I love what happens in the classroom. Just before the end of our penultimate day discussing Beowulf, one of my students burst out, “How is a brown girl like me supposed to identify with Beowulf?”
The next class we discussed issues of diversity and how we can use them to explore Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon culture. I shared with my students all sorts of material, including about Jorge Luis Borges, the brilliant Argentinian author who read, wrote about, and translated Old English literature. I shared an undergraduate honors student’s thesis written for me in 2004 called “Jorge Luis Borges: Nazi critic / by Andrew Edward Dunsky. We explored The Public Medievalist, a blog site devoted to defending medieval studies from white supremacist racist rhetoric.
Most importantly, I opened a page to my blog on Grendel’s Mother. This particular entry, called “Old English is Mine!”: Diversity and Old English, includes a poem by Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, the medievalist. She writes about how just because she is from Puerto Rico, she has “as much right to” Old English as anyone else.
I asked my student if she would be willing to read the poem—in both modern English and Spanish– aloud to the entire class. She was willing and sparked the most wonderful class. Later she wrote me, “I just wanted to thank you for showing me the poem in class. It was very empowering for me, and I’m very grateful for that.” Later she fashioned a wonderful final project in which she translated a favorite song in Spanish into Old English. She chose is “La Trenza” by the Chilean artist Mon Laferte. As she writes so eloquently, “Overall, this was a very healing project of me. Being able to reclaim a part of my culture which has been co-opted by hateful groups has allowed me to feel welcome and validated as a student at Texas State. Additionally, merging two very different aspects of my identity has given me the opportunity to understand the value of diversity and inclusion.”
I’m grateful to my student, for opening the minds and hearts of all our students—and me.
And I’m especially grateful to Nahir for sharing this poem that allowed for a moment of grace in the classroom. And here’s the song that inspired my student so much.