Dawn Reader

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

Friday, May 6, 2016

WRA Speech, Part 2 of 3

I've decided to post the text of the speech I gave at WRA on April 8. It was part of a lecture series named for Keir Marticke, a WRA student who graduated in 2002 and, tragically, died during a trip to Vietnam while she was in college. Her father and brother were in the audience.

PS--I should note (pride, pride, oh fatal pride!) that all the poems I reproduce here are lines I recited from memory during the talk.

So, anyway … I got to love Shakespeare so much that whenever one of my students said You seem to know a lot about Shakespeare? I would reply: Not as much as he knows about me.
That’s a lie. Oh, I wish I’d really said that! But I didn’t. I found it on Facebook about a month ago, on one of the Shakespeare sites I’ve “liked.” I just can’t lie about it—because my mother will somehow know, and then I’ll be dealing with some serious consequences. Daniel Osborn Dyer, you told a lie? In a chapel?!?
But that Facebook meme is true: Once you hack your way through the thickets of unfamiliar language, you realize the Bard is talking to you. About you. I get gooseflesh, thinking about it.
Anyway, in his wonderful mid-career play As You Like It—1599–1600—written just before Twelfth Night and Hamlet—there is a dark character named Jaques, the dark dark kind of dark dark dark guy who always has something dark-dark-dark-dark to say—remember Rachel Dratch playing Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live? (If not, YouTube it.) I’m betting Debbie Downer was based on Jaques!
In Act II, Scene 7, Jaques delivers one of the most famous speeches in the entire English language … name of it, anyone? Yep. “All the world’s a stage.” Or “The Seven Ages of Man.” Here’s what he says … but first a few odd words it will help you to know before I launch into this.
All the world’s a stage,
            And all the men and women merely players:
            They have their exits and their entrances;     
            And one man in his time plays many parts,
            His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
            Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.       Whimpering, crying weakly
            And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
            And shining morning face, creeping like snail
            Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
            Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad     An enclosed chamber to melt metal
            Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
            Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,         leopard
            Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,        
            Seeking the bubble reputation
            Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
            In fair round belly with good capon lined,     a castrated rooster—for tender meat
            With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
            Full of wise saws and modern instances;        sayings
            And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
            Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
            With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
            His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
            For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,        
            Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
            And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
            That ends this strange eventful history,
            Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
            Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.      without

I know, I know: That performance would not have impressed the judges at your recent Shakespeare contest. I know. I was one of those judges—and I’m not impressed.
But in that speech, you see how Shakespeare—more than 400 years ago—recognized that we are babies (sort of) twice in our lives (if we live long enough): at the beginning, at the end. Our final years. Second childishness, he called it. We all know that there are some cultures that revere rather than fear or infantilize the aged. How would you characterize ours?
Now … speaking of all this—a brief story about our other grandson, Carson, who just turned seven last Sunday. Not long ago, I was talking with my family about today—and Carson told me about a poem he liked, a poem by Shel Silverstein. (Oops, I just weakened my own argument: I listened to a kid!) I’ll bet some of you will remember this one from Silverstein’s book The Light in the Attic—a poem that in some ways is a kid’s version of that key idea in “All the world’s a stage ….” Here it is ...
The Little Boy and the Old Man by Shel Silverstein

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
Okay, back to As You Like It. At the end—as is common in Shakespeare’s comedies—there is a wedding. Actually, there are four weddings, and then, in a surprise, Hymen—the god of marriage—shows up to solemnize it all ...
Another mild digression!—sorry—can’t help it—dotage—a story about a shocking moment in my middle school teaching career: Back in February 1996, I took a carload of eighth graders to see As You Like It down at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland. The kids loved the performance—especially the end, when Hymen appears. Here’s why: He was naked (well, not totally) and covered entirely in green-and-gold body paint—and glitter, head to toe. The kids erupted while I tried to pretend that … well, that everything was, you know, Shakespeare. Not dirty! This is culture! And in the car, on the way home, the girls—especially—could not stop talking about the end of the show—about the character they were now calling “The Glitter Guy.”
(By the way, near the end of the play, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark Jaques, who can’t stand all this happiness and light and partying and marrying, exits to go live, he says, in a cave.

