Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everybody Has a Story

I have a confession:

As autumn and winter settle in and early darkness descends, I enjoy evening neighborhood strolls because I spy. Yes, with my little eye, I spy.

Sometimes a family shouting over each other as they gather for dinner, or a lone fellow plucking strings on a guitar, or a couple in their armchairs watching a widescreen TV spilling images of the day's news. And I wonder about these people. I wonder if their dreams are fulfilled and if their disappointments are bearable because I know they each have a compelling story.

Recently, I guest taught a Shakespeare workshop to eleven-year-olds at an elementary school. Two sixth-grade classes gathered in a single classroom to participate. There was one teacher present. I began by storytelling Hamlet and his need for revenge. Once I'd completed my synopsis I said, "Pencils up! Five minutes, write about a time when you wanted revenge....Now, go!"

And they did, fast and furious, scribbling away as the minutes ticked by. Then I extended an invitation for them to share their writing aloud. You can imagine there were lots of BFF betrayals, and many sibling grievances, and terrible parental misunderstandings, all wholly unfair and deserving of revenge.

Then there was Alisha. A dark-haired girl in a yellow T-shirt with her tentative arm raised.

"Would you like to read what you've written?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking down at the paper clutched in her fingertips. "But I might cry."

"Okay," I held up a tissue box. "I'm ready, if you are. Go for it."

Alisha's sister had died. And Alisha wanted revenge on the drunk driver who killed her sister.

The tears came. The kids stared. The teacher was frozen in place because this wasn't her student, she did't know this girl and hadn't heard this story.

I moved toward Alisha with a handful of tissues and an arm ready to pull her close.

Are teachers trained for these moments? Are there practice sessions for such unexpected, shocking tales? I was thrust into a scenario of "Think fast and don't mess up!"

With my arm around Alisha's shoulders, I addressed the class because, above all, a teaching moment had presented itself. The kids' eyes were wide; they weren't sure what to do with this very real-life story.

"Alisha has demonstrated huge courage and we understand why she would want revenge."

What I witnessed next was a wave of empathy rising, en masse, from Alisha's peers.

"And here's the thing about art, " I continued. "Every dancer, singer, painter, musician, writer or actor has to have courage because their work carries their personal story. We don't just play Hamlet like he's some other guy. We play him as if he is us. We have to identify with his pain, his anger and his desire for revenge. Not everyone can do this. That's what makes the artist unique. The courage."

The tears were wiped, the nose was blown and a friend of Alisha's took her to the bathroom. Other children read their revenge stories and my hour with them came to a close. As I was bidding farewell, Alisha and her friend returned from the bathroom.

I took Alisha's face in my hands and said, "I wonder if you noticed that when you shared your writing, how much power you had? I wonder if you noticed that everyone listened and everyone cared? Your courage and your power will always stand by you, Alisha."

Yup, everybody has a story.

Shakespeare just wrote them down. Really, really well.

CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry

My characters name is Lord Capulet and he lives in Verona. He wants his daughter Juliet to mary a man named cout Paris. In the end the gangs learn a lesson. They learn the violence is rong.

This is my second year in the Shakespeare club. I'm not as nervous about the performance as I was last year because I am experienced and that will help me with this performance.

Many people have heard of the story "Romeo and Juliet" but most people don't know what the story is about. And it's mostly kids that don’t know. So the Shakespeare Club gives the kids a chance to perform real plays written by William Shakespeare.

—Cole, 5th grade

1: Recentering El Pueblo; 2: JoelMontes (Creative Commons BY-SA)

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