ALAN v21n3 - Teaching, Learning and Archetypes: Images of Instruction in Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song

Volume 21, Number 3
Spring 1994

Teaching, Learning, and Archetypes: Images of Instruction in Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song

Tom Albritton

One of the ways we learn about anything, whether it's playing piano or football, gourmet cooking or public speaking, is by studying and emulating the models of experts in the field we are trying to master. Those models are often presented to us through stories and images. Teaching belongs in this collection of things to be learned, and one of the most available resources for stories on teaching is the contemporary body and vast tradition of literature in which teachers and teaching are portrayed. Consequently, two important questions to ask when examining how people learn to be teachers are:How are teachers portrayed in literature? and, What messages do aspiring teachers get from these portrayals?

Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song is widely taught by real-life teachers and widely read by young adults, some of whom may actually go on to become teachers and all of whom are continually forming and revising their notions of"teacher." Dicey's Song also portrays three very different and well-defined kinds of schoolteachers. Consequently, it is a good example of influential teacher-image literature and a good place to begin investigating the questions I have posed above.

The critical tool I've selected for sorting through these images is a work by Carol Pearson entitled The Hero Within . Pearson revises and expands Joseph Campbell's study of heroic archetypes, creating a model of stages and cycles for the hero's journey. In this essay, I have described some of the ways characters teach as a result of their ongoing places along the heroic journey. First, a brief summary of Pearson's model for that journey.

The Hero's Journey: Pearson's Model

In adapting Joseph Campbell's work on heroic archetypes to a theory of psychological growth, Carol Pearson has developed a way of considering personal power that moves through a range of at least six archetypes, any one of which a person may draw upon during the course of his or her growth into wholeness. Those six archetypes are as follows: the Innocent, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior, the Martyr, and the Magician. In recent work, Pearson has added more figures to her pantheon, but these six provide a big picture that is quite suitable for examining the core differences among such very different teachers as Voigt presents. As one grows through Pearson's six archetypes, her life is characterized by an increasing awareness, first of self, and then of otherness, until in the final type, one embraces the puzzling contradictions of fate as educational rather than fatal.

Pearson herself notes that one is always "going to school with each type" (p.13). But what sorts of lessons do the archetypes convey? What kinds of teachers are they? And, perhaps more to the point, what kinds of teachers do they empower us to be?

The Innocent, to Pearson , isn't much of a teacher at all. This archetype functions only as a state of ignorance, powerlessness, at best a condition of temporary naivete, good only as a place to move away from. Pearson even describes this first stage as a setup for the second: "The Innocent lives in a pre-fallen state of grace; the orphan confronts the reality of the Fall" (p. 4). I would argue that the Innocent's pre-fallenness may actually compel other orphans to guide the Innocent out of his or her mist, or even to recognize something of value in the Innocent's vision, and that consequently the innocent makes its own substantive contribution as an instructional stage. Think of what first-time parents learn from a crying but inarticulate baby. But Pearson emphasizes this earliest stage of the journey as one which contextualizes the recognition of discomfort experienced most fully in the next stage.

Then, once orphaned from the protection of pre-fall illusions, the individual must begin developing "strategies for living in a fallen world. The Wanderer begins the task of finding oneself apart from others; the Warrior learns to fight to defend oneself and to change the world in one's own image; and the Martyr learns to give, to commit, and to sacrifice for others. "The progression, then," Pearson argues, "is from suffering, to self-definition, to struggle, to love" (p. 4).

The non-pedagogical characters in Dicey's Song , especially Dicey and Gram, experience precisely this progression -- opening with defensive isolationism and self-protection and ending with collaboration and inclusion. It remains to be seen which if any of Voigt's teachers reach these same ultimate goals. But one of Pearson's archetypes remains to be defined -- the Magician. Pearson's passages on the Magician are so richly detailed that I will begin my own commentary on this archetype by quoting her extensively.

