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The Comenius Project – Applying the myth to our students’ lives
The myth of Fetonte could be a story of personal growth, born, as it often is, of tragedy and failure. Fetonte the son of Elio, was in search of an identity. He didn’t know who his Father was at the start of the myth, and the exploration for him embodied his own need to discover who he himself was. The lack of a parent symbolises the perfect identity crises. We know who we are mainly through our relations with other people, and the absence of such a central figure as a Father, would heighten any doubt a child has of himself. He would feel rootless and lost. For Fetonte, to assert an identity would be his first great test in life and possibly an opportunity to build his character. As adults we have a strong sense of identity. We know who we are through what we’ve become and through what others see in what we’ve become. We know our limits well, as we’ve tested them in many ways over a long period. We’ve seen what we’re good at, and what we’re not so good at. We’ve defined ourselves to the world and have forgotten the trauma and excitement of discovering our identity. Our teenage years are often times of experimenting with identities and looking for limits to these. This is healthy and such a journey can only really be traversed by those travelling through youth, with minimal interference from parents, no matter how well meaning. Parents should intervene in exceptional circumstances, but they can never find their children’s identities for them. To really achieve their full potential, students must take their own risks. This could be in terms of confronting authority, choosing friendships, choosing their hobbies or free time activities. Or, it could be of far greater magnitude, like choosing an academic direction and country in which to study.
Fetonte was told who his Father was, by his friends. He asked his Father to grant him any wish. His Father agreed, but when he heard his son’s desire he protested, considering it too dangerous. However, he conceded the wish in the end, as he couldn’t break his original promise. Fetonte eventually took the reigns of his Fathers carriage and drove it across the sky. He wanted to rise up and demonstrate that he could do it. That he had the power and ability. He wanted to assert an identity in that rather clumsy, but exuberant way young people have. And he especially wanted to assert his identity through the eyes of his father. His father had less confidence in him and believed he wasn’t ready. Should his father have stopped him? By taking the carriage, and hence authority and responsibility for that authority, Fetonte sowed the seeds of his personal growth. I had a student once who wanted to travel to England to study law. I did not have the same confidence in the student’s ability to meet such a challenge. I thought the potential was there but that she needed more time to develop. This myth perfectly enshrines our apprehensions as parents and guardians of those youths in our care. We know that the dangers of such a decision could ultimately be failure and loss of self esteem, or, if you like, the death of an identity. Students may not see the way ahead so clearly as us, without the experience to draw on. They may be reckless with such decisions. But we also know that a success could lead to the greatest human need of all, that of fulfilment. In the myth, Fetonte died by crashing the carriage into the river Po. In fact, Zeus brought about his downfall by striking him out of the sky with a bolt of lightning. This role Zeus plays could be that of any teacher or professor. We, in that profession, often play god in the lives of our vulnerable students, deciding who succeeds and who fails.
When people are doomed to fail they need to be destroyed, while they obsessively try to overcome the impossible. And, we need to accept that while we must try to control and manage our lives as best we can, we are not always in control of our destiny. We must sometimes adapt and adjust to a new destiny brought upon us. Realising that we are not the real authors of our lives could be another nugget of wisdom woven into this myth. For me, this crash represents failure and loss of self esteem, which are indeed grave dangers for those youths in our care. But failure can be enlightening in teaching us who we really are, and can lead to renewal. As parents and teachers, we have to make another judgement before we let students take the responsibility of climbing, new and dangerous mountain tops. Has the youth such a character that they can bear spectacular failure and, as Tennyson so beautifully put it, “rise up on stepping stones of their dead self to higher things.” I believed that the student who wanted to study Law in England had such a character.
The horses which pulled Fetontes carriage across the sky became wild. They sensed his inexperience and took advantage. Often wild horses represent strong emotion. Emotions are our engines which can drive us along our chosen path. But they are wild and need to be tamed with self discipline. Without self discipline they become self destructive and destructive to those around us. To provoke such emotions young people need adventure and challenge, which in turn entails risk and the possibility of failure. But they need to develop a skillful use of the reigns to keep the horses pulling in the right direction. My hope for Fentone is that although his identity died a painful death, his new identity was wiser, more skillful with the reigns and was able to rise to higher things, “like a Pheonix from the ashes.”