Some Thoughts on the Myth of Icarus

The Fall of Icarus

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder

With awe, admiration and a dose of humility, I watched many colleagues and friends step up to the daily March Slice of Life blogging challenge. Every day they found something to say, and every day they found time to say it—while I found myself drowning in yet another revision of the book that (to mix metaphors) has sometimes felt like a ball and chain around my ankle. What was wrong with me? No blog posts for months, no poem in my pocket, not even a picture on Facebook. Beside work and the book, all it seemed I could muster was the occasional tweet—and self pity.

But then one day I found a poem by the wonderful Jack Gilbert called “Failing and Flying” in my inbox. It came courtesy of Garrison Keillor and The Writer’s Almanac, and in it Gilbert uses the myth of Icarus as a springboard to contemplate what my teacher-mind saw as the problem of deficit thinking.

As you probably know, Icarus attempted to fly with wings attached to his back with string and wax, only to have the wax start to melt as he soared close to the sun. And that sent him into a death spiral. The myth is usually seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris or pride, with Icarus punished for having the audacity to think he could fly like a god. Brueghel paints him, for instance, as flailing in the sea, so insignificant you have to work hard even to find him in the corner of the painting. But Gilbert sees it differently. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” not just ignobly drowned. And so he “believe[s] Icarus was not failing as he fell/but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

As you’ll see below, Anne Sexton strikes the same note in her own Icarus poem, inviting us to admire his wings and not care that he fell back to sea:

Sexton Icarus Poem

These poems helped me rethink how I was looking at things. Yes, I’ve not managed to get certain things done (which in addition to blog posts includes folding the laundry), but boy, have I learned and experienced a lot. Over the months I’ve been working on the book, I’ve had the privilege to work with amazing teachers in amazing places—from New Jersey to Oman and from Buffalo to Bangkok. And those teachers have pushed me, in the best possible way, to keep on learning and growing.

Abundance vs. Scarcity Mindset

Of course, I’m not sure that constitutes triumph, but it does speak to what I realized was the abundance in my life. And among the many things I’ve learned is that focusing on abundance vs. scarcity is yet another way of thinking about mindsets that empower, not hobble, leaners. And that, in turn, has made me think that in addition to the passion I wrote about earlier that’s helped me keep on writing, I—and I believe all learners—need someone (or something like a poem) to remind us of both our strengths and the richness of our lives.

That rarely comes up, however, when we talk about helping students develop growth mindsets—not even in some of Carol Dweck’s recent articles where she’s cautioned teachers that growth mindsets aren’t just about effort. It needs to be effort that results in learning, and teachers have a role to play in that. As Dweck writes in “Growth Mindset, Revisited”, “Teachers do everything in their power to unlock that learning.” But even she shies away from reminding students of their strengths. Perhaps that’s due to the bad rap praise has, but I’m not talking about empty praise here. I’m talking about helping students see that how they successfully solved something one time might help them the next time, too—or at least remind them that they’re someone with a history of figuring things out.

And who knows? If Icarus survived the fall, perhaps he would have gotten up and simply tried again, just for the sheer thrill of flying—and the equal thrill of figuring things out. After all, I got a blog post up.

Deep Thinker Fortune Cookie


23 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Myth of Icarus

  1. Hi, Vicki, I’ve missed your wise columns. The power of this entry speaks to me about what I do every day, in work and life. Inspiration matters. Teaching and learning inspire us all—and your ideas push me to keep going.

    • And I’ve missed getting response from people like you who inspire me! Hope to see you in Paramus this summer where I’m excited to share some of the work I’ve being doing in Cranford with Lorraine Madden & Sue Ritter, who’ve helped me push my thinking as well.

  2. What a gorgeous post… thoughtful, timely, complicated – everything your readers respect and appreciate. All this time you’ve been “percolating” with ideas – your mind seldom at rest… and then “this” brilliant piece. It is layered with so many sophisticated thoughts and applications. Like you, I’d like to believe that Icarus was a risk taker – true he may have gotten a bit cocky, but where would we be without risk-takers? On the other hand, we need thinkers who reflect, and reflect some more before creating – because creating is art. What happened to providing time and space for that kind of thinking and curiosity? How many of our own students “appear” to be not producing, while all the while they just need just a bit more time to translate or transfer their thinking? In a completely different direction, your post arrived just on time to provide support to a high school senior I am tutoring. She is working on her final Humanities project – something like “the condition of humanity in society as seen through literature.” She chose Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz as the basis of her presentation, and is going to focus on chapter 10, “The Drowned and the Saved,” to articulate Levi’s thoughts on survival at the camp opposed to survival in a more “ordered, humane” world. I just sent her your post and suggested she weave in the portrait and the poem by William Carlos Williams as a visual to cement her thesis. Thank you for seeking more powerful truths to share. As always, you grow my thinking!

    • Thanks so much, Laurie. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for readers who actually want something complicated! And you just made me wonder whether we could frame the learning process around risk-reflect, risk-reflect. Hmm. Hope I’ll be seeing you in Paramus this summer and get to hear more about how The Teacher You Want to Be group went. And talk about abundance! How wonderful to work with a student on such a rich, thought-provoking project!

  3. Ahhh….Vicki! What a perfect read for this Sunday morning. I have abandoned my blogging life and much of it is because of transitions in my own life that leave me without that passion to formulate anything worth posting. This reminds me that regardless, it is important to just keep up and keep on, and realize that it is ok to go beyond the realms of education as all of life is about learning. Thank you!

    • Oh, Tomasen! I thought about you as I put up this post as I’ve been missing your voice! Any chance you’ll be at NERA in Portland next month? Would love to catch up and talk about how life sometimes takes us to unexpected—and even unwanted—places. But my hunch is you’ve learned an important thing or two worth sharing, even if there’s no classroom application.