At the Magician's level . . . dualities begin to break down . . . . Magicians believe that in fact we are safe even though we often experience pain and suffering . . . . Beyond strength vs. weakness, they come to understand that assertion and receptivity are yang and yin -- a life rhythm, not a dualism. (p.6)

The Magician learns that we are not life's victims; we are part of the unfolding of God. (p. 117)

After learning to change one's environment by great discipline, will, and struggle, the Magician learns to move with the energy of the universe . . . . Magicians aim to be true to their inner wisdom and to be in balance with the energies of the universe. (p. 5)

In short, for the Magician there is no enemy, no culprit, no obstacle; there are instead lessons, challenges, realistic events that make up the complex, contradictory, oftentimes uncomfortable, yet safe flow of real experience. The safety comes from one's acknowledgement that the flow is natural instead of threatening, that, in fact, true safety comes from the one source that cannot be threatened -- one's inner, comfortably honest sense of the world.

The Magician has learned to celebrate all experience, because of a wiser definition of experience as that which can hold valuable lessons, and that which is by nature interestingly contradictory. I believe that the teacher portrayed most positively in Dicey's Song can be described as one of Pearson's Magicians. It seems, also, that the differences in method, attitude, and effectiveness across all three teachers are represented by Pearson's range of archetypes. Thus, the archetypes may provide a discriminating way to begin thinking about teaching practices, even as they tell an engaging story for young people.

The Teacher's Journey in Dicey's Song

Do the archetypal patterns of heroic growth really fit the characteristics and processes of pedagogical growth? An examination of three classroom teachers in this novel does suggest at least parallel, if not identical, paths. Just as the most actualized characters in the ancient stories of heroes seem empowered by traits of self-identity and openness to others, so also do the most influential teachers seem both most certain of who they are and most realistic about their students' weaknesses, needs, and potential.

The fictional pedagogue in Dicey's Song who provides the greatest contrast to heroic imagery is a home-economics teacher named Miss Eversleigh. The simplest way to name Miss Eversleigh's problem is that she is engaging in no journey at all. She "drones on" as a teacher (p. 90), and her verbal droning signals a great rigidness and stasis in other aspects of her teaching, including her view of herself in the job. Unlike Sammy, Dicey's youngest brother, whose mask of good behavior is uncomfortably confining and whose growth through the story is dramatic, Miss Eversleigh is comfortably masked, maintaining as a part of her working condition a denial of her true identity.

Notice Miss Eversleigh's complete denial of Dicey's own experience at home economy. When Dicey describes the meal plan that had actually fed herself and her siblings in their flight from Massachusetts to Maryland, Miss Eversleigh gives her plan an F, noting that "Nobody could live for long on meals like this" (p. 111). But Dicey's own life proved otherwise. By contrast, when Miss Eversleigh defends her own work, she speaks in non-negotiable abstractions and ideals. "The materials we cover in this course are skills . . . . I have always believed that there is as great a disadvantage to not being able to perform domestic skills as to not being able to perform intellectual skills, or athletic, or social" (p. 112).

When she suspects that her students fail to adopt her level of commitment, she simply concludes, " `If you do not understand [the value of this course] then your understanding is faulty.' That was the end," the narrator adds. "Miss Eversleigh just stood there until the bell rang, a long, uncomfortable five minutes. Nobody stirred. Nobody said anything" (p. 113). And why would they? Their teacher had left absolutely no room for any view but her own. Her work depends on images of home economics and school culture as she wants them to be, not as it really presents itself to her.

And if her rigid denial of Dicey's experience, indeed her insistence on her own exclusive view of home economics, is not enough to define her as one who has stopped growing, her reappearance later in the story shows, in fact, that she does not want to connect with her students in any way that might challenge her own way or perspective. Even after Dicey takes the opportunity to open herself more vulnerably to Miss Eversleigh's real meaning, Miss Eversleigh insists on her own version of reality -- including a version of the naughty student she imagines Dicey to be. Furthermore, Miss Eversleigh insists on her own definition of learning -- namely, blind acceptance and obedience. That insistence costs Miss Eversleigh any remaining chance that she might have had to win Dicey's respect and attention.

Dicey was washing the outside of the front windows, taking it slowly because the sun on her shoulders felt so good, when she felt somebody come stand beside her. Miss Eversleigh, in her same suit and pin, with her same teacher face. Dicey smiled at her. She couldn't help it: her mind was still on Gram beating all the second graders at marbles.

