Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Journey to Richard II (Part 10)

Richard II
Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA
July 2013
Digging around in old files creates an equal mix of illumination and depression. I find, digging, things that I long ago forgot I even had; the depression comes when I ask: Why do I still have this? And What am I going to do with this?

I've been going through things lately, looking for early examples of how I taught Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew back in the mid-1980s to my eighth graders at Harmon School in Aurora, Ohio--the first time I'd attempted to teach the Bard at that level. (Earlier posts here have dealt with my initial experiences teaching Hamlet at Western Reserve Academy around 1980.)

I found some old files that contain both my plans for the year and my marking-period calendars that I gave the kids, listing, day by day, what I'd intended to do during those nine-week periods. Naturally, the only schedule missing is the one from 1985-86 (grrrr), but I do have the one from the next year (87-88; I was on sabbatical leave in 1986-87). (Image below.) There probably wasn't much difference between the two years: My progress through the Bard was slow but steady.

Right after Thanksgiving break, it seems, I started with some introductory material about Shakespeare's life and times--including the many slides I'd copied from various books. I had a set of notes I'd given the kids, too--notes that required them to fill in blanks at various places. I played recordings of Elizabethan music for them, too, talked about what school was like when the Bard was a boy--that sort of thing.

Next, I see some days devoted to the play itself. What I did: I played a cassette tape of a professional production (after the first year--and a tape that jammed--I learned to have a back-up ready!); we listened; the kids followed along in books; we stopped and talked--or I paused and explained things. Or paused when there were questions. The kids memorized a chunk of a speech from the play--Petruchio's "Is the jay more precious than the lark?"--a speech that my son can still reel off on demand, by the way. So can I.

Well, come, my Kate; we will unto your father's
Even in these honest mean habiliments:
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor;
For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.
What is the jay more precious than the lark,
Because his fathers are more beautiful?
Or is the adder better than the eel,
Because his painted skin contents the eye?
O, no, good Kate; neither art thou the worse
For this poor furniture and mean array.
if thou account'st it shame. lay it on me;
And therefore frolic: we will hence forthwith,
To feast and sport us at thy father's house.

In January, you see, we watched the film of Shrew--the Burton-Taylor-Zeffirelli one. Then ... some excerpts from the1953 film of Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 Cole Porter musical (with book by Samuel and Bella Spewack) about a production of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. After all the fun ... even more fun: a two-day exam on all the above.

As the years went on with Shrew, my introductory material became more and more elaborate. I'd taken a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Shakespeare sites; I'd read dozens of books, seen every play I could in the area (we didn't start our Stratford, Ont., sojourns until later on), bought recorded music, antique prints of scenes from the plays, posters of movies and shows (many of which I hung on my Harmon walls--including original posters from the films of Shrew and Kate).

And for more and more days (weeks?) of my school year the Bard became the teacher; I, the interlocutor.

PS--Another discovery. During that 1985-1986 year I kept, off an on, a diary I recorded into a little cassette player. Later, I transcribed it (most of it? all?); it's well over a hundred pages. Next time, I'll quote some excerpts from that document ... and see if I can find the tapes anywhere?!?!?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 11

Well, the Monday after the homecoming game—the homecoming loss—Mr. Gisborne was in a dark mood, as you might expect. In fact, after my classmates had filed in quietly and taken their seats, as if they were at a funeral or something, our science teacher just sat at his chair and stared at the top of his desk. This went on for some minutes. Then he started moving his head slowly, side to side, and looked up at us. He face was wet, eyes red with emotion. I wasn’t really surprised. Out at lunch we had heard this was coming.
He took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to apologize to you,” he said in a quivering voice. “I know how much we all let you down.”
I could hear other kids crying, too—some of them were really loud and dramatic about it.  Mr. Gisborne slowly got to his feet. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, his voice all but disintegrating, “I have never seen a group of young men play their hearts out the way the Bears did on Friday night.” And then he just broke down. His shoulders started shaking, his whole body then shuddered, and he was sobbing like a huge baby. 
Lots of kids—okay, mostly girls—ran up to the front of the room, surrounded him, and engaged in some sort of group-hugging thing that went on for quite a while. It sounded like a pre-school twenty seconds after the parents dropped their kids off.
I just sat there and watched. It was really quite something. Then I felt someone move into the abandoned seat just across the aisle. I looked over. Gil.
“You’ve been ignoring me all day,” he said.
“You’re right,” I snapped. “Why don’t you go up there and join in?” I asked. “They could use another boy.”
Gil laughed. “I just moved here, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I think most of the people in this school are crazy. Absolutely insane.”
I liked hearing him say that. But for a reason I can’t explain very well, I was still bitterly angry that he was doing a social studies project on my house. So I lashed out at him. “Well, then, you should fit right in. And why don’t you just go back to your own seat!” I turned to show him my back, hoping he’d get the hint.
He did. Without a word, he moved away, and when I was sure he was gone, I turned back to face the front, where the weird sad ceremony had not let up at all.

It took about fifteen minutes for everyone to settle down. Finally, though, the cluster began to break apart—as if an iceberg were melting away—and slowly moving back to their seats were all the sorrowful girls, sniffling, wiping eyes on the bottoms of shirts, some still shuddering with emotion.
Mr. Gisborne spoke once more: “I want to thank you,” he said with enormous passion, “for giving me the greatest moment of my life.” He paused a minute. And then added in a near-scream: “The greatest moment until next year … when we kick Ingol High School’s butt!” And the room erupted in throaty cheers. Someone started singing the school fight song, “Bears Go Wild,” and soon the whole classroom was singing in full voice. When they reached the final chorus, everyone stood up and shouted it:
“So look out, people, don’t you get the bear riled,
’Cuz it ain’t a pretty picture when Bears Go Wild!
Yeah!  BEARS!
There was so much cheering after that, so much noise, that someone in the vicinity of our classroom must have complained, because about two minutes later, in came the assistant principal, Mr. Ursine.[i] Following him in was instant silence.
“Mr. Gisborne,” he began, “we all know how upset you are today.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Mr. Gisborne, sounding like a soldier.
“But other people are trying to conduct classes, and all the noise from this room has been making that difficult.”
“Sorry, sir.”
“And it’s been going on all day, hasn’t it, Mr. Gisborne?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Carry on.”
As soon as the assistant principal was gone, Mr. Gisborne turned on us. “Way to go,” he snarled, “you’re prob’ly gonna get me fired now.” And he started to cry again.
Again, kids (girls) swarmed to the front of the room, surrounding Mr. Gisborne, hugging him and crying with him.
I gave up. I put my head down on my desk and within seconds, fell asleep. When I awoke, the room was empty. I looked at the clock. School had been over for nearly an hour. I stood up, stretched, then noticed some sheets of paper on my desk. Some were just the usual handouts from Mr. Gisborne (photocopies of homework sheets from the workbook that accompanied our textbook). But there was also a note lying there. And I didn’t need three guesses to figure out who wrote it.

