A group of gifted elementary students may be making Homer turn over in his grave: They have taken excerpts from his about 3,000-year-old classic "The Odyssey" and rewritten them as comedy.
Five sixth graders at Shepherd Elementary School at 14th Street and Kalmia Road NW, along with children from four other D.C. schools, are preparing for the Olympics of the Mind competition being held next Wednesday in Mount Pleasant, Mich.
At the Shepherd school last week, the pupils were going through their paces, practicing "Humor from Homer" for the contest.
These children have made a comical parody of the tragedy and suffering outlined in the original tale. They have designed the costumes and built props, and they perform the miniproduction with a gusto that many an organized theater group would envy.
In the original version, the mythological gods play chess with the lives of Odysseus and his men. As the hero and his crew endeavor to find their way home after the Trojan War, various gods plunge them into adversity while others help them surmount the turmoil.
In the original story, Odysseus and his men were transformed into hogs by the enchantress Circe. In the children's version, Circe is comically clumsy in casting spells and turns the crew into horses, ducks, lions and finally into Washington Redskins.
Olympics of the Mind was developed five years ago by Profs. Theodore J. Gourley and Sam Micklaus of Glassboro State College in Glassboro, N.J. The competition, open to students from kindergarten to the 12th grade, is designed to encourage young people to discover novel solutions to traditional problems.
Micklaus, who teaches industrial design, has seen students employ creative thinking to invent bridges made of paper, vehicles without wheels and flotation devices. Gourley simultaneously wanted to involve students in a problem-solving competition.
The competition is broken down into two categories: long-term problems that were announced last September and short-term problems that will be released to students at the competition. The highest scores in both contests will determine the winners.
During the D.C. finals, the students were asked to respond to a drawing of proud parents holding a baby Cyclops, the one-eyed mythological creature. The students then gave examples of what they would say upon meeting the unusual family. The students were scored according to the quantity and creativity of their responses during the three-minute exercise.
Josephine Baker, coach of the Shepherd team, said the Olympics of the Mind represents an ideal opportunity for District youngsters to "show what they can do." The children participating in the competition are accelerated learners in the D.C. public schools' gifted and talented education program.
"I have sixth graders who are learning algebra and working from eleventh-grade spelling books," Baker said. "I can't see the point in giving children work that does not require them to expend brain energy."
"It was great fun," said one pupil, Elizabeth Jessica Stein, "especially when you get out of class for three hours a day. I love to act, and we really never expected to win the city competition. Even if we don't win the national, it's still going to be fun."
Michael Brown, who plays Odysseus, said, "I liked reading the classics because they were hard, but I prefer science fiction."
Natasha Stovall, who plays the bumbling enchantress, said, "At first, something went wrong at every rehearsal. Then it all clicked and we were the people in the story; we were back in ancient Greece."
Justin Slobig, who plays a blind prophet clad in New Wave shades, said, "It was hard to design the costumes and sets. Our usual plays aren't this involved.
"It was hard making something humorous out of something that wasn't very funny." He added, "This is different reading because the ideas are kind of strange." Baker is accused by some parents of setting too high a standard of achievement for her pupils. She said these accusations don't bother her as much as the frustrations she often feels in dealing with parents who overemphasize letter grades.
"We lose a lot of students simply because they are not challenged," she said. "Everyone likes to win, but the important thing is not winning or losing; it's the fact that the students' abilities are challenged and the lessons in life they learn."