"I didn't know you could smile," Miss Eversleigh remarked. Something about her tone of voice and her glance made Dicey remember.

"Miss Eversleigh." She dropped the squeegee into the bucket and dried her hands on her jeans. "I wanted to ask you. You were talking to us, but I wasn't listening. Last week? But I think I'd like to know what you said."

"I was talking to you," Miss Eversleigh said. "Mostly to you. I was talking about you."

"But what did you say?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I have a strong feeling I should have paid attention." That was as far as Dicey was willing to go. Miss Eversleigh pursed her lips.

"I said that it was important to learn the things we are doing in the class."

Then Dicey found she could remember. "Because they take skill. That's what you said, isn't it? You said it takes as much skill as building something."

Miss Eversleigh nodded. She was looking at Dicey as if she couldn't understand what Dicey was up to.

"OK," Dicey said. "Thank you. I remember now. I never meant to be --disrespectful to you."

"And?" Miss Eversleigh insisted.

"And?" Dicey asked. She knew, though, what Miss Eversleigh wanted her to say. Instead she said, "I guess I think it's interesting to say that, and I'll think about it."

"But you won't try harder and care more?" Miss Eversleigh inquired.

"How can I say that? I haven't even thought about it yet."

"You're a strange child," Miss Eversleigh said. She was holding a purse in her two hands, right in front of her stomach.

"I guess so," Dicey agreed. (pp. 159-160)

Dicey is, at least, willing to go part of the way with Miss Eversleigh. However, Miss Eversleigh is only willing to convert Dicey entirely, not to meet her part-way in return. Instead of developing a way of including Dicey, Miss Eversleigh continues to deny even her own responsibility in her conflict with the student, simply blaming the conflict on the child's being "strange."

A second classroom teacher, Dicey's English teacher, Mr. Chappelle, portrays a person on the verge of an important, yet rather awkward, immature period of growth. In Pearson's language, Mr. Chappelle moves from Orphan (the disillusioned idealist whose student, he believes, has cheated) and Warrior(the teacher who confronts first and asks questions later) at least to a point of wondering (Wandering?), recognizing that he has responded poorly to Dicey'swell-written paper, but not yet sure of a more appropriate response.

The tension that triggers Mr. Chappelle's journey is created by his apparent need, initially, to serve two pedagogical masters -- his need to achieve personal appeal with his class, as illustrated by his personal writing assignment; and his belief (created, perhaps, by his image of himself as a good, strict teacher) that any outstanding student work must be plagiarized.

When he is confronted with the exception to this rule, he shows, at least (and unlike his colleague in home economics), an openness to his newfound classroom reality -- to the person his student really is -- but he seems unprepared to respond effectively to this real moment. In an apparent panic, he changes Dicey's grade from F to A+ without ever convincing her that he has really heard her story or truly evaluated her work. Ultimately in the story, a change has occurred for Mr. Chappelle, but not the kind of change that Dicey would like."The way he pussyfoots around me, it makes me sick," she complains (p. 165). However, Mr. Chappelle is taking action. And it is an informed action, it seems, by his sensed need for more-sensitive interactions with his students. That we never actually see him again in the novel after his confrontation with Dicey suggests that, even as he "pussyfoots," he is out journeying, trying, slowly and painfully growing.

Ironically, it is a teacher whose main work in the story is done outside of the classroom who is the truest match with archetypal magic and heroic achievement. As one might expect from a Magician -- from one whose strength lies largely in his openness to all experience -- Mr. Lingerle, Maybeth's music teacher, first appears in the novel, not as a deliberate, controlling teacher, but as music itself. He is not a teacher struggling to teach, but rather a teacher truly and fully, simply, being himself (warts -- or in this case fatness, baldness, and sweat -- and all) and truly, simply being what he teaches.

. . . Dicey followed the music down the hall.