I have to say that in some specific, limited ways we do listen to the young nowadays far more than when I was a kid. Let me give you a little For Instance: In my boyhood—long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away—there was a handbook on manners  called Etiquette written by Emily Post. This is my mother’s actual copy, published in 1939, five years before I was born. (She was getting ready for me!) There are chapters called “Manners for Motorists,” “Popularity, Fraternity House Party, and Commencement” (seniors, you should check that out), and “The Fundamentals of Good Behavior.”
Here’s one little bit of advice for parents concerning a child’s behavior in a little subsection called “Talking at Table”:
When older people are present at table and a child wants to say something, he must be taught to stop eating momentarily and look at his mother, who at the first pause in the conversation will say, “What is it, dear?” And the child then has his say. If he wants simply to launch forth on a long subject of his own conversation, his mother says, “Not now, darling!” or “Don’t you see that mother is talking to Aunt Mary?” (748).
Is it too obvious to say, “Times have changed”?
Here’s another change—at the movies. On the screen, young people—girls and boys—are doing things that never occurred in the movies of my childhood. Like smoking, drinking, drugging, swearing, … Glitter Guy stuff. And kicking butt. When I was growing up, the only characters who kicked butt were full-grown white men. For example, in The Lone Ranger TV series (1949–1957), the Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto (a Native American), was constantly losing fights to white men; the Ranger had to rescue him.
Nowadays, anyone can be an butt-kicker. Back in 2010, for example, I saw the film Kick-Ass, which features a young girl (she’s eleven!) who’s a martial arts expert and has little trouble dispatching the Big Bad Guys. Sometimes, too, as you know, teenagers in films even save the world. The earliest film I remember showing that was War Games in 1983.
And in other sorts of films—family dramas—the young nowadays are sometimes the Wise Ones; it’s the adults who are clueless and messed-up. How many times have you seen this? Messed-Up Dad or Messed-Up Mom hearing, if not welcoming, advice from Wise Teen about how the parent ought to be handling things.
That’s the exact opposite of the films and TV shows when I was a kid. Then, the kids were messed up or confused, and in highly popular TV shows like Father Knows Best,  the wise parents/adults helped the young navigate the torrents of their childhood and teenage years.

            Wise young people do appear in “serious” literature now and then. When I was teaching English III here in my most recent stint, I always used to assign Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There’s a very quiet moment early in that novel, a moment that I love. Huck has run away from his violent, drunken, even homicidal father and is hiding out on a Mississippi River island near his hometown. While Huck’s there, he discovers he’s not alone. Jim is there too. Jim—an adult black slave Huck knows very well. Huck learns that Jim has also run away and is hoping to find and rescue his wife and children, who were sold elsewhere.
[Pause: While I was typing this, auto-correct changed Huck to Yuck.]
Both these runaways—a young white boy, an adult African American—realize they should join forces, and literary scholars now rank the story of their subsequent journey on a raft down the Mississippi River among the very best in all of American literature.
But, as I said, on that island there’s a quiet moment of immense significance that, if you’re not careful, can slip right by you (as it did me the first dozen times or so I read the novel). Huck and Jim, on the island, decide that Huck will slip into town to try to discover what’s going on. Do people know where they are? Or are people believing their cover stories?
Jim and Huck have found some old clothing from a house washed away in a Mississippi flood, and Jim suggests that when Huck goes into town, he should dress as a girl. So he puts on a dress and practices walking and talking like a girl. Observing, Jim tells him a couple of things he ought to do differently. And Huck says, I took notice, and done better (67).
When we looked at that passage in class, I always asked my English III-ers if they saw anything remarkable going on. Silence. Silence. Silence. (Teacher waits, waits, waits.) Then—pretty soon—someone would see it and say: “A white boy’s listening to a black man.” You betcha. But not just any white boy—a white boy in a border state some twenty years or so before the Civil War, a white boy who thinks black slavery is normal, a white boy who’s nonetheless taking advice from a runaway slave!
I took notice, and done better. I love that sentence, for it shows the true wisdom of the young, the inexperienced—the rest of us, really—all of us—discovering someone worth listening to, then doing it. Listening. Learning. Changing. This, I’m suggesting, is a trait you want to keep alive throughout your life. When you start thinking that you have nothing more to learn from anyone else, well, that’s when you’re now a tree that’s stopped growing and is rapidly turning into firewood.
This has been one of the most astonishing discoveries for me on Facebook. I am friends with former students all the way back to the beginning of my career. My first seventh graders—back when I was a BOY— are now in their early sixties. And some of those “kids” have spent the last fifty years growing; others seem really unchanged in any fundamental way since I first knew them at age 12. They are like that Copper Age man found in a glacier in the Alps in 1991. Frozen in the past. And the scary part? Some of these “frozen kids” were among the most talented youngsters I ever taught.

