My late grandfather was a magician of sorts. Ever awkward but always entertaining, the family would sit back and be amused at buffets as my late grandfather journeyed from table to table with a small rope and a bit of wit, with which he would perform magic tricks and tell jokes before transitioning into a presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ. The self-absorbed pagan I was at the time looked on in embarrassment. I now view the tactic with awe and reverence. My late grandfather cared more for the eternal well-being of the souls of strangers than any notion that his food was becoming chilled and his grandson agitated. Like a monotonous Dickens’ character, the man did what he did. I confess, however fond a light the technique is now seen, that I inherited not an ounce of this magical ability. Though my late grandfather was a magician and entertainer, I have entered this frail world with the ability to possibly entertain a piece of dead wood. I function as a cloistered monk or Chaucer’s Oxford Clerk with my nose in my books and my head in the skies: Absent from this world and enjoying another. Student teaching has taught me this.
I believe people (and subsequently teachers) are divided into one of two groups: introverts and extroverts. But each of those groups have connotations with them, one being rather negative, and I have consequently decided that all people are either monks or magicians. Magicians have that natural ability to create something out of nothing. If no conversation currently exists, the magician is the person to run to, not the monk. Magicians to this effect can describe in perfect detail fantastic and entertaining stories that usually captivate audiences. The monks, on the other hand, are too busy internalizing everything, thinking, pondering, deciphering. While Magicians dazzle us with their splendid narratives, monks take a backseat and enjoy. Both groups have tragic flaws yet are essential to any society. We need extremes to balance everything out to a perceived normalcy; thus, as an example, I am not so sure that two monks should marry nor two magicians, but such is the Power of Love.
In today’s high school atmosphere, monks are murdered daily. Only magicians survive. A good lesson plan is valued and judged not on the content but on how many bells and whistles the magician decided to bring with them that day. And we reach the biggest dilemma I ran into this semester: I adopted no magical abilities to entertain with my right hand and pull content out of a hat with my left. I believed, with a foolish heart, that my monastic behavior which exudes a placid giddiness over periods and semicolons could translate to an entertainment-driven generation, the antagonists of Shakespeare.
Underestimating is an understatement for how difficult I believed teaching Shakespeare would be. I look back at my nervousness this past summer: focused entirely on how well I know Shakespeare, forgetting and not even considering that to be only half the battle. My preparation was solely content. To know what I was talking about was priority one. Whether the students were entertained was the furthest thing from my mind. I assumed my placid giddiness would translate. It never entered my brain that everyone hated Shakespeare already; like Young Siward, they replied upon the hearing of his name: “The Devil himself could not pronounce a title more hateful to [their] ear[s].” Thus, as a Grand Orator or a classical conductor, I applied myself to my perch and with my hangman’s hands began the symphony and panegyric: murdering sleep. Out of my mouth came the words, and after a time of slow travel through the air, they fell on deaf ears and the last syllables of recorded time slowly lulled those little brains to sleep and lighted fools the way to dusty death. With heavy, drooping eyes, the words produced dumb mouths, and the Grand Orator amused himself as he quickly realized that what had begun as a two-way road on this sunny day has quickly taken a u-turn on a cloudy one-way street leading to a yard full of beds, and one half of the natural world seemed dead and wicked dreams abused the curtained sleep. Though he endeavored with the greatest diligence and long-suffering, that Grand Orator could not raise the dry bones from the cadavers he created. The wine of life was drawn, and the mere lees was left the vault to brag of. In shame his symphony concluded and the panegyric ceased. This one-way street abruptly became a mess of intertwined freeways as the Grand Orator began digging his own grave, conceding that the only way to wake an unconscious soul is to roll away the stony sleep from his eyes while acknowledging that perhaps the best way for resting men to awaken is for them to converse and mingle with other sleepwalkers. Like a poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the Grand Orator realized this, and the dry bones were at once raised like a bunch of Banquo’s ghosts — speaking to one another of every topic on this dreary, cold planet but what had just proceeded from those lips of the Grand Orator who was heard no more. And the Grand Orator seeing this, smiled to himself and questioned intently whether a bunch of bells and whistles about nothing would be better than the deadly panegyric. But of course, this Orator is a monk, and to leave off the grave panegyric for lively magical twists and turns would be a tolling bell for his soul. And the Grand Orator like a walking shadow screwed his courage to the sticking place and decided that the only way to defeat this fatal bellman was to face him head on with his best ammo — and like a fool, a monotonous cycle of one-way oration followed by a flurried frenzy of flighty reckless chaos ensued day