Finding Anam Caras


Finding Anam Caras

From different worlds we came together

Around a table

Around the books

Of yesteryears and present day

From different generations we came together

Around a desire to learn

Around a desire to discover

Our common humanness and inner selves

From different backgrounds we came together

Around a space of dialogue

Around a curiosity to understand

How our souls are joined

How our minds, hearts and very essences are joined

How we are Anam Caras

With those of yesterday, today, tomorrow…

and each other

(Prather, 2017)

Circle of Freedom


We are lonely and lost in our hungry transparency.  We desperately need a new and gentle light where the soul can shelter and reveal its ancient belonging. (O’Donohue, 1997, p. 4)


When my students and I embarked on the journey of reading the “transcripts of our civilization” (Townsend, 2015) freedom stripped us of our skin color, our cultural backgrounds, and even our socio-economic status. All we were left with was a text and us sitting around a table in what I like to call a Circle of Freedom.  While dwelling there, we allowed the light of the texts, our lives and personal experiences to unveil new places of understanding.  No papers, no worksheets, no red pens to mark answers right or wrong.  There was only “us” and the texts and we did as Townsend (2015) implores us to do in his tribute to Thoreaux’s Walden, “…to live free, you must learn to read as you have never read before.”

By abiding in our Circle of Freedom, we became bonded together.  A bond, that has remained even after graduation.  The bond is so meaningful that the participants in the study have even struggled with feeling alone because there are no peers to enjoy the same type of dialogue with.  The Circle of Freedom is powerful like that.  We became as O’Donohue (1997) has said, each other’s Anam Cara— “soul friend.”  O’Donohue says:

When the human mind began to consider the next greatest mystery of life, the mystery of love, light was also always used as a metaphor for its power and presence.  When love awakens in your life, in the night of your heart, it is like the dawn breaking within you.  Where before there was anonymity, now there was intimacy; where before there was fear, now there is courage; where before in your life there was awkwardness, now there is a rhythm of grace and gracefulness; where before you used to be jagged… (p. 6)


As we traversed the books, questioned them, questioned ourselves and questioned each other, an intimacy grew between us, that freed us to explore the truth about ourselves.  I recall Sophia having doubts about Christianity.  She mentioned this in the study and how she realized I was giving her the space to go through that process.  She was allowed to voice these questionings in our discussions, in a Christian school sitting around a table, discussing a text (many times the Bible), in the Circle of Freedom.  The bond that was forged has remained over the years so that when her mom died suddenly after she graduated, when she saw me at the funeral, she hugged me tightly, held my hand and we stood together to view the body.  The Circle of Freedom does this to those who allow themselves to dwell there.  It draws us closer together, students and teacher, in an Anam Cara  relationship, as we explore our humanity through the humans who have gone before us and written about their human experience.

The word “circle” originally comes from the Latin circul which means “a group of persons surrounding a certain interest.”  Our interest was exploring the Great Books together and seeing how those texts speak into our lives today.  Although it initially was a required class, students found themselves reading the texts sometimes in the privacy of their bedrooms, outside of the assigned readings.  They came in to class ready to ask a question or to talk about a perspective they gained in reading.  This brought us together and soon it did not seem to feel like a class to me or to them.  It evolved into our Circle of Freedom, a free space to become illumined within ourselves. Henry David Thoreau, expresses the heart of my renderings thus far in his short poem below:

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered.  Travel them, and be

Expert in home-cosmography.

(Thoreau, 1954/1992, p. 300)

In These Pages


There is so much to glean from the ancient folk

There is so much to learn from those who spoke

Centuries ago.

It is different for every person

How the books connect to your soul

But they will if you let them

And it may take time to reflect them

Doesn’t matter the color of your skin

Look deep inside you will find that you are in

The pages spoken of by the sages of your humanity

It’s plain to see and if you can’t

I understand

You see others have struggled too

But we all had to invite Hurston, DuBois, Woodson or Wheatley

To speak for us, so let them guide you

Let them ask the questions that reveal

How these books speak what’s true

About your humanness

Let the process cultivate your mind

To be able to know beyond what’s read between the lines  

Talk about it, with a friend

or not

Draw close to a stranger of a different shade

Or not

but is of the same specie—

Woman or man the whole lot

Of humanity

Can be found in these pages

(Prather, 2016)

Putting Research into Practice

In the course of completing my PhD I also started a school that I feel embodies what I have shared in my writing.  The Living Water School opened its doors on September 7, 2015.  It was a true step of faith! I longed to create a place where students can open their minds and learn freely.  They could explore the questions that flood their minds each day and they could read rich, classic literature in a leisurely way.

My dream for the school was that it would be a place where dialogue was the main way of learning.  Well, by the mighty hand of God we did it!  We made it through our first year and are ready for year number two.