A man sat at the piano. He was so fat that his fanny hung down over the back of the bench. He was fat like a cartoon fat person. For a minute, Dicey saw nothing but fatness, then looked at the details. The back of his head had a bald spot, a pink circle with a few stray hairs carefully combed over it, as if he were trying to hide it. Like trying to hide a basketball under three shoelaces, Dicey thought. His eyes and nose and mouth were all buried in the flesh of his face, and his double chins hung down. His hands, despite looking thick and clumsy at the ends of huge arms, danced over the piano keys. He was concentrating so hard -- adjusting his position on the bench as the chords took him up and down the keyboard, staring down at the keys under his fingers --that sweat ran down by his ear and his shirt was stained under the armpits. His mouth was open as if he was panting. And the music poured out of the piano like a stream pouring down the side of a mountain, or like the wind pouring over the bending branches of trees.

Dicey stood, listening. (pp. 49-50)

A second observation of Mr. Lingerle is that he is, from the start, both realistic and enthusiastic about his student -- about her home life, her academic faults, and her gifts and potential.

"Listen to me for a minute," Mr. Lingerle pleaded. "I'm not saying Maybeth is a genius, or anything like it. But she is one of those people, one of those lucky people, who will always have music in their lives. People who can always find pleasure in music, no matter what else -- hurts them, or goes wrong. I'd like to give her as much music as I can, because -- because I want to. It's a pleasure for me." (p. 52)

Finally, in addition to his honest acceptance of himself and his student -- a clear sense, as it were, of the pieces to the academic puzzle -- Mr. Lingerle shows his respect for a guiding, driving principle. Just as Pearson argues that the Magician feels that she is "part of the unfolding of God" (p. 117) and driven by "the energy of the universe" (p. 5). Mr. Lingerle seems driven by a belief system that not only gives his teaching energy and direction but also, in the following passage, unites him with Gram, the living example of Maybeth's real history.

Gram was silent, then said, "We don't have the money."

"I wasn't asking for money," Mr. Lingerle cried, exasperated. "Did I mention money?"

Dicey turned around to catch the end of Gram's quick smile. "If you can afford it," Gram said.

"I can't afford not to," Mr. Lingerle told her. "I guess you can't know -- how exhilarating to teach someone like Maybeth. So, we're agreed?"

"Entirely," Gram said. (p. 53)

If there were any doubts to this point about Mr. Lingerle's "magical"qualities, his joining ranks in entire agreement with the story's non-pedagogical Magician, Gram, suggests strongly that here is a teacher character who, archetypally speaking, has arrived.


So, while we're teaching Dicey's Song , we may be sending and receiving several powerful messages about teaching itself. Among those messages, here are a few that stand out in my own reading, thanks to some help from Carol Pearson's archetypes for heroic growth. Growth into better teaching seems particularly likely to happen: 1) when discomfort leads to an honest sense of identity, 2) when clear identity becomes understood through one's guiding principles, 3) when the discovery of principle leads to affiliation, and 4) when that affiliation puts one in contact with others as they really are, and not as one fears, imagines, or needs them to be.

The instructors portrayed in this novel illustrate at least three separate positions along the hero's journey: one static, another just beginning, and yet another under the full influence of those heroic traits of identity, principle, and affiliation. I would not argue that all good teachers must be as open or personally engaged as Mr. Lingerle, nor that no teacher as rigid as Miss Eversleigh can be effective. I can conclude, however, that the teachers modelled in this novel do, indeed, illustrate some of the things that good teachers do. One of those things is to care about and listen to their students; another is to acknowledge where their students (and themselves) really are so that the teaching does happen has a clear source and a clear target.

Another message in these images is that no student has cornered the market on failure or potential. If the Magician tells us anything at all as teachers, it is that each student may fail and that each student can succeed -- that failure and success can never, realistically, be mutually exclusive.

Finally, I believe that these images tell us, as teachers, that through our willingness to experience levels of honesty and vulnerability that we may sometimes find uncomfortable, we can continue to grow in our effectiveness as well as our creativity. If we are honest with ourselves, then we can more closely monitor our own journeys and, consequently, be more constructively available to our students, regardless of where we are in the growth process. Bolstered by principle and energized by realistic notions of hope, teaching can indeed be heroic, and teachers' journeys can lead to magic.


Pearson, Carol. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By . Expanded Edition. Harper Collins, 1989.

Voigt, Cynthia. Dicey's Song . Fawcett Juniper, 1982.

Tom Albritton teaches in the Departments of Education and English at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina.