphant to make sure the Army knew of the threat.

Roland WAS a real person who really DID die as the man in charge of the rearguard in Charlemange army’s exit of Spain, recorded in annals of the time. Another REAL person in the book was El Cid, the undefeatable.

El Cid, living in a Spain tat was being taken over by the moors, served the king of Castile, and grew up fighting the strongholds of the moors. He was no great nobleman, his mother was a minor aristocrat and his father not so he was the hero of the peasants, a man who rose to greatness due to wit and valor. At the Battle of Cabra, El Cid rallied the troops under him, turning the battle and routing the Emir of Granada back to his city. For this ‘unauthorized’ action, he was exiled. He continued with his troop now as a mercenary, until Alfonzo, the king of Castile suffered a huge defeat eight years later and recalled El Cid. The name is a combo of spanish and arabic, meaning ‘The Master’ or ‘Master of Military Arts’ or as he was known, “The Champion”. The title was used during his lifetime.

With an alliance of both Moorish and Christian soldier, El Cid led and gained cities, territories around the great city Valencia (on the Mediterrian side of Spain) creating in Valencia and territories a place where Christians and Moors lived together in peace. The Army and the civil and army administrators were both Christian and Moorish. He died in 1099, right at the end of the 11th Century, and his wife ruled after his death but three years later, the city besieged, the tale is that El Cid, embalmed, tied to his horse, led the great march out of the city, bringing citizens to safety, through those surrounding the city as none dared to attack. So even dead, El Cid, in saving the city citizens, gained one of his greatest victories. El Cid is not a myth but also was a real person, in fact his sword, tested and shown to be 11th century was bought by Castile and is in the Museum of Burgos.
The book showed that a name was created by being true to yourself, and resisting influence. And that, despite or indeed because of your attempts you may be hated, for years even, but in the end, the impossible, a safe territory for both Moor and Christian existed, because of El Cid. It really happened, here is his signature.
I remember thinking that this was a rather odd book since I put off reading a month or two because I didn’t want the battles and feats of valour, but reading this, all the ‘Heroes’ turn out dead and the ‘valour’ they held was often mixed with exile, hatred, and death.

El Cid was undefeated due to his extreme and unusual tactics for the times, which included ‘brainstorming’ session with aides, then using unusual tactics which included what we know today as ‘psychological warfare’ planning how to create the greatest terror in the troops right before he attacked them. He also used ‘lightning attacks’ on paralyzed troops as well as independent trained troops, and small groups to attack in odd places in order to distract the enemy (sort of like SAS or the like). He also took suggestions from his troops themselves. There was no barrier to victory. For him, in collecting and inspiring those around him, he had no prejudice, accepting moor and christian alike.

I still have that book, and it still has no title. If a peasant can sacrifice himself for honor unknown under the armor, why not a woman? If El Cid was disliked for being successful, and for not being influenced by bribe or corruption, then so too could I. Another 100 chess games and I left Mr. V. classroom, my parents transferred me to a private school and I think every teacher except the Vice Principal at that school soon hated me.

I think it was because I DID things, I tried and failed, and faced the teachers and openly admitted it.

That is the one thing I miss, DOING. Today, even resting in bed I pass out, and the care worker was able to eventually bring me around. I spent a day working on and finally freeing a pill swallowed into my lung, which had festered (oh, finally!), and I bleed from my nose. Not exactly getting out and DOING, not ACTING is it? I may be alive when statistically I should not, but so what?

Yeah the night is long. I would like to say I don’t why I told you about 4th grade except I do. I want to be part of a world where I am burned at the stake or strapped to a horse dead to DO things, rather than literally rotting in parts. Too bad I missed that world by around 1000 years (and not a lot of female commanders…..that we KNOW about).

The battles, the things to be overcome now are different, but there is still work, and the unimaginable to be accomplished. There are a few places now where men and women work together equally in admin, and where people are viewed on their merit and potential, not by skin color, gender, disability, religion, or other issues. But that isn’t HERE yet. And I will fight for that, when I can. Until then I will try to get out of the house, then I will try to get back to boxing, showing women that the stereotypes are untrue, it is a thinking puzzle game that is kind of fun. And I will use it for my own risk: life and my sweat glands, with 10 minutes on the heavy bag at two hits a second.

I leave you with a narrative of red haired Sora and blonde Layla from Kaleido Star, both who shared despise and failure, but refuses to give up. That is the point, not to ‘refused’ to give up, but to keep refusing, no matter how bad it gets.
In order to do what all others see as ‘cannot be done’ it takes years of discipline and hard work (and yes, pain) but it is right there in front you. Your dream is ALWAYS in front of you, waiting to be dreamed and sought. Why do you wait?

I have run thousands of miles for races or ultramarathons I never was able to compete it. So what? I failed. The injuries healed and I ran again. I did compete, I did run. If I got a medicine right now that could cure my orthostatic hypotention, I would run a 10K and then a marathon using a walker. And if you don’t understand that, leg braces and all, then you don’t really understand me. It isn’t about walking and running, it is about DOING, about TRYING. One day I will find the right words for explaining it, since I know someone right now who is doing it, risk, and a life changed.