I also got to present my research on this type of learning at the University of Maryland through an experimental theatre called “The Table.”  It has been an amazing year!  God has done it all.  Now, that the school has completed its first year, “The Table” theatrical presentation and my proposal are all done. I am now moving towards completing my dissertation by the end of August.

I can hardly believe that I am at this point.  Each phase of this journey has seemed impossible, the obstacles seeming insurmountable, but GOD!  By HIM all things are possible.  God has brought me to this point and I give Him praise. May my journey continue to give him honor as I seek to free the minds of more students through reading classic literature and engaging in dialogue.

Proposal DONE!

It’s been a while and even now I have little time to write, but I feel I must document this momentous occasion!  I have completed writing and defending my research proposal!  10 years.  10 very long hard years and finally it is done!  10 years of studying the classics at St. John’s College.  10 years of teaching Great Books literature to African American students.  10 years of people thinking my research interest was lunacy.  Yet, here I am by the mighty hand of God and I give HIM all the honor, glory and praise! It’s amazing that in these years I barely left my research topic.  It is truly my passion.  The Great Books of Western Civilization are to me so important to the progression of the African American people in this country.  Many disagree.  The books raise so much controversy, but thanks be to God that he gave me the words and the wisdom to share my heart.  Now on to the research project of my former students.  I am nervous but excited to interview them to see what their lived experience was of reading Great Books literature.  Onward!

dr. nika

A Dedicated Advisor

My adviser is a remarkable woman.  She would have to be to have put up with me all these years.  I’ve always had such a deep respect for her but recently my adviser truly became my hero.  She has accomplished a lot, travels a great deal and works tirelessly in the field of education research.  I would often wonder about her husband that she always mentioned, and how he felt about having this amazing woman for a wife. He did not seem to hold her back from pursuing her passions or from making an impact on the world.  I would always think he must be pretty remarkable too to be willing to share his wife with all of us.

As I came to the end of finishing my proposal, I sent my adviser an email, confirming our day of meeting and turning it in.  I hadn’t visited my school email for a while and had emailed her from my personal email.  As I was teaching my high school Great Books class, my phone pinged and I did a quick check on my email.  The first words almost sent me tumbling out of my seat:  “Anika, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I lost my husband recently…suddenly…”  I literally screamed out loud in class.  My students wondered what happened!  My head began to swim and spin.  Even though I’d never met the man, I was immediately in a state of grief for her.  I haven’t even gone to any funeral for him or anything and even though she and I have worked together for many years, we had a very professional relationship. Instantly I cried out for her pain.  I realized that this woman who was a constant support to me finishing this degree was actually a close friend to me.  She was no longer Dr. H. to me, but she was my friend.  In my mind I called her by her first name and tears ran down my face.  This woman was the last person I would ever want to feel sadness.  When no one else in my department believed in the topic I’d chosen, she took me in and believed in me.  Even though she may not have always agreed with my views, she encouraged me to write about them and to be true to who I was…to who God created me to be.  I did not have to pretend to be this deep philosopher with her.  I always felt that I could be Anika.  I always felt that I could be a Christian.  I always felt that I could love these pieces of literature that are sometimes controversial, especially when you call them Great Books.  I loved her for that.   In the rawness of my immature research writing, she kept critiquing and shaping me.  She would send me emails to tell me “You are progressing…even though I gave a lot of things for your to fix, don’t give up…you are moving forward.” She believed in me, when I did not believe in myself.  And she literally had zillions of other students, but I always felt that in our hour meetings, that I was the only student she had.  I never felt rushed or as if I should feel “privileged” to have her work with me.”  Sometimes her kindness and acceptance of me was humbling.  I would see all the other topics she was overseeing and wonder why she would take my stuff so seriously, but she did.

The real test of her genuine support of my work came with another line in that devastating email, “So can we meet the day after our original date at 4 pm?  And then I want you to read your work in a dissertation support group I am having that evening.”  I am thinking, “Um are you kidding??? Why are you not curled up in a fetal position somewhere!”  Anyway, she was very firm in having me come so I went.  I got there 5 minutes early and walked into her office and just burst into tears!  I asked if I could hug her and she hugged me and we hugged for a long time, crying.  I felt I’d lost my husband.  I still am crying and it’s been almost a week since that day.  I did not want this wonderful woman to feel this type of pain!  So we worked through my proposal and then went to the dissertation support group.  All of us ended up sharing poetry, verses, and words of encouragement to her.  We all cried, wept, waited for her to collect herself.  She kept apologizing as she is trying to heal.  I kept thinking, “Why are you here!  You don’t have to be here! We love you!”  I thanked her for letting us grieve with her.  At the end of the meeting, this selfless woman starts to ask everyone to allow me to read excerpts from my dissertation.  I stop her and I said, “I can’t.  I don’t want to.  Not now.  Can we do it another time?”  She agreed.  So we cried a little more and we all went our separate ways.

