It’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. This morning, I received a challenge in my inbox. Write something for him. “But he’s dead,” I protested. “He doesn’t need a card or cake.” I can’t resurrect him by writing a blog post. Never one to pass up a direct challenge, however, I’m releasing this story from my upcoming book “Don’t Sniff the Glue” because it is, in fact, about Shakespeare. And maybe a little about me.
“Don’t Sniff the Glue” will not be a book about rehab–it’s a collection of stories about teaching–my hopes and dreams as I entered the field, the present reality of the classroom, and how I hope education will evolve as we move forward. All the policies we enact nationally affect the little guy. I’m the little guy.
The student in this story didn’t like Shakespeare very much, or the classic literature cannon. I wanted to teach him something very important to me–the most valuable lessons I ever learned came from places I never expected. They synthesized over time and changed my life. Maybe it was in the form of a dead bard, and maybe it was in the form of a living person. The universe teaches lessons when we least expect them and they always make sense in the end.
Shakespeare’s Not for Me
I began teaching—a nerd with a strong desire to create the next generation of nerds. They’d all go to Yale and Harvard and think big things.
The reality of the classroom was different. The kids didn’t smile at every lesson and bring their homework like the teaching book said.
“Nothing personal, Miss, I like you. Shakespeare’s not for me.” I wasn’t even teaching Shakespeare. I teach history—stories about dead people across the globe, not literature. I didn’t understand.
“Shakespeare’s Not for Me” was about to be the teacher. All my degrees and the fancy pile of books in my brain hadn’t taught me to listen…to really listen to what students needed.
I was giving my students what I wanted them to have—things that were important to me so I could turn them into the next generation of college graduates. I was failing to consider their dreams, values, and plans.
There’s a disconnect, sometimes, between the ideals of educators and the goals of students and families. The system tries to tell families what’s best for their kids. It’s presumptuous and degrading.
I was guilty.
You will all go to Yale and Harvard and get degrees in…
There’s only one solution. Listen. If I want students to listen, I must do the same. Listen to what’s deep in their hearts. What do they hope to get out of my class? How can I help them hone in on their hopes and dreams then convert them to reality? No one cares about anything I teach unless it serves them. I have to provide the value—show how the skills I teach will help them build their future. Encourage dreams, not construct them. Hand kids the hammer and the saw, let them build.
There’s always temptation to superimpose my values upon students. Creating a “generation of scholars” was my dream, not theirs, and not a particularly useful one at that.
“Shakespeare’s Not for Me” had a family business. A towing company. Not only did he have a towing company, he had what he did not know was a solid business plan.
“I’m going to expand our towing contracts with police departments, and buy more trucks to take over this area, too.” I’d paid lots of tow bills working in insurance. This kid had everything he needed to make his dreams real—he didn’t need a dime to do it. Shakespeare, he thought, was getting in his way. Dead bards should never interfere with the financial success of the living.
Even so, I asked him to give Shakespeare a chance. I’d enjoyed learning about the life and times of one of the greatest men in Western literary tradition–I’d been lucky enough to study under someone who brought him to life so the themes became timeless. The characters could have been any people crossing my path. Some, perhaps, even me. The lessons applicable to every generation–universal themes deconstructed and recreated by nearly every author who walked thereafter.
“Listen,” I told “Shakespeare’s Not for Me.” “Sometimes things we learn now pop up and help us later when we don’t expect it, or at the very least make our lives a little bit better. That’s been my experience, anyway. The things I learn today meet up with things I learned yesterday, and eventually turn into something I never expected. Something amazing.” I asked him to consider that, and remember our conversation someday in the future.
“Shakespeare’s Not for Me” listened. He gave me a shot at teaching, and I helped him the best I could with his plans. I don’t know what became of him, only that we both learned from each other, our lives all the better for the opportunity.
Sometimes I get discouraged. I wonder if I matter. If I’m still replaceable like I was in so many other jobs and careers, measured only by numbers.
I look down at a quote scrawled across a page in a book. A friend wrote—quite simply—“You…are….magic.” Sometimes I need magic. Other times I think I might be that magic. The thought keeps me going just a little while longer.
Teaching should never be a one way street.
I came to teaching to change the world.
In the process, I changed myself.
This post was by request by Misfit, Inc. for the Shakespeare 450th birthday celebration. It’s submitted here next to real live bards and poets. I bet they don’t like my title. I told them next year we’re writing about Thoreau.