Young and Brave and Naive and Amazingly Stupid… but Successful

A long time ago, when I was young and brave,* I herded about forty ninth-grade students onto a school bus and took them to San Antonio, thirty miles away, to a matinée performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. 

The day before the event, I learned that two girls planned to skip the trip. They were going to attend school but to sit in the library while the rest of the English class sat in a theater.

I consulted the principal. He consulted the girls. The girls decided they would go to see Romeo and Juliet with the rest of us.

English: Woodcut "Verona" from "...
English: Woodcut “Verona” from “Romeo and Juliet” from the 1847 edition of The Illustrated Shakespeare (Photo credit: Wikipedia). See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I hadn’t seen the movie and was surprised to learn that at least one major event–the sword fight between Romeo and Paris outside the Capulet tomb–had been omitted. Shakespeare’s plays are long, movies move more slowly than dramas at the Globe did, so something had to go.

Still, of all the deaths in the play–Mercutio’s, Tybalt’s, Paris’, Romeo’s, Juliet’s–Paris’ seems to me the saddest. Paris is the one innocent character: neither Montague nor Capulet, he has no enemies, seeks no revenge, but simply loves Juliet, and dies trying to prevent Romeo from (as he thinks) desecrating her tomb. Friar Laurence describes what he found in the churchyard when he came to wake Juliet:

But when I came, some minute ere the time
Of her awaking, here untimely lay
The noble Paris and true Romeo dead.
She wakes; and I entreated her come forth,
And bear this work of heaven with patience:
But then a noise did scare me from the tomb;
And she, too desperate, would not go with me,
But, as it seems, did violence on herself.

Three deaths in the last minutes of the play. Omitting one lessens the impact of the other two. But only for viewers already familiar with the play, I suppose. If you don’t know that much about Paris, you probably don’t miss him.

Something else surprised me, too: the unobstructed view of Romeo’s bare backside we got when he heard the lark and hopped out of bed. But in a theater packed with fourteen-year-olds, I heard not one giggle. That is my definition of success.**

And the day got even better. On our return to school, the principal came out to meet the bus. He and I were standing together, making sure students headed toward the building and not away from it, when the girls who’d threatened to boycott the play walked by.

“Well,” he said, “what did you think of it?”

One of them tossed her head and said over her shoulder, in the tone of bored superiority only a fourteen-year-old can produce, “They didn’t even show the scene where Paris died.”

That, dear reader, is my other definition of success.

Why do I write about R&J tonight? Because the Zeffirelli version is on the late movie, and I’m watching as I remember.

But now I’m going to turn off the television and make my way to bed.

Because I’ve already seen my favorite part, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech:

MERCUTIO
then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies o’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—

ROMEO
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.

MERCUTIO
True, I talk of dreams…

And I already know what happens later. They don’t even show the scene where Paris died.

*****

*  … and naive and amazingly stupid.

** On network TV, Romeo’s bare backside is blurry. That is my definition of turning tragedy into comedy.

True Poet

Despite all the time I’ve wasted scrolling through Facebook, I’ve received more from the site than I’ve lost. It’s allowed me to reconnect with students I taught thirty years ago.

Last night I was chatting with a member of the class of 1982. She gave me permission to link to her website. She didn’t give me permission to comment, but I will anyway. What can she do–flunk me?

I want to make it clear that I never taught Judy anything. I couldn’t have taught her anything. She already knew what she needed to know. She was a writer. A poet.

She entertained us periodically with essays describing her part-time job at a nearby country club. I have vivid memories of long, furry tendrils reaching out and wrapping themselves around her legs while she was cleaning out the walk-in refrigerator. Those memories, and others, told in nauseating detail, made me laugh even as I vowed to avoid that particular dining room.

In her junior year, Judy placed in a poetry contest at a nearby college. One of the judges said she’d wanted to place the poem higher, but it was too short. The next year, she won the competition with another poem–the same length as last year’s. I memorized it and later, when I was teaching at a local university, posted a copy of it on the door of my office.

After Judy graduated, I found her mentioned in an article in the Austin newspaper: UT student Judith Edwards had appeared at Eeyore’s Birthday Party in Pease Park wearing a python draped across her shoulders. The accessory seemed to me entirely appropriate. Her goals had never included conformity.

Here’s a link to Judy’s website: http://www.judywords.info/

Browse through her poems and stories. You’ll get an idea of the pleasure I had being her student.

***

P.S. I hesitate to add this–I mean, I hate to give readers who live outside the United States such a…truthful…view of Texas, but if you have a mind to, read Judy’s story “The Big Texan.”  She didn’t make it up. I wasn’t there, but I know it really happened.