    • Oh, Fran! How is it possible that I keep forgetting how much staying connected through blog feeds me! I think it has something to do with getting sucked into a scarcity mindset, which isn’t healthy. In fact, I think it made me not reach out when I saw you’d be in NYC for TC. But if you’ll be back in the summer, do let’s try to get together. I need that abundance in my life!

  4. Vicki, we will wait for as long as you need us to for a new blog post, or even a tweet. We always love hearing what you have to say. So, in the spirit of abundance v. scarcity, maybe it’s also quality over quantity, yes?
    Your post really hit home with me. I’ve struggled with a challenging class this year, and as I think about them now I realize that some of the best moments have been when they’ve perceived something they’ve done as “failure”. But I see it as success because they are finally realizing or getting what I had been trying to teach them for months. For example, one boy who needs constant reassurance and often won’t even start writing without checking with me first, recently wrote many, many lines of text without waiting for me. But then he said, “This is really bad.” But I was so excited because not only did he strike out on his own, his comment told me that he had begun to internalize some of the qualities of good writing I had been trying to instill for months! Of course I pointed out all that was working in his writing. I also told him that the fact he was able to name what was not working was a good thing. Now we knew what he was trying to do, and from there I could teach him a strategy to use. I think and hope I was able to convince him to see this as something to celebrate.
    So thanks again for this post, and for sharing your insight with us which reminds us to look for strengths instead of deficits in our students as well as ourselves.
    It was really, really good to hear from you again.

  5. So much here to think about. It’s really all about perspective, isn’t it, this writing or not writing, developing a book, or just waiting for inspiration? We are in this whole thing together, aren’t we? Let’s look to the flight and not to the fall and find a mindset of Thanks!

    • Thanks, Margaret. It is about perspective—and just doing it, because the doing itself is important. Or as the self-publishing guru Dan Poynter says, “If you wait for inspiration to writer you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” And who want to be a waiter?!?!

  6. Thank you for the reminder about the importance of perspective. ABUNDANCE is such a bouncy red-ball word. SCARCITY is a slashing knife-blade word. We can choose which will define us.

    • Oh, Mary Lee, you have no idea how happy this comment made me! You’ve given me something to picture (other than a stop sign, which I used to try to envision) when I knew my mind was heading to an unhealthy place). Now I’m going to try to picture myself keeping that bouncy red ball bouncing instead of wielding that destructive knife blade!

  7. Love hearing your voice again, Vicki. Wise and thoughtful.

    I must admit that I have always loved that Brueghel (the Elder, who was the younger?) painting for the way it doesn’t dwell on the Fall, but on the daily miracle of the planting. Each is audacious in its own way, I suppose.

    And since you brought up Gilbert’s poem, here’s a poem back at ‘cha, about another audacious flight high up in the sky, one that is happening, in reverse, right now.

    From way up here, let’s follow the mysterious arc and listen to the dull roar of the waves below.

    by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

    Think of the blackpoll warbler.
    She tips the scales
    at one ounce
    before she migrates, taking off
    from the seacoast to our east
    flying higher and higher
    ascending two or three miles
    during her eighty hours of flight
    until she lands,
    in Tobago,
    north of Venezuela
    three days older,
    and weighing half as much.
    She flies over open ocean almost the whole way.
    Oh she is not so different from us.
    The arc of our lives is a mystery too.
    We do not understand,
    we cannot see
    what guides us on our way:
    that longing that pulls us toward light.
    Not knowing, we fly onward
    hearing the dull roar of the waves below.

    • Oh, Steve, this poem is magnificient! And it reminds me in ways I’m sure you’d see, too, of the first essay Katherine Bomer shares in her gorgeous new book The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them: “Joyas Voladoras by Brian Doyle. Her book officially comes out on Thursday, but you can read the essay here: And FYI: I wandered over to Inside the Dog shortly after I put this post up, realizing I hadn’t heard your voice in a while. There I followed a link to Robert Hass’s prose poem, which I thought might make a fabulous read along post. Yes? And seeing that you’ve been blogging about as little as I have, here’s hoping that the curriculum work you’re doing hasn’t turned into a ball and chain around your foot, too. I miss the back and forth!

  8. Lovely post. I find as a teacher, I need to be reminding my students of the fact that they have, at times, flown, because they are surrounded by people in their lives who are focused on the falling. If you are told enough times that you are a failure, it becomes terribly difficult to remember the times you weren’t. I remind my students of their strengths so they don’t forget they have some.

    • Thanks for this, Kelley. Makes me think that in all sorts of inadvertent ways we say much more about what and how things can go wrong than how they can go well—as in society often speaks the language of deficits rather than strengths. So much so it’s worth remembering that students don’t even know that things we notice can be seen as strengths. All of which means, your students are lucky to have you.

  9. All of your experiences and ideas percolate and bubble up in a beautiful post that evokes such thoughtful comments. Thank you! Take as long as you need. It’s worth the wait. Holding up the risk taker, the bad boy, as something to admire just for his bod nature is so transferable to those students who don’t fit into school very well. Who have other gifts and fail. If only Icarus had a teacher close at hand with a net to catch him. Perhaps he was just seeking the thrill of flight, but I think had he survived he would have learned a thing or two.
    I’m grateful to have your words contributing to the abundance in my life.

    • Thanks, Julieanne, and so good to hear from you! We’re all so imperfect and vulnerable, aren’t we – even Jody Foster, who confessed in a recent NY Times article that she’s still afraid of failing: And maybe that just as Carol Dweck says in that article I linked to, we’d do better off if we presented ourselves as a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, we’d be more truthful if we always acknowledged that we can be simultaneously confident and afraid. That’s what being human means.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s