When I was in the 9th grade, Julius Caesar died in my English class.
My classmates and I were assigned parts to read aloud, and we stumbled and made a mess of Shakespeare’s carefully crafted lines. By the time Caesar was murdered, I was ready to cheer for the bad guys.
Oddly enough, I didn’t hate Shakespeare. Even as a 9th grader I sensed the problem was me, or the miserable experience of listening to poor readers sounding out unfamiliar words, that made Julius Caesar such a chore. As a senior I read Macbeth and loved it – and then I went on to read all of the plays and sonnets, deciding, by the time I finished, that the popular consensus was right: Shakespeare was the best writer in the English language.
Still, I harbored a lurking dislike for Julius Caesar. Not until my son came home from school one day and threw a copy of the play down like a gauntlet did I read it again.
Each night we sat side by side and read the play word by word and line by line, talking about what they meant. To my surprise, I discovered that the play is terrific.
Not Shakespeare having a bad day at all, but a masterful account of schemers and good men baffled or corrupt. After the first act, my son was able to read it without my help, and he memorized Marc Antony’s speech just for fun.
“What a great play!” I told my English teacher colleagues with all the zealotry of a new convert. They nodded politely and gave each other meaningful glances.
Imagine my surprise when the Washington Post’s education blogger Valerie Strauss published an op-ed by an English teacher in California who said that she doesn’t think Shakespeare has a place in the classroom.
Dana Dusbiber teaches in a large inner-city school in Sacramento, California, where most of the students are minorities. She admits that she doesn’t like Shakespeare – he’s hard to read even for her, and she feels that the canon needs to be more diverse.
“I do not believe that I am ‘cheating’ my students because we do not read Shakespeare,” Dusbiber wrote. “I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition.”
She concludes, “If we only teach students of color, as I have been fortunate to do my entire career, then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives.”
Dusbiber’s op-ed drew so much heated criticism that Valerie Strauss invited Matthew Truesdale, a high school English teacher at Wren High School in Piedmont, S.C., to expand on his reply.
On the surface, Truesdale might seem to be an unlikely defender of Shakespeare. He wasn’t much of a fan when he was a student, and after a rocky high school experience, he majored in journalism at the University of South Carolina.
During his last year of college, he watched the news of the shootings at Columbine and was horrified at the intrusiveness of the press – the way they buttonholed students on air and asked personal, probing questions. He changed his major to education.
In his response to Dusbiber, Truesdale points out that one of the main reasons to read Shakespeare is because he is so widely read, that having the shared experience of knowing the same author is an important human connection. Child soldier Ismael Beah, for instance, mentions in his book “Long Way Gone” that he enjoyed reciting Shakespeare and found the monologues in Julius Caesar particularly relevant, even in the middle of war in Sierra Leone.
“To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as ‘NOW,’” Truesdale wrote.
Even as a confused 9th grader I knew that Shakespeare – and literature in general – had something to teach me about my own humanity. That’s what good English teachers do – make the voices of writers distant in time or place as relevant as the ones close at hand.
Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.