after day, tomorrow after tomorrow, after tomorrow. His words were as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of my experience was not that I perceived how, in comparison to modern man, I am rather boring, but that my romantic ideal I placed into my little head at the beginning of my college career (i.e. that I would transform students into obtaining a love for my content area) was misguided. I did not account for Apathy. Apathy is slowly killing off my generation as rationalism tells us to stop creating and imagining: for we came from nothing and to nothing we shall return. Hope appears to have left us as we spend our days staring at screens and listening to music (mine included) which tells us that we must seize the day for tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow) we die, and there is nothing but darkness on the other side. This is the elephant in the room that no one at a public school wants to or can address because no one seems to have any answers. Ironically Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes to the same conclusion in his climatic speech which is perhaps one of the greatest in English Literature.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I struggled this semester with making Shakespeare relevant without using bells and whistles. I cannot help but realize that half my students will forget all of it in two months and the second half will not care in a year. This is deflating to someone who loves what they are teaching as much as I do. It is no small wonder that many high school teachers have lost that same excitement they may have once had right out of college. Put a man in a room with 30 souls who not only do not share the same excitement but actually despise what is being taught, and I suppose it is no small wonder that after 30 years the teachers just don’t find that line of Shakespeare so appealing. It has no relevance for ninety percent of people.
This is where I believe my content area has steered off course in education (as if I’m one to comment). On one side of the battle, you have students who hate reading literature because, honestly, they won’t use that specific piece of literature. Rare is the man who uses Shakespeare while he is slaving away at work. Swivellers and Micawbers don’t grow on trees. Yet this is what we teach and stress. On the other side, you meet a ton of students who simply cannot write, and while a very small number of students will be quoting Shakespeare, nearly all of the students will have to write and write well. The public school is producing a large number of students who hate literature and cannot write (so they also hate writing). We know this as educators, yet we still do not teach writing. Would it not be better to let Shakespeare have his place where he is actually appreciated and focus more attention on how to transition from one sentence to the next (usually done with a period followed by a capital letter). Of course, all hell would break loose if we took Shakespeare from the classroom. If we think about it though, at this point we create a bunch of students who after meeting Shakespeare, hate his guts but could not put their feelings into a well constructed argument (i.e. write). Would it not be better to hide Shakespeare for a moment, reserve him for people who actually appreciate him, and teach these kids how to write? (Something that should have been accomplished years earlier.) If they have never met Shakespeare, they cannot hate him unless they are just naturally sadistic, and maybe, just maybe in some tomorrow (or tomorrow, or tomorrow) of the future, they might just pick him up later. As it is, most students will never come back to him.
Of course, in an ideal world, schools would teach both. I look back on this semester and can only praise God every day that I had a decent education. I hope, in the broader sense of schools and students, I do not paint a picture so broadly bleak as to cover every situation and classroom, but only my own failed abilities. In the end, I suppose teaching Shakespeare to high school seniors is much like attempting to get a seven year old to eat his peas and enjoy it. The seven year old has experienced peas for three or four years now, and no matter what cajoling is attempted, he knows better. It is as if we tell the young boy that he has truly been missing out these last three years; the peas have simply been misunderstood, and if he simply shoves another spoonful down his throat while trying a different technique such as holding the spoon backwards or holding his nose and thinking about anything and everything but peas, or standing in an inverted fashion on his head while partaking — even perhaps pretending to himself they are lovely green Dippin’ Dots or some other tom-foolery, then maybe, just maybe, he will come to enjoy those peas for what they are. I of course will embrace the monk within me and side with logic, pursuing a different route than the one I first embarked on when I set foot on a college campus some four years ago. In the war between the monks and the magicians, I suppose this battle has been won by the magicians, and if I had the means to pull a thread out of thin air and learn something at the same time, you can bet I would do it. However, unlike my late grandfather, I have no magical abilities, and that is fine. In the end, I hope this post did not paint such a grim picture about the current high school classroom. Every room I observed got along fine. All this to say I have learned this semester that my monastic abilities far outweigh everything else. So for now, I will join my fellow monks and perhaps end up a present day Swiveller or Micawber and hopefully in the mean time get some much needed sleep.