A very long time ago, a young girl decided she wanted to be a writer. Years later, while in college, that same girl, now a woman, decided she wanted her writing to take the form of play writing. But being an academic sort, she believed that the best way to learn to write plays was to study the origin of the art form, namely Ancient Greek tragedy. A wily professor of hers convinced her not only to read the great tragedians in translation, but better yet, to learn to read them in their original Greek. And so, I did.
I have now come to realize, many many years later, that that decision was actually a first step towards real intellectual freedom. Growing up in suburban New York, my public (ie State) school did not offer Ancient Greek, and honestly, even if it did, I doubt that I would have ventured to take it. Although I was a bookish sort, and always thought myself to be pretty good at languages, such an academic pursuit was so far removed from my experience that it would have been inconceivable. But thankfully, I went to a university which encouraged intellectual risk-taking, and I had a professor who refused to let me take the easy way out.
I fell in love with ancient Greek culture and the Ancient Greek language. That opened a road which I started to tread in earnest as I continued my studies in graduate school, earning a Masters in Greek, specializing in the plays of Euripides, and then continuing my studies towards a life in academe, as a Classics professor.
Fast forward again to a moment I recently had on a trip to Greece, where I stood for the first time on what would have been the stage of the 5th Century BC Greek theatre at Epidauros, I stood there trying to imagine what my life might have been like if I had stayed on that road, devoting my life to studying and teaching the great playwrights of the past. Of course, I didn’t. I raised a family. I did become a writer, but mostly (so far) of novels and poetry. I became an educator and developed a new passion for another far-flung country, Cambodia.
But I have also realized that my first great intellectual passion led to the rest of my pursuits (including finding my husband and father of my children also studying Greek in graduate school). Studying the Greek language taught me about language in general, how it works, how it evolves, how powerful and beautiful it can be. It helped me understand that language can be more than just a tool I wield. It can be a tool I create as well, over and over again, just as the great Greek poets had done. And learning about the culture of a place long ago and far away taught me to value the divergent beauty of all cultures and societies. It led me to the belief that I could immerse myself in other cultures, that I could learn other languages and communicate in a deeper way with people as different from my own background as I could imagine. My life is incalculably richer because of it.
So perhaps that original road not taken was taken after all. Perhaps that road was much broader with more curves than I had realized. It may have taken me decades to see it quite so clearly, but that road looks very steady to me now.