[i] Vickie’s having some fun here. Ursine means “bear-like.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Raise Standards for Aspiring Teachers?

I often agree with New York Times columnist Bill Keller. But not last week. Not entirely. In a piece called "An Industry of Mediocrity" (link) Keller went after the education of America's teachers. He said it's been "a subject of dismay for many years"; he quoted the National Council on Teacher Quality's judgment that it is "an industry of mediocrity." I can't really disagree with those judgments--but not for the same reasons. (Hang on; I'll tell you why in a bit.)

Keller blamed universities, calling schools of education "a contented cartel." And then he began suggesting remedies--and it was there that we diverged in a yellow wood.

His first idea? We should "make teacher colleges much more selective."  I can't think of a more certain way to create a teacher shortage, by the way.  Here's why: You can make teacher education programs as selective as the Navy Seals and Harvard and Princeton and Stanford and the NBA combined, and it won't make a bit of difference for a simple reason: Teacher pay and working conditions are, well, far below what other selective programs--e.g., medicine, engineering, law, professional basketball, etc.--can offer. So, sure, there will always be (even as there have always been) idealistic, bright, talented, creative young people who will enter teaching simply because they want to make the world a better place. But not nearly enough to staff the nation's public schools. Probably not enough to staff the schools of Toledo, Ohio.

Whatever it is--if you want to attract people, you have to make your enterprise attractive.  And teaching, right now (in most places), is highly unattractive. Yes, salaries are better than what you'd earn in a McJob, but benefits have leveled off, unions have weakened, status is low, and the determination to standardize the curriculum--the profession itself--teachers themselves--has made teaching so unappealing that I would not even consider entering the profession today.

For virtually all of my forty-five year career as a secondary-school English teacher (middle and high school), I had tremendous academic freedom. Within the general confines of the curriculum I could teach what I wanted in the ways I wanted. Please do not confuse "academic freedom," however, with "anything goes." What I mean is that I was able--with the advice and consent of my principal, my department chair, my department, and the demands of the English discipline itself--to develop themes and lessons that I believed would benefit kids--and would fit with my personality and talents and skills and knowledge. That situation was tremendous for my morale--and for my colleagues' morale, as well, for they were enjoying the same freedom. (And high teacher morale often translates into a happier, more productive classroom.)

I realized, too--very early in my career--that there was no single best way to teach. All around me I saw very successful colleagues teaching in ways that I could not--ways, even, that I very much disagreed with.  But, somehow, most of it worked.

What I did generally worked, too--but not always. Many kids related well to me--liked my classes, learned; other kids didn't. But the schools where I taught recognized that a variety of teaching styles in the building was a strength, not a problem. Sometime during the day it was likely (probable? certain?) that a kid was going to find a teacher to connect with. It might happen in my class; it might not. But it was likely to happen somewhere if the school sought to cultivate varieties of excellence. This, sadly, will no longer be true when we invite Procrustes to be in charge of teacher education.

So ... to Keller's first point: If salaries and working conditions remain troublesome, if schools discourage innovation and creativity and individualism, then all the elevated standards in the world will do nothing. Bright, talented people do not want to work somewhere where their brightness and talents are irrelevant--or, worse, a problem.

Keller also argues that teachers need more rigorous courses--both in the art and science of teaching and in individual subject areas. No argument from me on that. All I would suggest is that there be an emphasis, as I've said, on innovation and creativity. Kids get turned on when teachers are turned on, and no one gets turned on when we're all doing the same thing on the same day at the same time in the same way. Again--only Procrustes smiles at such a prospect. Creative types run the other way.

Finally, Keller declares that "too much student teaching is too superficial--less a serious apprenticeship than a drive-by." Can't argue with that, either. Though I will say that young teaching candidates today have far more experiences in schools and classrooms than I did back in the winter of 1965-1966 when I did my student teaching. Prior to that I had had no experiences in classrooms; at age 21 I had no idea until I walked into that classroom if I would like what I was doing--or would be any good at it. That was a disaster movie waiting to be filmed. Fortunately, I found I did love the life. I wept when I retired--and for all the right reasons.

So--my suggestions? Greatly improve teacher salaries and benefits and working conditions (e.g., class sizes, non-teaching duties) and academic freedom. Raise standards for admission to the profession.  Reform teacher education courses. All pretty much simultaneously.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 10

Okay—enough catching up, and back to what happened that first day of school after the football loss to Ingol High. But maybe you can understand now why Harriet was so upset after that game. My own mood didn’t improve as the day went along, but it didn’t worsen, either—I even managed to get through a couple of classes with Gil, ignoring him completely. I mean, I ignored him so totally that I don’t even know if he was trying to catch my attention.
And then came science, last period of the day. My favorite subject, my worst teacher.  By the time I was in seventh grade, I considered myself a scientist. A real one. In my own laboratory in the basement of our house, I conducted experiments far more complicated and sophisticated than any we ever had to do in school. Many of my classmates still had trouble lighting a Bunsen burner, or exclaimed “Euuuuwwwww, gross!” when they had to dissect an earthworm.
For me, these science-class experiments were valuable for one reason only: I could practice my techniques.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but sitting in those classes, doing those activities, was a little like telling a college basketball star to play on a 7th grade team.
Of course, no one knew about my skills and knowledge.  Since that episode with the drawing back in kindergarten, I’d never let anyone know—not anyone, not even Harriet—how good I was.[i] It just wasn’t worth all the trouble.
Our teacher in seventh grade this year was ridiculous. His name was Mr. Gisborne,[ii] he was about twenty-three years old, and the school had hired him to be the assistant football coach at the high school. He must have had a teaching certificate from the state, but Ohio must have been desperate for science teachers that day, because he knew nothing about science. Nothing. All we did in his class was take turns reading aloud from our book; then, out of the teachers’ guide, he would read the questions to us, call on us, one after the other, up and down each row, comparing what we said to what was in the answer key he kept on his desk. Day after day, week after week—the same routine.
His classroom walls and shelves were pretty bare, although he did bring in some posters of professional football players and put them on the back wall so he would have something interesting to look at while he was listening to us read. I guess it prevented him from falling asleep.
Also, our science books were pretty old and out of date in many ways. Nothing about space shuttles or the chicken pox vaccine, or sickle-cell research.[iii] I mean, anyone who paid attention to the news had to know about these things. But not Mr. Gisborne. From what I could tell, he watched only the sports news and read only the sports page and sports magazines. In the few minutes each day when he would talk to us like a person, sports was all he ever really spoke about. Oh … and the murder trial of O. J. Simpson. A former football player.[iv] He was really interested in that. Sometimes we even watched the trial on TV in his class. Or watched old videos of Simpson running down the field toward gridiron glory.