Hansel and Gretel and Cuthbert and Me

Please don’t leave, I’m still here!  Just embroiled in getting a newsletter online before the month is out.

In the meantime,  I’m reposting this story about my friend Cuthbert, the free-thinking kindergartner. 

*

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel
Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I were to write a memoir about my years as a librarian, I would title it The Accidental Librarian.

Because the job wasn’t part of a plan. It just happened along.

One Sunday afternoon in early August, many years ago, I was sitting at home, minding my own business, when  a school administrator /old friend called and said, “You want to be the librarian?”

The previous librarian had resigned. School would start in two weeks. The principals had talked amongst themselves and designated me The Chosen.

My end of the conversation went from Who, me? to I’m not qualified to Well, I don’t know. A week later, after conferring with a dean of the UT Graduate School of Library and Information Science (UT-GSLIC, or just the Library School), I moved on to a shaky Okay.

Three years earlier, I’d completed my M.A. in English, breathed a sigh of relief, and promised myself I was finished with grad school. Oh well. I wouldn’t have to register until after Christmas.

So. The state education agency granted a waiver. I cleaned out my classroom. I gave away most of my teaching materials. I moved across the hall to the high school library. School started. I found myself with the title of District Librarian and responsibility for three campus libraries.

Which included teaching primary and elementary students two days a week. Teaching being a relative term.

I had no education about or experience with that age group. I’d seen hardly anyone below the age of fourteen for years. I was certified to teach grades six through twelve. But Learning Resources Specialist was an all-level certification.

My certification was temporary and had been granted on a technicality. But when the going gets tough…

I learned a lot. Boy, did I learn a lot. Fast.

I learned that writing one’s name at the top of the page required fifteen minutes out of a twenty-minute class.

I learned that if second graders said, “May we write in cursive?” and I said, “Of course,” the task would take thirty.

I learned that if I showed third-graders a new historical picture book about Queen Elizabeth I, the principal would ask me, months later, why I had told students that if they went into the restroom and turned off the light and said, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary,” a severed head would appear in the mirror.

I learned that fourth-grade boys love to use the unabridged dictionary, because it has some fascinating words not found in the abridged dictionary. Even the abridged unabridged dictionary has some really good words. Fourth-graders are impressed by words the rest of us don’t notice. (I almost convinced them not to become hysterical at the mention of Captain Underpants.)

The most important lesson I learned was that sometimes I wouldn’t have any idea what I’d learned. To wit:

Once upon a time, I read “Hansel and Gretel” to a class of kindergartners. My audience, sitting rapt at my feet, comprised sixteen exceptionally good listeners, a fact I later regretted.

When I reached “And they lived happily ever after,” little Cuthbert (not his real name) stopped stroking my panty-hose-clad shin and tugged on my skirt. I ceded him the floor.

“But it’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

Since he spoke kindergartner-ese, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood. Come again?

“It’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

I should have slammed the book shut right then, or pulled out the emergency duct tape, or something, anything to change the subject. But I’m not too bright, so I asked Cuthbert to elaborate.

His elaboration went like this:

When the witch tried to shove Gretel into the hot oven she was doing a good thing. Because then Hansel and Gretel would die and go to Heaven to be with God and Jesus.

I smiled a no doubt horrified smile and said something like But But But. And, while Cuthbert explained even more fully, I did a quick analysis of my options:

a) If I said, No, the witch did a bad thing, because it is not nice to cook and eat little boys and girls, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy said it’s bad to go to Heaven and be with God and Jesus.

b) If I said, Yes, the witch did a good thing, because cooking and eating little boys and girls ensures their immediate transport Heavenward, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy condoned cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. Plus witchcraft. Plus reading a book about a witch, which in our Great State is sometimes considered more damaging than the murder/cannibalism package.

c) Anything I said might be in complete opposition to what Cuthbert’s mother had told him on this topic, and he would report that to her, and then I would get to have a conference that would not be nearly so much fun as it sounds.

(N.B. The last sentence under b) is not to be taken literally. It’s sarcasm, richly deserved. The earlier reference to emergency duct tape is hyperbole. I’ve never in my entire life duct taped a child.)

Well, anyway, I wish I could say the sky opened and a big light bulb appeared above my head and gave me words to untie this Gordian knot. In fact, I can’t remember finding any words at all, at least sensible ones. I think I babbled and stammered until the teacher came to repossess her charges.

I’m sure Cuthbert kept talking. There’s no telling what his classmates took away from that lesson.

I suppose, if I’d been in my right mind, I’d have said something to the effect that God and Jesus don’t like it when witches send people along earlier than expected.

But the prospect of talking theology with this independent thinker paralyzed my brain.

