This one comes to us from Geoffrey Sheehy.

When I pulled from the Greek treasury for bedtime stories, I frequently became a mythological revisionist. Zeus’s appropriation of any woman he desired? Excised, or, if necessary, declared legal marriages. Hera’s rage over Zeus’s infidelity? Simple quarrels. I knew they were important, but not to my three and five-year-old daughters. Not yet, anyway.

I take solace in knowing I was in good company. In his Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne manipulates the story of the Minotaur to save Ariadne and Theseus’s reputations. They both have reputations worth saving: Theseus is the Athenian prince who has volunteered to be part of the tribute to the king of Crete, and he then insists on being fed to the Minotaur before his 13 compatriots. Ariadne is the Cretan princess who circumvents her father’s plan to feed the Minotaur, slipping Theseus a line of string that he uses to track his way out of the labyrinth. What typically happens after Theseus kills the Minotaur is not present in Hawthorne’s tale:

Now, some low-minded people, who pretend to tell the story of Theseus and Ariadne, have the face to say that this royal and honorable maiden did really flee away, under cover of the night, with the young stranger whose life she had preserved. They say, too, that Prince Theseus (who would have died sooner than wrong the meanest creature in the world) ungratefully deserted Ariadne, on a solitary island, where the vessel touched on its voyage to Athens. But, had the noble Theseus heard these falsehoods, he would have served their slanderous authors as he served the Minotaur!

So for Hawthorne, not only does Ariadne not run away with Theseus, she doesn’t even fall in love with him. And not only does Theseus not abandon her on the way home, but he would have killed anyone for uttering such libelous nonsense. And yet within the denial is the entirety of the ‘true’ story: she fled, he dumped her. It is just like Hawthorne to insert the scandal into his work by not inserting it, to deny it with a wink: Dear child, the world is not as simple as adults have led you to believe.

Hawthorne rightfully underscores how the ‘alternate’ versions reflect poorly on both characters. Yet I’m particularly interested in what this story means for Ariadne. Without her string, Theseus could never have worked his way out of the maze; without her arrangements, he could never have fled Crete. And in return, Theseus whisks her from her homeland and abandons her on some island. Ariadne, it appears, has grossly misjudged her beneficiary.

So I wonder about my own life, for which Ariadne is analogous: Is such assistance worth the risk? If my aid enables someone to turn on me, to cause me to suffer, should I offer my hand? Should I help?

Such questions confront me as I step into the public high school, teaching a hodgepodge of students who do not agree with me or each other. We are neighbors in a traditional sense, living within minutes of each other, occasionally seeing one another at the grocery store, but the broader world we inhabit has formed our impressions, so I frequently see one student attack another with an immediate sense of category (Straight Male, Gun Rights Advocate, Socialist) rather than a sense of name (Tim, Hannah, Sarah).

As a teacher, I remain aloof from most of these disputes. I keep quiet about certain perspectives despite my disagreement, and my own cherished views are often the target of students’ belligerence.

What I cherish most deeply—Jesus Christ—is insignificant for most of my students, and many of them consider the Bible anathema, where I consider it my life’s guide. Are we then enemies, Repugnant Cultural Others to one another, as construed by our cultural sides? (The term Repugnant Cultural Other is Susan Friend Harding’s and comes to me via Alan Jacobs’s book, How to Think.)

In one sense this opposition is unalterably the case. Countless are the papers I have received that include a condemnation of the church, a decree of God’s inexistence, or a declaration of a moral order opposed to traditional Christian teaching. But in evaluating such essays I not only refrain from quibbling, I guide students to tighter logic and more solid proof. If you are going to assail my faith, I admittedly think to myself, you’ll need to wield something sharper than this. And then I direct them to that thing.

If this is so, am I not Ariadne? I have dispensed something good—the string they need for the Minotaur’s labyrinth—but I’ve also enabled them to strike skillfully at what I cherish most. Am I simply training up my enemy in the way he would go?

Perhaps. But I admit I am also enjoying the role of Ariadne, and not without orthodox justification: Jesus loved his enemies more profoundly than anyone. He also said I should, too, and he did not qualify it with loopholes (it was the lawyer who tried to develop loopholes by re-defining ‘neighbor’). So in the context of the public school, I am teaching my enemy to engage ideas as rigorously and sincerely as I do.

But that’s not where I stop. Following the trail Alan Jacobs has blazed for me (again, in How to Think), I am also teaching my Repugnant Cultural Other what David Foster Wallace calls the hardest lessons for students to learn: that they must approach the craft of writing with “both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s.”

The way I see it, such practice circumvents the metaphor of warfare by which we approach one another, because we’re considering and respecting our interlocutors, not holding our noses at their every word. Ultimately, if my students learn what Wallace describes, we might cease to be Repugnant Cultural Others. We could realize we are neighbors.

As for the war and these ‘enemies,’ I rely on the goodness of the God I worship to guide my students out of darkness. I am then free to help my students—my neighbors—to write with force and precision, to argue with clarity and conviction, even if I cannot see how my actions point them down a path of conversion. Who knows whether they will not examine my own faith with the fair-mindedness and rigor I encourage them to apply to everything else we study?