Years ago, I discovered The Island School by way of a NOLS job listserv. They were accepting applications for teaching fellows, and I promptly applied for the literature teaching fellow position. At the time, the high school English class was called “Literature of the Sea,” and students at The Island School (mostly American sophomores and juniors) would read Derek Walcott’s Omeros and discuss the role of the sea as a character and as a force. I was invited to interview for the position, and I did my best to get my hands on Omeros. The local library didn’t have it, but they had a collection of Walcott’s poetry, which included excerpts from the epic poem.
In preparation, I remember reading these lines from Book I of Omeros:
Then silence is sawn in half by a dragonfly
as eels sign their names along the clear bottom-sand,
when the sunrise brightens the river’s memory
and waves of huge ferns are nodding to the sea’s sound.
I couldn’t believe how perfect the position was for me. Not only would I train for a four-mile ocean swim, interact with sea turtle researchers, and engage in experiential, place-based education, but I would have the opportunity to analyze literature from an ecocritical perspective in the classroom. What role does nature/landscape/seascape play in this text? What do we learn about human relationships to nature from these descriptions? How is nature personified, and what does that mean?
I didn’t get the position that year. But I kept my eyes open in search of a copy of Omeros whenever I was in a used bookstore. And I continued to apply to The Island School. Two years after that, I interviewed again, this time for the teacher position, and I found more passages of Omeros through the library at the college where I was completing my master’s degree. I was in Australia at the time, and I looked for Omeros in the used bookstore in Yungaburra, the nearest town to where I lived. They didn’t have it, and I didn’t get the job that year, either.
Two years after that, I interviewed for the literature teacher position again. As weeks went by after my initial interview, I visited a bookstore in search of a travel guide to Iceland, where I would be traveling for work. After picking up the travel guide, I noticed that the bookstore had a used book section, and I was drawn to the poetry shelf. There, the familiar book was placed with its cover facing outward. Is it a sign? I wondered, and I purchased Omeros for six dollars.
A week later, while searching for the northern lights in Iceland, I received an email that I was not a finalist for the literature teacher position, and I chided myself for believing in signs. I hid my disappointment as best I could and decided I wouldn’t apply to The Island School again. But more than a month later, I was contacted again, and eventually, offered the position. After interviewing on three separate occasions, I knew I had to take the opportunity. So I relocated to The Bahamas, and I brought my copy of Omeros with me.
Omeros is challenging for any reader, but especially for high school students. Much of the beauty that I find in the poem is lost to my students by their frustration and misunderstandings as they struggle their way through the text. For me, it is a welcome challenge to help students reach an understanding of this text, and I am looking forward to introducing them to it next week.
On Friday, I learned that Derek Walcott passed away. It came as a shock, mostly because Omeros has been such a central feature of the Island School literature curriculum since the school's inception in 1999. While I have known about Walcott and his work for years, he has moved on when I am in the midst of truly discovering him.
After years of pining after this job, I finally have the chance to read and teach Walcott's work. Furthermore, it is because of his work that I have been introduced to a new world of Caribbean and postcolonial literature, and for that, I am grateful.
Omeros ends with these lines:
A full moon shone like a slice of raw onion.
When he left the beach the sea was still going on.
As Kei Miller tweeted on Friday, a giant has gone to sleep. However, the sea is still going on, and we have Walcott's poetry to explore the many stories of that sea and its people.