[i] Vickie had done a horrifying Halloween drawing of her classmates—an event she writes about in I Discover Who I Am.
[ii] Vickie has borrowed another name from the Shelley story: Maria Gisborne was a friend of both Mary Shelley and Mary’s father, William Godwin.
[iii] All of these were actually in the news in 1995.
[iv] One of the biggest news stories of 1995. O. J. Simpson, former college and professional football star, was acquitted in October of the murder of his wife and her friend. The trial was on TV every day, in the newspaper every day, and because Simpson is African American, the jury’s verdict divided the country along racial lines.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Saying Good-Bye to Virgil ...

Today (Sunday) I drove over to Streetsboro to the funeral home where Virgil was. I didn't see him there--and was just as glad. Virgil lying still. Impossible. Not in my memory--never in my imagination. On the basketball court back at Hiram High School in 1960 he had been the perpetual motion machine that our science teachers had taught us was impossible. Time outs annoyed him.  Foul shots.  This game is supposed to move, isn't it?

On a screen at the funeral home were pictures of Virgil--back then and later. I heard a guy in front of me say that he'd played ball with Virgil later on--as I've written here before, Virgil had kept playing on various community teams until, well, until he couldn't. It must have been horrible for him, realizing he could never again run out on that court and not stop running until a buzzer or a whistle forced him to.

I met his wife and son. She held in a little wallet some pictures of Virgil, showed them to me. I pointed out one that I was in, as well. His son was quite a bit taller--but definitely the son of Virgil Rowe. Same strong build, firm grip.  Look you right in the eye. Virgil probably would have given a lot to have been as tall as his son.  We told each other stories; then others arrived with other stories to tell, and it it was time to drive home and think about the Hiram Huskies, 1960-1961, and Virgil Rowe playing the game with the ebullience of a child on a playground.

Here's a picture from the 1961 yearbook.  Hiram High School gymnasium.  That gym is gone; so is the high school building itself.  All that remains--an empty lot in Hiram.  You can see Virgil in the far left corner in the middle of a jump shot. You can't see the basket--but I'm telling you right now that ball is going in.  Where else could it go?

And one more: Virgil at the junior-senior prom, 1961. Virgil is right in the center of the picture (well, a touch left of center), his bow tie slightly askew, staring right at us, as if to say, Think we could play a little 3 on 3 in the gym after all this nonsense is over?

I will not forget Virgil Rowe--not until I've forgotten most other things.  After high school I rarely saw him, but every time I picked up a basketball--or even thought about basketball--I could see him, king of that little gym, ruling the rest of us, ecstatic in the swirl of the game he adored.

I'll end with this Housman poem. In some ways, it doesn't fit: Virgil was not a runner. And when he died, he was not young. But, then again, he was young, wasn't he? And ever will be.

To an Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cancer Catches an Old Friend--and Teammate

The word came yesterday from email and from Facebook: Virgil Rowe is gone. A Hiram High School classmate posted the calling hours; another classmate alerted us to the obituary in the Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier. Here's a link to that obituary. I hadn't seen Virgil at the Hiram Schools reunion in July this year. I did ask a few folks. No one seemed to know anything--except they'd heard he wasn't doing too well.  I had seen him the year before and could detect in his face the battle he and cancer were waging.  I'd posted about it (see below), noting that cancer had no idea what it was in for--a war with Virgil Rowe, one of the most joyously competitive athletes I've ever known. It seems that cancer has won--but it could not have been fairly. No way.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Virgil Rowe, 1961
I saw Virgil Rowe at our school reunion yesterday--saw him there last year, too, though before that I had not seen him in decades.  Virgil graduated from Hiram High School in 1961; I, 1962.  We played together on the Hiram Huskies basketball team in 1960-1961, and he was our best player--by far.  One of the best in the county that year.

Only about 5' 7", Virgil was a dervish on the floor: diving for loose balls, dribbling easily around his taller opponents, weaving through defenses as if they weren't there, firing up long jumpers that are today's three-pointers (no such animal in our era), stealing the ball so easily that sometimes the victim looked at Virgil with disbelief.  Well, looked at Virgil's back with disbelief, for, post theft, Virgil would streak for our hoop, lay it in, race back, ready for defense a second after he scored.

And Virgil could jump.  He could touch the rim (never saw him dunk, but I wouldn't have been surprised) and often won jump balls, even when pitted against the opposing center.  I know the laws of physics contradict me, but Virgil got in the air more quickly--and stayed there longer--than Newton would have believed.  How did he block so many shots?  Get so many rebounds?  And win so many jump balls?

Virgil is #10; I'm #24
Let me tell you a story ... and if I've told it before, tough.  Read it again ...  My junior year I was the other guard in the Huskies' backcourt, and one night we were in a very close game with Southington.  A few seconds remained, and we were behind by a point.  And then Virgil worked one of his miracles: he knocked a ball loose from a careless dribbler, dived for it, tying up a much taller Southington player who'd also dived.  Time out.  In the huddle, the coach told us what to do.  And on the way back out to the center circle, Virgil told me what to do.  "I can take this guy," he said.  "Soon as the ball goes up, you take off."

The ball went up; I took off.

