Magazine article NATE Classroom

It's All Down to Shakespeare

Magazine article NATE Classroom

It's All Down to Shakespeare

Article excerpt

Some of my most humiliating moments have come about because I 'teach Shakespeare'. It's almost as if the wicked wit that punctured Malvolio's pride reaches out from the grave to prod my ego at key points in my life. It all started when I was at the very beginning of my career--in fact, just completing my second year of teaching. I was sharing an A Level Literature group with the Head of English, who had entrusted to me the teaching of the two Shakespeare plays and the prose and verse appreciation. As the end of the course approached, I felt proud of the job I had done with the group. They were bright, articulate and interested, and I reckoned that the majority of them would get As or Bs. They should all pass with ease--except for a girl called Julie, who might, if the questions were very straightforward, scrape an E. I'd worked hard with Julie, who found the Shakespeare texts particularly difficult and seemed to spend much of the lessons in a haze. She and I had spent long sessions alone together unravelling the mysteries of King Lear and A Winter's Tale, but it was still touch and go. She'd electrified me during my last revision lesson on King Lear by saying in bewilderment, 'I don't understand why Edgar's supposed to be so good. I mean, he wrote Edmund that nasty letter about killing their dad, didn't he?'


'I've done my best with her,' I told myself. 'I don't think any of the more experienced teachers could have done better.'

At the beginning of my very last session with the group they gave me flowers and a pretty pendant and said flattering things about my teaching. I was rounding off my final pep-talk with, 'You should all do well. You're entirely conversant with the texts and you're all capable of constructing cogent arguments', when Julie suddenly began to laugh. She howled, she sobbed with laughter. She put her head down on her desk and thumped it weakly with her fists. We asked her what she was laughing at. We began to laugh in sympathy.

'Oh, come on, Julie,' I said at last. 'You've got to tell us the joke.'

She raised her streaming, reddened eyes to mine and hiccupped, 'I've sat--in your class--for two bloody years--and I haven't understood--a bloody word you've said!'

Much later, when I was teaching in a Sixth Form College, I celebrated my fortieth birthday. 'Celebrated' is entirely the wrong word. I did not want to be forty. I did not feel forty. I felt twenty-five. 'Middle-aged! Next stop old!' I groaned to myself as I prepared for work the day after my party.

My first class of the day was a Lower Sixth group with whom I was studying Antony and Cleopatra. They really seemed to be enjoying the play. We'd spent nearly a term on it and they were just settling down to a revision assignment when one of the boys asked, 'How old were Antony and Cleopatra, Miss? It says here that she was wrinkled deep in time.

'Oh, in their late thirties,' I said casually, and was astounded to hear an instant chorus of:


'No way!'

'As old as that!'

'That's disgusting!'

'Sex at that age! It's put me right off the play!'

I stood in frozen silence. Then one of the more perceptive girls muttered, 'Hush, you're upsetting her.'

They all looked thoughtfully at me, and I knew exactly what they were picturing in their minds' eyes. …

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