The greatest risk? It isn’t doing something that might cause you loss of function, or damage your body forever, but instead being paralyzed BY risk. You may not believe this but a calculated risk is all we get in life, and if you never choose to take one, then all you have done is given in to a fear of the unknown. Except it isn't unknown, because for the rest of your life you will know what you achieved: Nothing. Because you choose to do NOTHING. What are you risking? Failure? It is an honor to try and fail compared to not try at all. No, not honor from the people around you, but within you, knowing who you are.

Linda says I talk about the dead a lot now. Maybe I can just finally understand what it means to be near helpless to the crush of a disease sitting on you. I hope that like Roland, at the end I can sound that I held to the end, and finished my charge.


SharonMV said...

Dear Beth,
When I was a couple years older, I saw a movie on TV about El Cid. I'm sure it was historically inaccurate, but I was moved by the story. I memorized several scenes of dialog & used to recite them to myself. I didn't know the story of how he led the march of his people even years dead.
Later, when I learned Greek, the works of Homer became an important part of my life. The stories become embedded in your mind & heart. It was Lyric poetry and it's shimmering fragments that led me to Greek, but the influence of the epic is undeniable.

What Linda said, about you speaking about the dead, reminded me of something my most esteemed Greek teacher, Laura, said. She is the one who taught me Greek. At the time she had recently lost her father. A fellow student & I were reading Greek with her, I don't remember the text, but the subject of death came up. Laura told us her father had often said that some of his best friends were dead. Meaning not just his friends he had lost, but those who came before, those known only by their own writings, or the stories about them. They are still alive in us. As Classical scholars, we lived with those long dead every day. We had converse with them. Sappho's fragmented verses still speak to me. Roland and El Cid are still in our company. You walk with them. And you will be among my friends always.


wendryn said...

As long as I've known you, one of your defining parts is that you push harder than anyone else I know. You're still doing that. Even if you are living, for now, without a lot of doing other things, you are still pushing hard. It is who you are, and your life right now, just living it, is more impressive than most heroic stories.

Raccoon said...

Broccoli or dessert first... the choices one must make.

Sounds like a great book. Who else was in it?

Any idea what the music is in the video? It was very good. Kind of emotional.

cheryl g said...

Mr V sounds like a great teacher. It also sounds like he actually understood the 9 year old you better than others in your life based on the gift to you of such an important book. At age 10 I read fictional tales of knights and factual books on the life of El Cid. I was drawn to stories of self-sacrifice for honor. I admired stories of those that tried and kept trying even when they failed.

To me you are also someone who will do what must be done regardless of personal cost. You willingly sacrifice yourself for others. You DO and you ACT rather than sitting silently watching. I admire you for your courage and your convictions. I admire your sense of honor and fairness and I am humbled by it.

You still DO and ACT it is just at a slower pace now. With this blog you reach out, you teach, you open eyes and hearts and minds of readers. Knowing you has changed me. I have grown and I am more able to take the risks now. I take actions in spite of my fears instead of allowing the fears to dictate the actions. Your example has taught me that. Yes, I do fail but that is part of learning and growing. I just have to keep trying.

Knowing you reminded me that one can go through life or one can LIVE. Being willing to risk again has brought me much more happiness and peace than my old gray life ever did. Thank you for the lessons, the encouragement and the love.

Baba Yaga said...

A teacher who somewhat understood Beth. Bless him for that.

Don't fool yourself that you aren't still Doing and Acting. With longer pauses betweentimes, within tighter constraints, but very recognisably. & when you can't Do in big ways, Doing is still embedded in the way you approach the world.

If this last long time for you hasn't been a whole series of ultra-marathons, I don't know what it has been.

I'm not so much a Doer, or a defier of limits. Or not in bold ways, anyway. I can admire the philosophy, but I'm not temperamentally suited to boldness. More to subversion and quiet tweaking of limits. Or occasionally of noses, if they deserve tweaking.

Linda McClung said...

I remember my 4th grade teacher reading one of The Three Investigators books. Tolkien?? I think I’d find that tough going – even now. Mr. V. sounds like a great teacher, someone who loved doing what he did and making a difference in other people’s lives.

Listening to you talk about losing game after game after game of chess just reminds me how much determination and strength of will you have. Roland and El Cid are definitely heroes because they faced fears and persevered. I think you have a lot in common with them. You’re facing something most people avoid talking about at all costs – mortality. You face it bravely, not willing to give in to it, no matter what the cost. You have a will so strong, I know of no one whose is stronger. No matter what you set your mind to, you make it happen. These days it may not seem as grandiose as learning to play the double bass in a month or running a marathon, but rather smaller feats like writing a blog, making a phone call to someone who is sick, getting to a gym class. They might be smaller but I think are more important than the bigger ones. Your feats help those around you and/or keep you as healthy as possible.

