Shakespeare Smackdown (You Can’t Handle the Truth!)

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.



“Only Savants Have the Right Answer All the Time” (Chess: Part Two)

Chess Story Two: Chess and Improv

A student of mine, Karim, called to tell me some things about his acting career. Karim is not a student, technically. He’s three years away from 30. If he were still a student, he’d be in deep trouble. He called to tell me he had just conversed with a famous actor from my generation.

“I called you because you know who that is,” he said. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. “Know who that is” because I know tons of stuff, or because I’m ancient, just like this legend.

Either way, I’m honored. When students include me on their short list for communicating major life events, I’ve succeeded in my job as a mentor. When someone makes me Call Numero Uno, that’s more than a metric–it’s beyond compare. I never take it for granted.

It's lonely up thereKarim told me about his improv class.  I’d tried my hand at acting. I was terrible. I couldn’t project or transform. At least I’m spontaneous. It’s a gift in teaching.  In fact, the reason I wanted Karim to be a famous actor to begin with, advice I have given exactly once in my teaching career, was because he always had that spontaneous wit. I wondered why he’d need an improv class.

“Let me ask you this. You always have wit. Creativity. Something to say. Do you need improv class? Is it helpful, or a situation where you’ve either got the ideas or you don’t?”

I recorded his reply in my book of life’s lessons. This is what he said:  “Studying improv helps me to develop two or three scenarios for everything. It’s kind of like this–in life you have to have the moves ready before anyone else,” he explained.

“So, it’s like chess? Where if you don’t have the moves for every situation well in advance, you get slaughtered.” Chess has been coming up a lot lately.

“That’s exactly what it is. That’s the only perfect analogy,” he said. “I always think ten times faster than everyone, but this class helped me think twenty times faster than that. By the time you have something in mind, I’ve already planned what I’m going to say to that. Then when you actually say your piece, I have two or three more things on top of that. The first response I created is already old. I’ve already moved on.”

He took it one step further, making the connection to life–that’s what good teaching does. “Everyone should take an improv class. It helps you. It helps you plan strategy. It helps you think. It helps you have something to say. Let’s say a client throws you a curveball. Your mind is ready for it. You’ve got an answer,” he said.

“The answer doesn’t have to be right. You’d have to be some kind of savant genius to always have an answer that’s right. But you have to have an answer. If you’re able to have some sort of retort, you’re good. Then you throw the ball back at them and they have to say something back to you. It buys you time.  And by the time they answer, you got three more things to say. That’s what the improv class does for you. It helps in business. It helps in marketing. It helps in life. It would help you in the classroom.”

Plan three things ahead. The answer doesn’t have to be right. Be spontaneous. These are the things that help in business. In marketing. In life. 

I got off the phone inspired. Ready to go find an improv class so I, too, could be perfect in life. I might even apologize to the kid who was the lead in the play I wrecked in high school  because I was a sucky actor. Either way, I’m thinking deeply about those things that make learning real. Karim is right.

And that is why I teach. To have my lessons paid back in spades.

Carnegie Hall--the most coveted stage in the world

Carnegie Hall–the most coveted stage in the world

Incidentally, a school field trip to the theatre ignited the fire in Karim. The type that is being cut all over America in a tragic turn of testing over talent, where we’re losing our ability to recognize that the answer doesn’t always have to be right–that the ability to be flexible, spontaneous, focused, and apply what we’ve learned is the key to success.

Karim said he wouldn’t have attended the theatre without that school trip. “Seeing the lights, the stage, the people creating themselves into something else. It’s what we all try to do in life…in our little realms, our jobs, our identities, we’re all trying to create something of ourselves. This stage is just more formal.” For him, just as real.
[Here’s Karim Léon’s website. Any readers who are in The Biz? You should hire him.]