Reading about Homer and Bronze Age Greece is not everyone's idea of a dream vacation.
But that is what Temple City High School teacher Ted Carothers did last summer, to his great satisfaction.
Carothers and four other Los Angeles-area high school teachers did not have to teach summer school this year. They were paid to pursue their academic passions as winners of national fellowships that allowed them to do the sort of scholarly work usually associated with college-level teaching.
The five were among 150 recipients nationwide of fellowships for independent study in the humanities, a program administered by the Council for Basic Education in Washington.
With $3,000 stipends, provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and others, the local teachers were able to read to satiety on a favorite subject, without guilt and without missing a mortgage payment.
Their projects, all approved by panels of experts, varied.
For example, while Carothers spent day after day in the Huntington Library reading about Homer's life and works, Studio City teacher Ellen Samsell studied creative women in the books of Willa Cather.
Daniel Victor, who teaches English at Fairfax High School on the Westside, spent his summer looking at ambivalence toward social class in the lives and works of Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and others.
According to the five local recipients, the summer fellowship was more than a rare opportunity to indulge a scholar's notion of a good time by learning as much as possible on a topic of choice.
The award, they said, also sent them back to their classrooms with a renewed commitment to teaching. And it gave each of them a satisfying sense--for some, a first-time sense--that they were being recognized as genuine scholars, something high school teachers are rarely thought to be.
According to a fellowship administrator, these emotional fringe benefits are precisely what the grant program is designed to produce. The only way to ensure excellence in teaching is to get excellent teachers into the classroom and keep them there, the Council for Basic Education's Betty Berkow said.
Berkow said enhanced self-esteem and job satisfaction are often reported by fellowship winners. "I wish they had had the program when I was teaching," she said.
"Academically, it was the No. 1 experience of my life," Carothers, 57, said of his summer grant.
Carothers, who has taught social science at Temple City High for 25 years, said he became enthralled with the archeology and anthropology of Bronze Age Greece 20 years ago and has not fallen out of thrall since.
"I would be doing this even if I didn't have grants," said Carothers, who once treated himself to a $10,000 tour of the major Bronze Age sites in Greece.
'A Lifetime Study'
Carothers' grant allowed him to read more about Homer's epics, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."
"Just these two books are a lifetime study," he said. "It would be presumptuous of me to think I could read all that's been written about them. But I made a good beginning."
Carothers spent much of his time in the hushed atmosphere of the Huntington Library, studying Homeric references in the library's rare books.
"You feel as if you're on hallowed ground," Carothers said of the Huntington. He felt especially privileged to work there because, he said, "I'm a high school teacher and most of the people up there are college people."
As fellowship recipient Samsell, who teaches advanced English courses at Our Lady of Corvallis High School, said, teaching high school is not exactly a glamour profession.
"If you go to law school, you have instant recognition," said Samsell, 35. "But when you tell people you're a teacher they are not impressed."
Samsell, who has a doctorate in English and American studies from Indiana University, said she often finds herself justifying her choice of profession to puzzled strangers.
"People are constantly saying to me, 'Why are you teaching high school with a Ph.D.?' " Samsell said. "I tell them I love it. And I also tell them that getting a university teaching job someplace other than Alabama, Georgia or North Dakota isn't easy."
Samsell found her reading of Willa Cather even more satisfying than writing her dissertation on 19th-Century American realism.
"I love teaching," she said. "But when I do this it reminds me just how much I love to work in a library on my own, how much I love to study."
Victor's project grew out of his doctoral dissertation on David Graham Phillips, a turn-of-the-century social critic whose impassioned prose prompted a sputtering Teddy Roosevelt to term him a muck-raker.