Virgil easily out jumped the other guy, slapped the ball down court, where I caught it, full stride, no Southington player near me.  Laid it up ... and ...


Virgil was the first one down the court to embrace me, and I hope I realized then--though I surely didn't--that he had just given me a gift as close to timeless as mortality allows--a memory.

We didn't win many games that year.  Virgil just couldn't do it all alone, and he pretty much had to.  The other teams knew they could let him get his 20 or 30 and they'd still beat us.  And most of them did.

In our last game that year--the Portage County Tournament--we were hopelessly behind with only a few moments left, and the coach took Virgil out, letting him enjoy the applause from the fans he'd entertained so thoroughly that year.  Before he left the floor, he came over to me, hugged me, and whispered, "It's your team now."

I wish I could have done better the next year, but we won even fewer games.  Not until I graduated did the Huskies finally send out teams that others were worried about.  But in 1964 it was all over: Hiram consolidated.  And the Huskies were no more.

Virgil and I didn't hang out.  He was among the students who rode the early schoolbus to Hiram from Streetsboro, and I rarely saw him socially.  We were in different worlds.  I was Harry High School in those days--in the plays, the band, the chorus, the newspaper.  Virgil lived for basketball--though he was on the baseball team, as well.

And one day we nearly battled--an event that would have ended in about twelve seconds: Virgil was far stronger and more athletic than I and could have dispatched me with ease.  (Did you ever see Bambi Meets Godzilla?  YouTube it--Bambi Meets Godzilla).  Here's what happened: Virgil's girlfriend dumped him.  And he was crushed.  He loved that girl, no question.  And he did not go gentle into that good night.

And I--stupid, clueless, ungrateful I--made a move on her.  Virgil heard about it.  And the word rocketed around the school: Dyer's dead!

I avoided him for as long as I could (wouldn't you avoid Certain Death?).  But he found me--alone!--in the lower hall.  And I began to wonder, in all seriousness, about the Afterlife.

Virgil asked me why I'd done what I'd done.  And I started talking.  And talking and talking.  (If words kept coming out of me, I figured, then I was still alive.)  And by the end of my gallows speech, we both had tears in our eyes, were hugging, vowing fidelity, each to the other.  I lived to babble another day.  (Later, I saw Don Long, one of his friends, in the hall.  He asked what happened.  I told him.  He said, "I woulda beat the shit out of you anyway."  And he could have.)  Anyway, that experience--words saving my life--may have been the first glimmer of awareness that maybe I should be an English major.

And now Virgil has a far fiercer opponent than I.  Cancer has been at him for three years.  It was in remission last year, and he told me he was still playing ball in some adult league somewhere.  Still loving it--and, at last, getting to fire up three-pointers.  I told him he never met a shot he didn't like--and he laughed.  And agreed.

But his old enemy is back.  Virgil--tears in his eyes--told me he was going in for a CAT scan this week.  He was hoping for good news.  I told him to let his doctor know that he'd better have good news for Virgil, or I was going down to the hospital to kick some major ass.  Virgil laughed, knowing the great unlikelihood of that threat.

The Huskies' backcourt from 60-61
15 July 2012
We posed for a picture together.  And Virgil whispered to me that he loved me.  I tried to reply in kind, but tears defeated words.

I didn't really notice until I looked at the picture later that he was giving the thumbs-up sign.  That's Virgil Rowe.  He knows that if Death is not careful he will strip the ball from him and be halfway toward the basket before the Reaper is even aware what's happened.  And when Virgil lays that ball softly in and races back on defense, he'll be smiling.  Right in Death's foolish face.

The Journey to RICHARD II (Part 9)

So ... 1985-86 academic year. Harmon Middle School. Aurora, Ohio. And I decided I was going to teach Shakespeare to all of my eighth graders. I had an assortment of reasons. For one thing, I'd been falling in love with the Bard--this after years of hating him (as earlier posts reveal). A surprise for me. But the more I read, the the more I learned, the more I saw? The more I wanted to read, learn see. And I'd realized by 1985, the twentieth year of my teaching career, that if I grew excited by something, that excitement often (not always) transferred to my students.

Another reason? I was starting to believe more firmly in the "cultural literacy" component of my job as an English teacher. I knew that part of my job--a big part--was introducing students to the best that had been thought and said and written. And who produced more of that than William Shakespeare? (This, by the way, is a principle I carried with me to the final day of my career. I tried always to teaching things that were of considerable importance in our cultural history.)

And--as I posted here the other day--having my own son in class that year had caused me to think even more than I had been about what  I was doing every day. I know--I should have been thinking about this since 1966, when I started, and I was. But not in the focused way that I was now that my son was sitting there looking at me every day for 43 minutes.

As I also posted the other day, I decided to use The Taming of the Shrew--for a number of reasons. For one, it's a comedy, and I just couldn't see my students wrestling with Othello's demons or Hamlet's or Macbeth's or Lear's. Kids like to laugh (who doesn't?), so I made my first decision: comedy.

I picked Shrew, also, because it is an early work and does not have some of the complexities and darknesses of some of the later comedies.  Also, I knew there was an excellent film of the play, Franco Zeffirelli's, the one (1967) featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Michael York, and some very fine Shakespearean actors. I had seen the film a few times and knew the kids would love it.

But there were also "literary" reasons to use it. The play employs all sorts of devices that Shakespeare uses elsewhere: people switching identities, people being duped by others, foolish servants, puns. I could teach about blank verse and other literary terms while we were going along. The play, for example, has a "frame story" involving a drunk named Christopher Sly. A lord--out hunting--finds Sly passed out and decides to play a trick on him: They will carry him to the lord's home, dress him up, put him to bed, and convince him when he wakes that he is a lord who has lost his mind. It works. And the new "lord," learning that some players have appeared, will see the performance of a play--The Taming of the Shrew. Most productions I've seen completely drop the Sly story (he appears only one other time in the text--and it's not at the end), but I have seen some, as well, with a bemused Sly sitting in a chair at Right or Left, watching the play right along with us!

Finally,  many of the issues of the play, I thought, remained relevant (so true of so much of Shakespeare): the roles of men and women (and husbands and wives), sibling rivalry, single parents, the rivalry among men for a particular woman, the role of our parents in determining our love lives, how the young deceive their parents, the necessity for forgiveness (a biggie with the Bard), the choreography of love itself. And there's also a very Bardian flip at the end when Bianca, supposedly the sweet innocent sister, turns out to be something quite different. I knew that there was not a thing on that list that was irrelevant in 1985-1986--nearly 400 years after the Bard wrote the play.

