ShakespeareIt’s Shakespeare’s birthday. I don’t have a card. To tell you the truth, I’m a bit angry at the man, dead though he may be, because no one will do my work in class. They’re all walking around with scraplets of paper in their palms, muttering.

“Get your work done,” I cajoled.

“I can’t! I’ve got to recite this #$%$ Shakespeare next period. It’s stupid!” I’m not a very good teacher if a guy dead 500+ years trumps my assignment. That annoys me even more. Oh, Shakespeare! I do desire that we’d be better strangers…More of your conversation would infect my brain! And I’d like to have a few words in Shakespearian with these young braggarts, as well.

Shakespeare makes me think about how elegant the British are–it’s entirely possible to be insulted by any Brit on the planet except Gordon Ramsay and walk away feeling like you have just been given a Golden Globe. Shakespeare trained them too well.

“Shakespeare’s not stupid,” He was simply interfering with my work.

“No, Miss, he’s dead. But still boring,” said the knave in training.

“He’s not boring. You’re just not equipped to understand it.” I popped off a line or two from Julius Caesar and a couple from MacBeth. The rest I had to look up. It’s been a while. Now would be a great time for a Shakespearian insult that’d make Gordon Ramsay blush, “Your wife’s a hobby horse…your tongue outvenoms all the worms of the Nile.” Truth be told, I enjoy how Shakespeare made up words where common insults just wouldn’t do. Maybe Rachael Ray read Shakespeare, too. And half the kids who write essays in my class.

I consulted Google. Discussing the Shakespearian insult would, in fact, make the artless doghearted bugbear more…bearable. Error– BLOCKED–IP EXCEPTION. HUMOR.

Humor?  I cannot discuss Shakespearian insults with my students because they might be…funny? There will be no humor on our watch!  I so wanted to give them something they could actually use in the locker room today. She would swear that gentleman would be her sister.

Is anyone really equipped to understand the Bard of Avon at fifteen? Have you had that soul-wrenching love yet? No…but you just got dumped via Twitter…Have you been forced to kill someone to take the throne? Maybe not, but team politics may have ousted you as captain of the cheerleading squad. Have you been cast aside for failing to conform? That one’s easy. Look at teen fashion.

To tell the truth, I’m rereading my Shakespeare. And my Steinbeck. And my Hemingway–and most of the “greats” who were thrust upon me at fifteen, part of the Great Cannon of Things I’m Not Equipped to Understand. I hated them in high school, too. Who gets this stuff at fifteen?

Steinbeck–showing the simultaneous crushing and resilience of human spirit…reading this now, I cry. I weep for the struggles of the characters in The Grapes of Wrath…no teen is equipped to understand this level of tragedy, defeat, life beating you down, not being able to support your family. Who gets that at fifteen? You have not lived. It’s not about a guy sucking on a lady’s breast, it’s not “ewwww….” It’s the essence of human compassion triumphing in impossible times–such a critical lesson in today’s world of violence, economic uncertainty, and difficult times.  As a teacher, I can make this analogy in class, but until you’ve really lived, and either been or saved that troubled soul…it’s a conversation that can’t fully connect.

At fifteen, the end of Of Mice and Men was the worst resolution in the world.

“I read that whole book and he shoots his friend?” said fifteen year-old me. “WHO SHOOTS THEIR FRIEND?” How long do you have to live to understand that level of love, compassion, human self-sacrifice? Someone who would do anything for a friend, even the unspeakable?

I’d thought Great Cannon should be revised to include more world literature–some Allende, Achebe, Dostoyevsky. But Shakespeare, like a plantar’s wart, never moved aside.  Eighty Shakespeares a year. Steinbeck remained. Hemingway loomed. Kids roamed the halls with fake swords in the era of no-tolerance muttering lines, refusing to do my work.

Now, I sit for tea with Shakespeare. And my other dusty, dead literary friends. I apologize. Because now, I have lived. I know why you drank. Smoked. Wrote. Bled on the page. And in some cases, like Hemingway, died. I tell stories to kids grumbling about texts. They stop. Stare. Look. And comprehend to the best of their life’s experiences…If I’m very, very lucky, they come back and say, “Hey, I read this, did you know….”

This has been a “be careful what you wish for” epiphany for me, because at the very moment I admit I was wrong and embrace these friends, the new standards are, in fact, replacing The Cannon with a great deal of informational text. “Students need to learn this for college and the workplace.” I picture Hemingway, with a dry martini, shaking his head. But maybe this is a good thing–they’ll save the greats for later. A 30-year old alum texted me about Kafka yesterday.

“Holy @#%$!” he said. I’d like them to say “Holy #$%^$!” about every lesson I teach. But if I saved them all till they were ready, there’d be nothing to do today. Sometimes you just have to dive in.

Happy birthday, Will. I’m sorry for the years of underappreciation. I have just one request–can you keep the sword fights down next door? I’m giving a test today.



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