Lessons from The Classroom

“Miss, I’m not going to do anything in this class unless I play Macbeth.”

It was an unusually hot spring, my second year of teaching and I was about done.  With this job, with the school year, with these kids and their ridiculous demands, excuses, haircuts.  This happened every year around the same time- kids always think it’s the joy of a teacher’s heart to see their snarky faces every single friggin day- and it is, mostly.  From September-mid March.  And then, things get ugly.  The weather gets warmer, the days get lighter, and the last thing anyone wants to do is circle around a stuffy classroom in heels trying to get students enthusiastic about something you don’t even care about anymore.  Grammar, shmammer.  Just shut-up all of you, and let’s hold our breath until June.

This one year, I had enough experience under my belt to know to save my favorite unit until for such a time as this- when I was too tired to care about anything else, and I didn’t have to feign interest.  Teaching English Lit- the way I thought it should be done- was sincerely one of my great joys, and Macbeth, well, it was my favorite.  I always taught it, “Theater-in-the-Round” making those lazy butts get up and move their chairs in a circle formation and choosing students to read and perform scenes in the middle.  I taught theater history that way, they learned who Shakespeare was, why the Globe Theater was important, why Lady Macbeth was the most brilliant villain of all time- and how sensational, for a female to be written so! I loved every aspect, and I hoped my genuine enthusiasm would reach into the depths of their already-vacationing brains. And resurrect my own. Because coffee wasn’t cutting it.

Every teacher has “those” students.  I got a few of them every year.  The ones who refuse.  The ones who ignore.  The ones who have other ideas, better plans.  Who think they’re smarter than you, know better. Who threatened my unborn children if I didn’t change their research paper grade.  You know, the usual. They were my greatest challenge, and often some of my favorites, as I’m a glutton for punishment.  I had had one in particular that year.  He had a snide smile, a cavalier way of announcing his entrance, 5 minutes after the bell.  He’d turn from charming to aggressive in 3 seconds.  He wouldn’t even bargain with me as some would- “Miss, if you let me come late I’ll turn in my homework twice this week…” It seemed beneath him to do so.  And yet, there was something admirable about him.  When he spoke, people listened.  Most of what he said was meant to be a distraction, a rude joke, a foul word- doesn’t it amaze you that kids think profanity will shock you? As though you didn’t just use the same exact word in the teacher’s room when the copier got stuck for 10,430,303 time? Idiots. And yet, the command he had on an audience was impressive. He hadn’t participated in a single, damn thing all year.  Not one hand up, not one homework assignment.  So, you can imagine the absolute amazement I had to swallow when he walked in for the first time on time that year and announced that he would be playing Macbeth.  Every day.  And anyone else who thought they’d play the role, to go- insert explicable profanities here- themselves. 

I know I should have told him that that wouldn’t be fair to the other students.  I know I should have told him that he could have earned the right to choose his character if he had, oh I don’t know, come to class all year.  I know I should have asserted my authority, stood my ground, and not let him run the show.  But, as usual in my brief classroom career, I didn’t do what I was supposed to.

He came every day on time that season, ready to play Macbeth. He butchered the language.  Mispronounced every other word.  He’d lose his place a million times and have to shout his lines over the annoyed groaning from the class. But I had never seen him so passionate.  He’d swing his arms around wildly and kids had to duck to avoid his dramatic flair.  He loved it. He loved Shakespeare.  This kid who didn’t even think it was worth the effort to tell me to fuck off, but just roll his eyes in defiance four weeks ago is in my class on-time and LOVING Shakespeare. Every moment of it. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t necessarily something he was great at it, he loved it and that made it worth it to put himself out there. I know grown adults who don’t have that kind of courage. It was so powerful a transformation that I broke all kinds of laws and brought in a camera to capture the performance.  

I had forgotten about those photos until this week. I had let my desktop go idle long enough that it defaulted to a slideshow.  Just as I was picking up a pair of El’s shoes for the 47th time, his face filled my screen.  His arm extended like Hamlet- the only Shakespearean reference he knew, though we were reading Macbeth.  His face full of passionate dialogue.  And my heart wrenched a bit.  He embodied at that moment the sentiment it has taken me 30 years to teach to myself- Do what you love, do it with gusto, and screw what anyone thinks.  He taught me that.  That year.  In that season. Still, to this day.  I’m sure he’d be more shocked to know how he impacted me than he was when I used the F word to describe Lady Macbeth’s state of mind and we had a good laugh about it in the hallway. 

  We lost him about over a year ago.  All deaths of kids are senseless, no matter what the catalyst.  He was too young and though I was caring for a baby and long since left my career, I grieved for him.  And I remembered that end of the school year, in the hot classroom when he boldly taught all of us what it meant to never let anything- anything at all, stand in the way of doing something you love.  We should have thanked him then.

This is the closest I can get to that now.

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