I also knew that I had formidable obstacles to deal with--the pervasive notion that Shakespeare is "hard" and "boring," the students' unfamiliarity with the Elizabethan world, with Italian geography (the play has two settings: Padua and Verona), and, of course, with the language. I knew I would have to deal with all of them in some fashion before we could really engage the text.

NEXT TIME: So how did it go, that first attempt with Shrew?

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 9

It was a brutally hot and humid August day in our southern Ohio town when Harriet burst through our new screen door crying my name. I was sprawled out on the new couch reading a fairly new book about Niagara Falls.[i] It was so hot that I’d figured a book about a waterfall would cool me off—and it kind of did, mostly because I got so interested in it that I completely forgot about all the humidity and the heat. Then … here came Harriet …
I was used to this, though. She’d been doing it since we were little girls. No knocking. No announcements. Just in she came, usually with a whirlwind of words swirling around her. Today was no exception. She sometimes spoke so quickly that her sentences seemed like a single giant word. I’m going to give you an example, and I’ve put the first letter of each word in bold so you can at least figure out what she said—just to give you an idea what she was capable of.
It took her a while to slow down, but she didn’t add anything really new, so I’m not going to give you the rest. And I’m also not going to write her words like this again—but I just wanted to give you an idea what it was like. (I’ve sometimes thought that Vickie would have made a good German, for the German language loves to create l-o-n-g compound words and l-o-n-g sentences with the verb at the end.)
I looked up at her. She was hot. Sweating. She’d probably run all the way from the school, where she’d been going every day—sometimes twice a day—to see if they’d put up the tryout announcement yet. (There’d been an article in the paper about it.)
I said, “There used to be a huge rock above Niagara Falls, 6000 square feet. They called it Table Rock. It eventually all fell in the Niagara River.”
Harriet stared at me. She was used to this strategy on my part, too—talking about books I was reading while she was trying to tell me something she thought was really important. Like cheerleading tryouts.
“Charles Dickens—remember him? A Christmas Carol?—well, he once stood on Table Rock and wrote ‘Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart.’”
Harriet did not look happy. “Victoria”—she called me Victoria when she was on the edge of anger—“if you don’t—”
“And did you know that the Falls once just plain stopped falling?”
Victoria Stone!
“Yes?” I asked calmly. I knew I’d reached my limit. Time to act civilized—time to act like a friend. Which I was.
“You know, Vickie, no person on earth can make me as mad as you can.”
“Sorry.” I paused. “What about Blue Boyle?”
She laughed. “I said ‘person,’ remember?”
And now I was laughing.
“So,” I said, “I guess you’re going to try out for cheerleader?”
She looked at me as if I were the dumbest duckling in the farmyard. “Of course!” she said. “You know I am! And it’s for two seasons, Vickie—football and basketball. It will be so much fun! And we’ll all be together till spring!
Of course, I knew she was going to try out. How could I not know? I could hear her out in her yard, sometimes for more than an hour, chanting, presumably jumping up and down and waving and splitting and trying to look sexy—which, for her, was not getting to be too hard. Harriet had matured quickly—physically. She looked much older than she was—a look that had gotten us into trouble back on Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie.
“So …,” I began, “… you’re telling me this … because …?”
“Because, Vickie, I want you to try out with me.”
“Vickie? Won’t you?”
“Why not? You’re cute. And you—”
“C’mon, Harriet. You know I’m not interested.”
She got a pouty look on her face.
“Oh, look, I’m not criticizing you. You’re my best friend. You can do whatever you want, and it’s fine with me.” I paused. “Except sneaking aboard another yacht on Lake Erie and nearly getting us killed.”
Harriet no longer looked puffy with indignation. She softened, deflated, smiled. “Well, okay. I figured you wouldn’t. But I just want to ask. To make sure.”
“And that’s why we’re best friends,” I said. And I meant it.
“Awwwww,” said Harriet. She came over and tried to hug me—kind of hard to do when one person is standing, the other flopped on the couch. It was awkward, but each of us knew what it meant. “See you later!” she cried. And sprinted for the back door. “Gotta practice!” Her words floating back at me as she banged out the screen door.
“I’ll see you in the spring,” I said softly.

[i] Based on some of the things Vickie says here and elsewhere, I’m guessing this is probably Pierre Berton’s very fine book Niagara: A History of the Falls (McClelland & Stewart, 1992).

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Journey to RICHARD II (Part 8)

Harmon Middle School
Aurora, Ohio
In the fall of 1985 I was beginning my fourth year back at Harmon Middle School after a hiatus of four years. Some things were the same that year: I had all the eighth graders in English; our textbooks were the same. But there was one very big change: Our son, Steve, was in my class.

We had started Steve at Harmon at the end of the first marking period during his sixth grade year. He'd had a lousy situation in Hudson (a very bad teacher with whom he had to spend most of the day), and the administration had been unwilling to make any alterations. So Joyce and I agreed to yank him out of Hudson and transfer him to Harmon, where I knew I would be paying tuition for an out-of-district student but where I also knew he would have some of the best teachers of his life. And he did. (He knows it, too, and when he was a legislator in Ohio, he instituted something called the "Harmon Commission," which sought to encourage innovative teaching--the sort he'd known in middle school; he's a Democrat, however, so when Ohio's political climate changed in 2010, he lost his bid for a third term, and the Harmon Commission went buh-bye.)

It was tough for him, at first, being in a new school a couple of months after it had started. One of my saddest memories is "spying" on him out at lunch the first day. He went to a table, all by himself, and was sitting there, alone, nibbling at his little brown-bag lunch, while my heart was disintegrating. But then--bless those Harmon kids!--a group swept him up, took him to their table, and soon he formed friendships that have been among the most meaningful of his life. He joined athletic teams (basketball), joined clubs (bicycle club, with Denny Reiser, was one of them), played in the band with the Brookharts, participated in seven school play productions, all directed by his Old Man.

I should add that not all was totally novel for him there. He knew many of the teachers (my friends), had attended any number of events there, had helped me out over the summer in my classroom, etc. Still ... he didn't know many (any?) kids, and their welcome of him still makes my heart swell.