I want to help you DO, but also minimize the risks along the way.

I like your sentence about the greatest risk is being paralyzed by risk. Taking risks is something I have always struggled to do. It seems much safer not taking the risks – but it does lead to a boring and unfulfilled life. You’ve helped me to be more of a risk taker. You helped me vocalize my dreams and many have come true.

Lorna, Liam and Bob said...

Hey, Beth, not much to say here, low couple of days... but did want you to know I'm reading and checking in and just generally holding you in my heart.

Neil said...

I know realize that my grade 4 teacher was probably a fairly young teacher. But she also insisted that we know our multiplication. At the start of the year she would give us ten seconds (I think) to write the answer to, say, 6 X 8. Within 8 months, she was reciting questions while she wrote the answers as fast as she could, and I still kept up with her effortlessly.

Thank you, Miss Goddard, wherever you are.

Your talking about death? I presume that's because it has been on your mind a lot lately. We love you anyway.

Love and zen hugs,

Kate J said...

Sadly, the long and thoughtful comment I wrote about Mr V etc seems to have disappeared into the ether. Maybe that's a good thing. Suffice it to say that I wish every child could meet a Mr V of their own, one who could give them the right encouragement at the right time.

And Beth, you are a hero, as far as I'm concerned. With all the courage of El Cid and the rest, and more, because you fight your battle pretty much alone. Like Dylan Thomas said, you rage, rage against the dying of the light... but I'm sure when the time comes you will also have the courage to let go. I hope so.
Love, and peace, and love again...

ps. if the original comment turns up, delete one or the other, please!

tinarussell said...

Hey-o, Beth. Very true. I hate it when people try to convince me or others to go the safe route and just be an accountant or something. If I do that (and apologies to those of you who are passionate about accounting), then I’ll just live my life full of regrets. But if I chase my dreams and try again and again and still fail, at least I’ll have had fun doing it and have no regrets. (Besides, people only say to play it safe to convince themselves it was a good idea for them to go into accounting or whatever. Argh.)

I guess what I’m saying is that... I don’t want to be an accountant... I want to be... a LION TAMER!!

(Great piece, of course, Beth! I love your use of the chess games as a framing device.)

Lene Andersen said...

It can be so hard to see the doing in being still, I imagine especially when you're used to pushing your body as far as you are.

"I may be alive when statistically I should not, but so what?" A lot of what. You're still pushing boundaries, still doing and as long as you're alive, you're succeeding.

Sometimes, making it through the day is plenty of doing.

Veralidaine said...

It's funny--this reminds me very much of my niece, who has befriended the teacher who runs her elementary school's chess club and plays extra games with him because the club time is too full of kids who are just there to goof off, not as serious chess players. She is entering fourth grade. She's also an athlete (where she got it, I don't know, but she's good at basketball and wants to wrestle!) who couldn't care less about girly things. Someday when she's old enough not to get too many nightmares from it I'll have to lend her my copy of Zed.

I was always a troublemaker in school. I corrected my third grade teacher's spelling... on a spelling words list no less... and got sent into the hall to sit at my desk and think about what I'd done by embarrassing the teacher. My parents angrily called the principal and made him apologize for punishing me for being a better speller than the teacher. I feel more kindly toward him now, though--he'd signed on, I later discovered, as a gym teacher and at the last minute was reassigned to the third grade with no choice in the matter.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I am sorry about google (aka evil empire) and comments, if you need to comment under anon and sign it, that is great to - that's why I moderate (unless you are selling sex pumps or other dubious items).

Sharon: I wasn't aware El Cid was so well known. I will try to find this film now.

Homer was important to me also, it was what used to be read to me to sleep and the Oddysey was one of the first books I ever read (to prove that if Daddy could do it, so could I).

I think Sappho speaks to Linda and I as well. But I used to complain that my best conversations were with the dead - odd how making comments like that didn't just draw lots of friends to me in college.

Wendryn: The classic hero's tale like Robin Hood, and the shooting of the arrow I could not understand, not compared to blowing a horn until you head explodes - I guess there are two types in the world: those who like to die in bed, and those who like to have their head explode!

Cheryl: We are lucky if we find a teacher not jaded and interested enough in us. Linda found one and took Business, I found Mr. V and took WORLD DOMINATION!

Baba Yaga: We totally need a world with many, many people to subvert it quietly, nibbles here and there. We also occasionally need some jackass idiot who will run up and down the ramparts totally distracting everyone. I think we know which I am.

You really have no idea about how much an ultra marthathon. There was one in Africa, 90 miles, with a hill miles long at about mile 60 called the heart breaker. I know too well that feeling that if I continue, that blood I feel filling up my heart will come out my mouth, but I go on, or I drop and then I get up, because in the end, only I can caretake my survival, though without caretakers, I wouldn't be able to do it so long.