Yesterday was the first day of the Creative Writing Camp at Bitola in Macedonia.   In the morning we had all the younger children show up to the camp and the American Corners was abuzz with life, energy, and joy — some of my favorite things.

We did a really great lesson called “Put in a Bag” where we had a big bag and a little bag and the children were to place things that they liked in one of the bags and things that they hoped a pirate would carry away in another bag.  I wished that I had had my brother Steven Riggall, a Dartmouth trained psychiatrist to help me on the results of this one.  Feral dogs, spiders and snakes were just some of the things that they wanted in a bag.

I asked the kids if they could think of a feral king and eventually, one of the afternoon kids came up with the Roman King Romulus, who as a child was feral.  I admitted that we don’t often use words in such oxymoronic fashion as in the case of “feral kings” but that makes it more interesting.

Today we are doing one of my favorite assignments.  It’s called “A shield; to shield; shielding”.  We take little paper umbrellas, like the ones that, if you were lucky, you have seen in a fruit drink sometime this summer.  The umbrellas have had their pointed toothpick center clipped off.  Then later we put the umbrellas in their juice during the mid-day break.

We ask them how an umbrella is like a shield. What does an umbrella shield us from?  What other kinds of shields are there.  Then I read a little Gilgamesh and talk about Gilgamesh and Enkidu as shields of Uruk, city of walls.  Sometimes I add similar epic epithets from Homeric epic and Sundiata.  We ask the children who their shields are, what their shields are, and who and what do they shield. Then we give them pictures of the new park in Bitola with the wonderful married metal shields in the park, similar, but not exactly like Alexander the Great’s famous 16 ray shield, which has been adapted into 8 rays and 8 points. To me, this represents the logic of a compass and indeed turns a shield into a compass.  Then I ask them how a shield is like a compass.

The idea came from my passion for the park, which the Macedonians are hoping to turn into an Istanbul-like light show as the park is located between very important Ottoman, Muslim, and Christian historical places, similar to the light show park between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  The copper and bronze shields that decorate it are brilliant.

I love shields.  I have always loved shields.  I even collect shield iconography.  Ask my World Literature students if this isn’t true.  What would a classical metal smith, who surely knows he is making an object meant to keep his client alive in the the great moments of danger and life and death, select to put on the shield?  A compass, a way home a la Henry V’s imaginative speeches to his men in Shakespeare’s plays. Who doesn’t want a compass on their shield?

We need a shield, and we need a compass.  Shields with the Medusa head illustrate that we are afraid of what will turn us into stone.  But what about that compass and the points and strikes on it? Will it take us there and back again as Tolkien implies?  Can we reach home if we are homesick and have a compass? Are we as centered as a compass on a shield makes us?  Is that point in the center home, base (as in my beloved baseball)?

Those extra 8 sword-like strikes to points, asks us to define the difference between a point and a strike, and I say there is a huge difference, as the points look more like home than the strikes. They also move away from traditional depictions of the compass as the Mesopotamian sun god Shamash, with his zig-zag strikes, like legs walking across the desert, or Aten-Ra, all rays.  I love the iconographic variety of the strikes and the dotes, but they do imply that home is not just at the center, that it is also found outside that center, that home can move outward, even on a shield.

I must go now as the children will be here in just a bit, and they are forces of nature, walking energy wanting to learn, write, express themselves, from their home in Bitola, Macedonia.  And we are, for a moment, their shields.

Merillee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

WITS Writer to the children of Macedonia

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