The 1985-1986 school year was my twentieth in education. I'd taught twelve years in Aurora, one at Lake Forest College, two at Western Reserve Academy, one at Kent State University, and was, as I said, beginning my fourth year back in Aurora. By then, I think I'd become a much better teacher than I'd been in some of those early years. I was more--what?--assiduous about preparation, about grading, about doing all the other tasks that this most demanding profession ... demands. I was also more confident--a bit more sure that the things I was doing were (a) effective and (b) worthwhile. (Some times I was still spectacularly wrong.)

But having Steve in class was like a jolt of Jolt. Before he was my student, we had gotten along great; he loved and respected me (and vice-versa); I didn't want anything to mess that up. So as I was preparing for that year--and throughout that year--I discovered that there were more levels of effort above the ones where I'd been operating.  This was a surprise: I thought I'd been working as hard as I could.  I was wrong.

It was that year, I think, that I started becoming obsessive about my profession--determined to learn everything about the subjects I was teaching. It was that year that I began--or at least intensified--the trips to literary sites (including cemeteries!), the obsessive reading, and the other signs of madness that characterized my behavior--in and out of the classroom--after that.

And nowhere was this more evident than my decision that year to introduce my eighth graders to Shakespeare. In 1985-1986, I was still pretty much a dummy about the Bard. Oh, yes, I'd taught a few of the plays at Western Reserve Academy; I'd seen movies, been to a few productions (I'd seen former Aurora Jaguars John Mlinek and Dave Prittie (AHS class of 1972) play, respectively, Hamlet and Laertes in KSU's production of Hamlet--talk about a thrill), had read many of the plays (not yet all of them).

But Shakespeare with middle-schoolers?  I'd actually been opposed to the idea earlier in my career. But now it seemed like a great idea.  I thought about plays the kids could relate to and quickly settled on The Taming of the Shrew--for reasons I'll get into next time!

TO BE CONTINUED: Shrew at Harmon School, 1986-1993.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 8

I think I need to bring you up to date, a little (or refresh your memory), about Harriet and me. As I’ve said, we were best friends, a relationship that had begun back before we were even in school. Her family (she was an only child) moved in next door to us, and soon we were practically living in each other’s house—though, to be accurate, she was at our house far more than I was at hers. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but there was lots of tension between her parents, and I felt, always a kind of vague discomfort when I was there. Sometimes I felt Dr. Eastbrook staring at me. His eyes, I thought, looked angry. And I could not figure out why.
He never said anything—or did anything. But I could tell. Something about me worried him—or angered him. Once I said something to Harriet about it, but she looked at me as if I’d just told her that chocolate chip cookies didn’t taste good. (Harriet, remember, loved to eat.) So I dropped it. And it wasn’t too long before her father, Dr. Eastbrook, took off and left his wife and Harriet all alone.
But not for long. My father sort of adopted them, and he and Mrs. Eastbrook became good friends—very good friends after a while. (It took Harriet and me a long time to catch on to this.) They ate at our house a lot—and we ate there, too. We spent holidays together. Mrs. Eastbrook worked at Father’s newspaper for a little while, then moved on to become head librarian when old Mrs. Lodore suddenly died in her desk chair. (Mrs. Lodore, by the way, was the sister of Mrs. Bishop, the part-time librarian I mentioned earlier. They were both ancient, Harriet and I thought.)
Soon, strange things began to happen, things that tested our friendship—and our families’ friendship. Dr. Eastbrook reappeared quite by accident when we were in third grade. While our class was on a spring field trip to Middle Island in the Ohio River, we found that he had been conducting bizarre experiments on dead and living creatures—including our former classmate Blue Boyle. Right on Middle Island. When I saw Blue through the fog that day, he was as large and muscular as a professional football player. But he saved me from Dr. Eastbrook in what may well have been the last decent deed of Blue’s life.
And, more recently, in the summer after sixth grade we found Dr. Eastbrook again, this time conducting his experiments in an abandoned lighthouse on Green Island in Lake Erie. Blue Boyle was there, too—looking even more monstrous. He very nearly killed Harriet and me, and it was only by the greatest good fortune that we escaped—again.
But when we got back to southern Ohio, a tornado greeted us, a twister that did some damage around town but seemed most interested in our house. Again, Harriet and I barely survived it. It took the rest of the summer for workmen to do the repairs, but throughout the fall there were still days when they were in—or on—our house.
As you might expect, these bizarre events affected how the Eastbrooks and the Stones related to one another. Although there were initial flares of romance between our parents, both Harriet and I knew something had happened; something was cooling between them, perhaps caused by the cold breath of fear—or of worry about their children. We were together less.
And as I also wrote in the previous installment of these papers, Harriet had been drifting off on a path much different from mine. I, always interested in books and research, was spending more and more time in our library—or in my basement laboratory (which Harriet had never seen). And she had lots of popular friends she liked to spend time with, as I’ve said, and then, later in the summer after sixth grade, something happened that widened the divide. Cheerleader tryouts.[i]

[i] Vickie tells about all of these events in great detail in I Discover Who I Am.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Visit with the Oncologist

Site of Seidman Cancer Center
Chagrin Falls, OH
Yesterday (Monday) I returned to the Seidman Cancer Center of University Hospitals up in Chagrin. It was time. Three months have passed since my hormone-deprivation therapy commenced in late July. I took bicaludamide for a month and added a quarterly injection of Lupron in July, too.  And we crossed our fingers.

My side effects have not been excessively odious. I do have periods of extreme heat (as often as once an hour), but those periods don't last very long (a few minutes), have diminished in frequency lately--and they have not ever been debilitating--have never stopped me from doing what I'm doing. They've just made made me more aware of myself (which I don't like).  And, of course, my libido is behaving like the Cowardly Lion.  [TMI WARNING] I made the doctor laugh today when I told him I have had a few erotic dreams lately. I told him it was as if the feral part of my brain were saying, Hey! Come on!  We used to have fun!  Remember?  I do. Oh yes, I do.  But, for now (forever?) the Cowardly Lion cowers.