As I was driving along this week, I kept thinking about her.  I found out at that meeting that she and her husband had known each other since 7th grade, started dating when she was 16, and had been married for 47 years.  Her husband had dedicated his life to supporting her finding and pursuing her dreams/passions.  On the day of his death, he took her to the airport and they said their goodbyes. He came back home and read a love letter she’d written him before she left (something she made a habit of doing whenever she traveled), and died…heart just stopped. My dear friend and adviser had to find out over the phone, all the way in Berlin.  All those years together they had been life partners.  He would make her dinner when she came home from campus.  If she fell asleep on the couch, he would make sure she would go to bed.  The sweet traditions they shared that sealed their partnership tear at my heart whenever I think of her and what she may be going through now.  I wonder how to even pray for her… the words to say to God fail me. I just ask him to please please please comfort her somehow.   God is able.  I don’t know how a woman who has had a life partner since she was 16 figures out how to carry on.  So I pray that God will somehow help her to find her way.

In all that she has done for me and all her other students, I wish I could take this pain from her, but I cannot.  The least I could do is be even more dedicated to finishing this journey she has supported me on.  I want to make her proud.  Even still, I know that will never replace the presence of her soul mate. May the love of God surround her so intensely and his peace fill her that she may continue to fly, even with this unbelievable pain of loss.

So What is “Great”?

socrates bustI know from experience that whenever the title “Great Books of Western Civilization” is used, it rubs people the wrong way. In the previous chapter, I gave an historical account as to why these books are great. Exploring the etymology of the word “great” might also expand its meaning further and illuminate the importance of this designation for my classes I taught.
In Old English ‘great” big, tall, thick, stout, massive; coarse. The West Germanic word grautaz means coarse, thick. The PIE root word ghreu- which means to rub, grind, and the Old English verb, greatian means to become enlarged or the Middle English word greaten means to become larger, increase, grow; become visibly pregnant It seems odd for some of these words to be connected. When I read this history of the word great, I was immediately haunted by memories of my own experience of trying to read the Great Books. I was also haunted by memories of my students connecting to the literature. At first our journey was hard. The literature was thick and course. It rubbed at us, frustrated us, made us feel small; it whittled us down to nothing, almost. However, the mind is a magical creation, for unlike the body it has no limit to its growth and development (Adler & Van Doren, 1972). Once we allowed the thickness and coarseness of the books to whittle away our limited comprehension ability and our limited worldviews, our minds began to grow. These books, in whittling away our own prejudices, brought us out of isolation. They gave us the courage to venture out of our African-American background and forced us to make a greater connection with the whole of the human race that dwells in America.

One element that helped to break down the racial barriers that separated us from the books, was Socratic dialogue. I first was introduced to it at St. John’s College. Most of the time I was the only African American in the class. The majority of the literature was not written by authors that looked like me. Initially, I felt so isolated. I wondered what I could have to contribute to the conversation? However, as I my tutors’ use of questioning within dialogue gently drew me into the literature, making a way for me to appreciate the mind of the philosopher and thinkers of the past, the color lines were erased for me. Instead of my seeing myself as a black woman in a class of white people, I soon began to see myself as a human being in a room with other human beings. Color lines can sometimes turn into blind folds. Could lines and walls and isolation be a hindrance to us actually hearing, seeing and understanding the thoughts of other human beings? Stepping away from the framework of my own prejudices (of color, cultures, religion, values) was painful for me, but very liberating, and I have not been the same sense.

After experiencing the power of this teaching tool through my time as a student in a Great Books class, I brought it back to my own classroom. Mortimer Adler (1982) writes:

Discussion draws on the student’s skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening and uses them to sharpen the ability to think clearly, critically and reflectively. It teaches participants how to analyze their own minds as well as the thought of others, which is to say it engages students in disciplined conversation about ideas and values. (p. 31)

During a Socratic dialogue there is no right or wrong (I think that is what makes it frustrating at first). There is just the license to wonder and hypothesize about this or that pertaining to the text. There is the invitation for others to join you in that process of observation, wonder, questioning, understanding, believing, and communicating that belief (whatever that belief may be). Just as I saw my transformation from the books grinding at my comprehension, my belief systems, thoughts and feelings, I began to notice “something” take place with my students. I became somewhat obsessed with engagement in the Great Books. I also became consumed with a desire to use engagement in these texts as a teaching tool.
“Something” begins to happen as we engage in a “conversation” with the authors of the past. For me. I felt my mind greatian or enlarge as I pushed through the difficulty of connecting to these books that represent the thoughts of all men and even the gods. “Something” did happen with my students as well; I saw “something” happen! But what was “it”? This is what draws me to ask the guiding question of my study: What are the lived experiences of African American students reading Great Books literature?