So … when we’re little, we listen to the Big People (family, adults), mostly because we don’t know what else to do—and we kind of have to: They’re big, you know? And the Big People? They teach us pretty much everything. Along the way, of course, we get better at educating ourselves. We create and engage our sifting mechanism. Good from bad. Useful from useless. Sensible from nonsensical.
And later on, in school, we find some new Big People to listen to (teachers, coaches), but we also begin listening to one another. I remember going home and quoting things my friends had said as if those words had come from Aristotle or had descended from Mount Sinai with Moses.  (My parents were not generally all that impressed with my cafeteria and locker room wisdom.)
Years later, I realized that there actually were some Big People among my boyhood friends—the ones who somehow had wise hearts, a wonderful phrase I learned from my wife. Yes, I’d had friends whose young, wise hearts somehow knew what was kind, what was cruel, what was helpful, hurtful. Wrong. Keir Marticke was like that—a young woman with a wise heart.
Huck Finn was such a person too. Though when the novel first came out in the 1880s—and even much later—many adults were horrified by Huck’s rough ungrammatical language, his smoking, his truancy, his stealing (“borrowing,” he called it), his ragged clothing and the like—Horrible examples for children! But Huck’s wise heart has endured.

Sometimes, though (as we all know), the young can be a bit … slow … to begin their pursuit of wisdom? Sometimes (I'll use myself as an example) it’s because I thought I really got pretty much what was going on. I was thinking about this point a few weeks ago when I happened to see a newspaper cartoon—Zits. Do you know it? A cartoon about a high schooler named Jeremy—his family his friends, his girlfriend, Sara. Anyway, in the one I'm thinking of, Jeremy and his mom are sitting at the opposite ends of the couch. Both of them are thinking. Above her head it says This world is becoming such a complex and confusing place! And he’s thinking: I pretty much have everything figured out.
And have you noticed how commonly films show how, well, how immature young men can be? Those films most commonly are comedies, comedies that generally end with the young man moving toward a hard-won maturity. A decade ago, Judd Apatow made a fortune with that formula—The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and others. Films full of hilariously immature young men. More recently, there’s been 21 and 22 Jump Street. Horrible Bosses 1 and 2. You could probably name a score of others.
But things must have ever been thus, for that plot has been around for a long, long time. One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Love’s Labour’s Lost (mid-1590s). (Gonna see it again next Friday!) It tells about the young King of Navarre (southwest France/northern Spain). The young King and three of his young buddies decide they will hang out in the King’s castle and focus on their studies, avoiding the company of women for three years. They swear a vow to one another. Then they sign it—with great ceremony. In fact, it’s the very first thing to happen in the play. Bros forever!
Well, no sooner have they done all this vowing and swearing and signing than a princess of France arrives (her entourage includes some beautiful followers and friends). She’s come to collect an old debt for her father. True to his oath, the King of Navarre forces the women to set up camp outside the castle.
But then—of course—the young men see these women, and, of course, all bets are off. And of course the young men don’t want their buddies to know what they’re up to, so, of course, they all go sneaking around to be with their latest passion. Later, realizing sheepishly that all of them have broken the vow, they join forces to invade the women’s camp. They disguise themselves as visiting Russians, dancing into the camp of the young women, who are not fooled a bit. But they play along for fun. Soon, they pair off, and it looks as if Love has arrived—as if it’s time for The Glitter Guy!
But at this moment of brightness—of hope—Shakespeare—sneaky, sneaky Will Shakespeare!—turns out the lights. A messenger arrives from France. The princess’ father, the French King, has died. The women quickly prepare to head for home. While the men urge them to marry first. And the women say, basically: Hey, you guys all broke your vows to one another—almost immediately! How can we possibly trust you? (Oh, snap!) The guys try to assure them (Hey, baby, come on now—chill!), but the women aren’t buying it. They say: Go away and help make the world a better place. Grow up. We’ll check in on you next year. Curtain!

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