Some better news: My PSA test last week detected no measurable amount of the Prostate Specific Antigen--a great sign. Prior to my recent therapies my PSA had risen to 22.9.  (I should have no PSA: Surgeons removed my prostate in June 2005.)  When they took a measure a couple of months ago, it had fallen to 0.59.  Now, as I said, it's undetectable.  This is good news--some men don't respond at all to the therapy.

But I know that it's also temporary news. Some of my cancer cells will eventually figure out a "work-around" and will begin reproducing once again, ignoring the Lupron. The average time for this, I'm told, is 18-24 months.  Could be much more than that--or it could be sooner. I'm likely to be sooner since my post-surgical biopsy revealed a grim, aggressive cancer. But I'm not going to think about that (much!) until my numbers start moving northward again.

There were some worrisome numbers on my blood test for liver function--but they were out of whack with what I'd manifested only a couple of months earlier, so I repeated the test Monday--but do not yet know the results.  So this was a "two-prick" day: once in the arm (liver test), once in the derrière (Lupron).  (I'm leaning forward a little in my desk chair right now ... guess why?)  But I don't go back till January--so that's good.

When I got home yesterday--a phone call. My primary care physician, who'd asked me to keep track of my blood pressure for a few weeks, now thinks that my numbers show borderline hypertension (gee, wonder why?), so she's going to put me on a "very low dose" of something whose name I've forgotten since I haven't been over to the pharmacy yet to pick it up.  We'll see how that affects me.

And so I think these days of some of my favorite lines from Coleridge (whose birthday was yesterday) in his poem "Youth and Age"--lines I've quoted here before ...

When I was young? – Ah, woeful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong ...

(Here's a link to the whole poem--and another link to YouTube, where you can hear a British woman read the text while you stare at a cover of a book--sound enticing?)

Sitting in the waiting room yesterday, Joyce beside me, I started thinking of an image--not one all that pleasant.  Most of us who sit (or who have sat) in medical waiting rooms for various reasons often have a loved one in an adjacent chair. That presence is priceless. But in the other chair on our other side, of course, sits Death. He may be there is his greedy phase--wanting you very, very soon, letting you know in ways unsubtle. Or he may be a pale shadow, faint in the artificial light. Barely visible. But there, oh, most definitely there.  (He's always been nearby, of course; most of the time we ignore the sensation--or pretend we don't see or know.)

Joyce on one side, Death on the other.

No contest. I prefer the former.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 7


 I didn’t know the team had lost to Ingol High School until Monday morning. I suppose I should have. The silence should have told me. When the team won, the streets were full of honking cars, flashing lights, cheering voices. But not on this most recent Friday night. Just silence. And on Monday, at school, I didn’t even have to ask anyone. The entire atmosphere of the school was black.
Here’s what I mean: In the morning, all the students had to gather in the huge commons area of the building before we were permitted back in the locker and classroom area at 7:52—precisely 7:52. Schools are weird about time. Everywhere else runs on normal intervals: half-hours, hours. But schools have classes that end at 8:53, and the next one starts at 8:58. And some teachers stand there staring at their clocks, just hoping you’ll be late so they can slam the door in your face and send you to the office to get a late pass. Stupid.
Anyway, that Monday after the homecoming game, the commons was deathly quiet the entire morning, kids sitting soberly in chairs, heads drooped as if their guppies had died—or their sneakers had gone out of style. When I discovered the reason—We lost the game!—I felt my own dark mood begin to lighten. But not much.
I tried on a small smile. But it didn’t make me feel any better, so I deleted it.
“Oh, it’s so awful!” I looked beside me. Harriet. Her face was red and swollen. She looked as if someone had been slapping her around, but I knew she’d just been crying all weekend.
“I know,” I said dryly. “I’ll never understand why they don’t let us back in the building before 7:52.”
“Vickie! I’m not talking about the clock!” And she started to blubber again.
“Aw, Harriet, don’t cry. I hate it when you do that.” And I did. I loved Harriet Eastbrook.  Off and on, she was the best friend I’d ever had—and probably ever would have. I didn’t care for her current occupation—cheerleader—but I knew that she was still Harriet and was entitled to act crazy for a while.
“Then don’t make fun of me,” she sobbed.
“I wasn’t making fun of you,” I lied. “It’s just that, you know, I don’t really care about football, and—”
“It’s not about football!” Harriet cried. “It’s about school spirit!”
Fortunately, the bell rang—so loudly that I couldn’t hear her wailing any longer. And the slow, sad herd, mooing and moaning, moved on to home room.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Journey to RICHARD II (Part 7)

Richard II
Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA, summer 2013
It's been two months since I left you hanging with Part 6 in this series about my journey through Shakespeare world, a journey that has not ended but which did have a sort of culmination in July when Joyce and I saw Richard II at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass., the last of the Bard's three dozen plays we had not ever seen in a live stage production.  In fact, I've left you hanging so long that you've probably forgotten you were hanging!  Well, remember: You are hanging--that's the sort of choking sensation you've been experiencing since mid-August.

Anyway, here's a link to Part 6--in case you want to refresh your memory.  That episode ended as I was about to teach Shakespeare for the first time in my life. Western Reserve Academy, fall 1979.  Frosh (Julius Caesar) and juniors (Hamlet).

At that time, as I've written, I knew very, very little about the Bard. I'd recently padded my thin volume of knowledge by reading Anthony Burgess' 1970 biography of Shakespeare, had made 35mm slides of photographs from that book to show my students, and--perhaps the brightest move of all--had purchased the Arden
Shakespeare editions of the two plays I was going to teach.  The Arden editions are superior--full of notes and explanations and maps and chronologies for readers like the Ignorant Me of Then.  (The students had different, inferior editions, so my Arden-gleaned information made it seem in class as if I knew more than I actually did. Oh, the lengths to which we teachers will go to make sure our students don't discover too quickly how ill-prepared we are!)

And--surprise, surprise--I had fun teaching those two plays.  We read aloud a lot (it really helps with Shakespeare to hear the words), we stopped and talked, we wondered what-the-hell some of those words meant, we saw a film, we memorized "To be or not to be."  That first year, I gave the kids the option of "To be" or an equivalent number of lines from another speech in the play. And one waggish junior picked the "rogue and peasant slave" speech (I think)--but on his quiz, once he got to the requisite number of lines, he simply stopped--even though he was in the middle of a sentence! He got it all right, got a perfect score-but I was ticked. It seemed to evince something malodorous, that behavior of his.