Anyway, I was expending all my energy trying not to laugh.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Image of Gingerbread House with Gumdrops courtesy of Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar, under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Hansel and Gretel and Cuthbert and Me

If I were going to write a memoir about my years as a librarian, I’d title it The Accidental Librarian.

Because the job wasn’t part of a plan. It just happened along.

One Sunday afternoon in early August, many years ago, I was sitting at home, minding my own business, when  a school administrator /old friend called and said, “You want to be the librarian?”

The previous librarian had resigned. School would start in two weeks. The principals had talked amongst themselves and designated me The Chosen.

My end of the conversation went from Who, me? to I’m not qualified to Well, I don’t know. A week later, after conferring with a dean of the UT Graduate School of Library and Information Science (UT-GSLIC, or just the Library School), I moved on to a shaky Okay.

Three years earlier, I’d completed my M.A. in English, breathed a sigh of relief, and promised myself I was finished with grad school. Oh well. I wouldn’t have to register until after Christmas.

So. The state education agency granted a waiver. I cleaned out my classroom. I gave away most of my teaching materials. I moved across the hall to the high school library. School started. I found myself with the title of District Librarian and responsibility for three campus libraries.

Which included teaching primary and elementary students two days a week. Teaching being a relative term.

I had no education or experience with that age group. I’d seen hardly anyone below the age of fourteen for years. I was certified to teach grades six through twelve. But Learning Resources Specialist was an all-level certification.

What a shame mine was temporary and had been granted on a technicality. But when the going gets tough…

I learned a lot. Boy, did I learn a lot. Fast.

I learned that writing one’s name at the top of the page required fifteen minutes out of a twenty-minute class.

I learned that if second graders said, “May we write in cursive?” and I said, “Of course,” it would take thirty.

I learned that if I showed third-graders a new historical picture book about Queen Elizabeth I, the principal would ask me, months later, why I had told students that if they went into the restroom and turned off the light and said, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary,” a severed head would appear in the mirror.

I learned that fourth-grade boys love to use the unabridged dictionary, because it has some fascinating words not found in the abridged dictionary. Even the abridged unabridged dictionary has some really good words. Fourth-graders are impressed by words the rest of us don’t notice. (I almost convinced them not to become hysterical at the mention of Captain Underpants.)

The biggest lesson I learned was that sometimes I wouldn’t have any idea what I’d learned. To wit:

Once upon a time, I read “Hansel and Gretel” to a class of kindergartners. My audience, sitting rapt at my feet, comprised sixteen exceptionally good listeners, a fact I later regretted.

When I reached “And they lived happily ever after,” little Cuthbert (not his real name) stopped stroking my panty-hose-clad shin and tugged on my skirt. I ceded him the floor.

“But it’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

Since he spoke kindergartner-ese, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood. Come again?

“It’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

I should have slammed the book shut right then, or pulled out the emergency duct tape, or something, anything to change the subject. But I’m not bright, so I asked Cuthbert to elaborate.

His elaboration went like this:

When the witch tried to shove Gretel into the hot oven she was doing a good thing. Because then Hansel and Gretel would die and go to Heaven to be with God and Jesus.

I smiled a no doubt horrified smile and said something like But But But. And, while Cuthbert explained even more fully, I did a quick analysis of my options:

a) If I said, No, the witch did a bad thing, because it is not nice to cook and eat little boys and girls, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy said it’s bad to go to Heaven and be with God and Jesus.

b) If I said, Yes, the witch did a good thing, because cooking and eating little boys and girls ensures their immediate transport Heavenward, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy condoned cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. Plus witchcraft. Plus reading a book about a witch, which in our Great State is sometimes considered more damaging than the murder/cannibalism package.

c) Anything I said might be in complete opposition to what Cuthbert’s mother had told him on this topic, and he would report that to her, and then I would get to have a conference that would not be nearly so much fun it might sound.

(N.B. The last sentence under b) is not to be taken literally. It’s sarcasm, richly deserved. The earlier reference to emergency duct tape is hyperbole. I’ve never in my entire life duct taped a child.)

Well, anyway, I wish I could say the sky opened and a big light bulb appeared above my head and gave me words to untie this Gordian knot. In fact, I can’t remember finding any words at all, at least sensible ones. I think I babbled and stammered until the teacher came to repossess her charges.

I’m sure Cuthbert kept talking. There’s no telling what his classmates took away from that lesson.

I suppose, if I’d been in my right mind, I’d have said something to the effect that God and Jesus don’t like it when witches send people along earlier than expected.

But the prospect of talking theology with this independent thinker stopped my brain function.

I was expending all my energy trying not to laugh.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~