'Iliad' scene inspires skit that wins

March 21, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

Maybe there's still a lesson or two to learn from long-dead Greeks.

At least a group of Annapolis fourth-graders think so.

They recently used a scene from Homer's epic, "Iliad," to solve a modern problem -- flooding on the Mississippi River -- and ended up with top awards at the Odyssey of the Mind competition.

The Georgetown East Elementary School pupils chose the scene in which Achilles defeats the raging river Xanthus with the help of the god Hephaestus, who sends fire to evaporate the water.

Through songs and dialogue in a five-minute skit, the seven pupils re-enacted the scene from the "Iliad," then fast-forwarded to 1993. The Xanthus is now the Big Muddy. Again the raging river must be defeated, and again the students enlist the help of the Greek gods, who drive back the waters and bring sunny skies.

Georgetown East's presentation beat out three other elementary schools competing in the classical division at the regional contest. It also was recognized as one of the two most creative solutions devised by any of the 60 competing elementary, middle and high school teams.

The group's next stop is the state competition at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County on April 23. If they win, they'll be eligible to compete in the world competition in Iowa.

But before they move on to the next level, they have to improve the skit's backdrop, spruce up Hephaestus' costume, and add another song to describe the Mississippi flooding last year, said Gail Kaplan Brickman, one of the team's coaches.

The group has been together since November. Twenty students tried out for the fourth-grade Odyssey of the Mind team. Georgetown East fielded three teams: a second-grade team, which participates but doesn't compete, the fourth-grade team and a fifth-grade team.

Odyssey of the Mind was started about 20 years ago, Mrs. Brickman said, and provides an opportunity for youths to test their skills and creativity.

The coaches, who are usually parents of team members, are given a choice of several problems for their teams to solve. Each year the choices include a classical problem in which teams must apply a classical reading to a modern dilemma; an engineering problem that must be solved by building structures from balsa wood; and, for older participants, a mechanical problem that must be overcome by building mechanical devices.

The coaches at Georgetown East taught the fourth-graders the "Iliad" by reading sections of the epic poem to them and then inviting a St. John's College professor to discuss the plot. Eric Sherrane, who plays Achilles, said he enjoyed the "Iliad."

"After you get in the story, it becomes interesting," the 9-year-old said.

Mrs. Brickman's daughter, Ariel, 9, didn't care for the story's blood and gore. Still, she enjoyed the project and helped write some of the songs, one of which turns the Broadway tune "Old Man River" into "Old Man Xanthus."

"The words just came out of my mouth, and we made a good song out of it," she said.

Marna Rinder, 9, who plays Xanthus, said she most enjoyed entertaining the teachers and judges. "I like to fight with Achilles and wave my arms like water," she said.

The group's success has been a pleasant surprise for young Eric, who had serious doubts about being on the team.

"When I found out I was on an all-girl team, I was really mad," he said. "Maybe it's a miracle, but it's worked out."

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