About two weeks ago one of my 9th graders was struggling with an assignment. Honestly, she’s been struggling with English. In my school, there’s a very large Hispanic population, a fair number of which speak English as a second language.
So you can imagine that teaching Shakespeare isn’t always a bowl of laughs nor the romp through the verdant gardens of knowledge that it’s often made out to be. Cartman pretending to be Jamie Escalante from Stand and Deliver, saying, “How do I reech these keeds!” is probably the closest I can get to how it feels to try to accomplish this act.
This girl has not been doing her work, because she is frustrated. She’s frustrated because she doesn’t understand what we’re doing, she’s frustrated because her parents can’t help her, she frustrated because she’s in a class full of people who honestly don’t give a damn about their education. She could do the work, and while she wants to do it, she feels she can’t because it’s Shakespeare and she can just understand regular English.
She’s frustrated because she’s genuinely, scarily smart but she’s failing because of the language barrier, because she’s smart enough to no longer qualify for assistance, because she’s in a system that rewards apathy with no consequences. And while I would love to sit down with her and walk her through it, I can’t because some of the twenty other students in the classroom would try to eat each other if I turned my back on them for more than a few minutes. Seriously, no joke. It’s the end of the day and these teenage boys would eat the gum off the bottom of the desks and then gnaw on the desks.
I take a moment anyway to sit in front of her and see what’s going on. To see why she’s stopped even trying and pull her out of her funk. What I get is a lot of monosyllabic responses and no eye contact. While I’m doing this, one of the other girls, who is also scary smart, asks me how to draw a flower. I’m not an artist, like, at all, but I give it a go. That’s when this girl who has given up asks me, “Why are you trying mister? I’m not going to need Shakespeare?”
So I explain, I explain that it’s not about Shakespeare, it’s not about clauses and articles, nouns and verbs. It’s about learning, about thinking how we use language. It’s about stories that connect us and seeing life through the lenses of others.
Any one of these things does not make us understand, it’s all of it. I explained that the flower I was drawing was like that. That it doesn’t make sense until you’re almost done. (I neglected to tell her you’re never done learning, she’ll learn that on her own)
The drawing was a poor thing, really. Sad in its ugliness. I added an even uglier bee to it to “liven” it up and bit and gave it to her. I got up and went to separate one of the other students from biting the calf of another.
Toward the end of class, I noticed that she had cut the rose out of the paper I drew it on (it was her classwork, which she didn’t even do. Oh, irony) and placed it under the clear cover of her iPad. I asked why and heartbreakingly she said, “Nobody ever gave me a flower before.”
Thank God it was the end of the class, the bell rang and she didn’t see me cry. I mean, she’s only fourteen, she’s absolutely gorgeous, she’s smart and funny, so I have no doubt she’ll have lots of flowers in her life, but damn. That went straight into my heart.
She ended up failing that marking period, but she’s doing work again. And she still has that flower. In keeping that flower she’s given me something too.
A reason to keep teaching. It’s gotten harder each year for many reasons, but I keep finding another reason to go on. This year, it’s a fierce young woman with a paper rose.
Note: Because I love irony, I wrote the poem about a girl who hates Shakespeare as a Shakespearean Sonnet. It’s in pentameter, but the lines are not true Iambs so it’s a bit of a cheat, but what are you going to do.
THE GIRL WITH THE PAPER ROSE
There’s a mountain of anger in that small frame.
Passion, fear, hate for the people around her
Impatience for what I teach, for “the game.”
She flirts with ignorance. It’s how things were.
In her broken English what she tells me,
“I’m never going to need this stuff, mister.”
I hear this often. I nod and agree,
All while drawing something to assist her.
Scattered lines of blue, just a curve or two.
“What do you see?” I ask. “Just a scribble.”
A few more lines and I have a rose of blue.
“That is how I teach, you see. It’s a symbol.”
Laughing, she kept the blue rose. I asked “What for?”
“Nobody gave me a flower before.”
Previously Published on Stupid Optimism