Those techniques I would continue to use throughout my career--greatly modified and enriched (I hope). As I grew in confidence with the Bard--and with my own role as a teacher--I became less worried about what I didn't know. The more scholarship I read about Shakespeare, the more I realized that no one knows it all--or understands it all. In some footnotes to the plays, I sometimes found something like this: Uncertain meaning.  No kidding.  And I discovered as well how virtually every reading (or viewing) of a play revealed something new to me that I'd missed the previous times.

I left WRA after only two years (1979-81)--a salary snit--and taught a couple of sections of freshman comp at Kent State University (no Bard), then returned to Harmon School in Aurora in the fall of 1982 to teach eighth graders.  No Shakespeare.

Until the fall of 1985--and that year I began teaching the Bard at Harmon--and following the anfractuous path that would lead me, eventually, to Richard II.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

ADVENTURES IN READING (1958-1959): Conclusion

It's been fun for me, looking over the literature anthology we used in English 9 at Hiram High School, 1958-1959. Fun for you?  Not likely.  But there are few people more self-centered than a blogger, so there you go.

The other day, I heard from a former 9th grade classmate who told me he didn't really remember anything about that book.  I probably would not have done so, either, had I not, about eight years down the road, become an English teacher myself--though I'm fairly confident that I never had the, uh, varied "effects" that Mrs. Browning had on her class!

I remember several embarrassing episodes from her class.  Here's one.  One day I was, sotto voce, telling a naughty joke to friend in a seat nearby. The joke had a manual component (I had to do something with my hands).  When I reached that part of the joke, Mrs. Browning looked right at me and said, "I hope that's not the same joke I know!"

The temperature in the room immediately spiked, principally because my face had somehow transformed into a space-heater.  And then I had to restrain myself because my joke-receiving friend muttered: "I bet it is!"  He, by the say, would later write a short story for her class, a story that featured a sexual encounter by the college tennis courts.  I thought he was wildly crazy to write about that.  (My own story?  Can't remember, but it was probably about baseball, which is all I knew anything at all about in those days.)

But when my friend Paul got that story back, he had an A on it--and a great comment about how he had a future as a writer.  That was a message Mrs. Browning never wrote on any of my contributions.  I resolved to write about sex the next time.

But didn't.  (1) I knew nothing about it (I was a very young 14.) (2) I was chicken. (3) My family would not have understood. Mom, especially, would have felt right at home in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (would she have jeered Hester on the scaffold? wouldn't be surprised). Had I written about sex (ignorant or no), she would have erected stocks in our front yard and locked me in them for, oh, a decade or so.  Maybe longer.

So ... based on what the editors of Adventures in Reading had in mind, why do we read at all?  The editors focuses on several things--general vocabulary development (it is a better way to learn words, by the way, than from lists [says the hypocrite, who gave out lists]); specific vocabulary development (literary terms); cultural literacy (there were famous names and texts in that anthology); enjoyment (some of the pieces were just pure fun); genre education (the editors introduced us to short story, varieties of poems and plays, some types of nonfiction, the novel); literary history and biography (there were sections about the lives of the writers, about the historical contexts of the writers); general reading improvement (different texts demanded different skills of us).

Noticeably missing are "lessons" that more contemporary anthologies teach us--principally that's it's not just Dead White Men who can write well.  That is a lesson that did not occur to the me of 1958-1959, though I can't speak for the girls in the class, who surely were sick of reading pieces that came almost entirely from the pens of long-dead men. And Hiram High School was entirely White during my four years.  Almost entirely Protestant, as well.  And Adventures in Reading didn't really do anything to show me the vast cultural and racial and religious galaxies out there that I knew absolutely nothing about. (I may have thought that George Washington Carver was the only Black of note in U. S. history!)

During my own 45-year teaching career, I shared some of the objectives of the editors of Adventures in Reading. After all, when I began, I didn't really know much else. Literature was a discipline, an art. And I believed it was my task to help kids know the vocabulary of that discipline, to understand the dimensions and varieties of that art.  But what I neglected early on was something both simple and difficult: the human heart.

I don't read all the books I do because I admire the technique (though it can be wonderful) or am in awe of the artistry (ditto). I read to learn things, sure, but I also read to be moved.  To learn things about the lives of others, to explore the vastness of the heart.

I wasn't always too good about communicating that to my students, especially early in my career.  But, later on, I worked to make it part of our discussions. (Didn't always succeed.)  Remember the scene in Hamlet when Laertes, about to return to university, has a "big-brother" chat with his sister, Ophelia?  The advice he gave her?  We talked in my classes at Western Reserve Academy about that encounter--and many (especially the boarding students) saw, I think, the relevance of that Shakespearean exchange.

At WRA, I also loved the moment when Hester Prynne tells the dissolving Arthur Dimmesdale in the woods (near the end of the book), "Thou shalt not go alone."  That situation--that line--gave me goose-flesh every time I read it or discussed it in class for the decade I taught The Scarlet Letter.

At Hiram's Weekend College, when I taught Othello to adults (many were in the 30s, 40s, and older), I used to begin with this: Did any of you ever feel you were passed over for a promotion? Have any of you ever felt betrayed by your lover?  Oh, my!  They were "into" Othello before we read a word.

At Harmon School in Aurora it was not too hard to get the 8th graders to relate to Anne Frank, who was, in some very fundamental ways, a classmate. Or to Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, who was struggling to make his way in a hostile world. Or to the "merry war" between the sexes in Much Ado about Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew. Or even to Frankenstein's creature--an outsider, abandoned, rejected (feelings that, oh, a few middle school kids have had in their lives!).

The great questions of life--birth, family, identity, purpose, education, love, labor, friendship, betrayal, success, failure, sickness, death--all of these (and more) lie--and sometimes seethe--in the pages of our enduring literature. To the extent that I ignored--or diminished--these topics early, and even late, in my career: shame on me.  To the extent that the current standardized testing maniacs ignore them, double shame.  (Hey, they're hard to measure; much easier to determine if a kid knows what a simile is.)

Great literature flows from the heart--and offers us a vessel of words. Invites us aboard. Dares us to explore. I am happy--fortunate--to still be aboard that vessel, sailing in search of brave new worlds, exhilarated by my adventures in reading.