23 April 2012

sigh no more. also, happy birthday, shakespeare!

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had the kind of English teacher Garrison Keillor might write a sketch about for A Prairie Home Companion.

She seemed to have been inhabiting that room in the English wing of Burlington High School since before it was even built. In fact, they might have brought her over from the old high school; standing at the chalkboard and diagramming a sentence, she probably didn't even notice when they moved her from the red brick building on top of a hill overlooking downtown.

Back in the late 1960s, the town decided it was time for a new, modern high school and so they built one out of a bland, creamy-colored brick: two stories and sprawling, but none of the classrooms had windows, oddly enough.

There was room to grow, though, out in the newer part of town, away from the train tracks that had brought Burlington so much power, away from the river that had brought Burlington so much beauty, away from the factories that had brought Burlington so much stability.

So the new high school with no classroom windows {maybe sunlight while learning damages the brain?} was where I found myself learning about Julius Caesar and Huckleberry Finn and how to properly construct an essay, although I would've rather been learning all that in the old high school, which looks like this:
Doesn't a building like that just embody girls in full skirts and boys in letterman jackets carrying those girls' books as they walk to the pep rally?

It does for me, although how I got to talking about full skirts is beyond me. My sophomore English teacher would probably mark up this bordering-on-stream-of-consciousness piece writing with her bright red pen: Fragment! Run-on sentence! Confusing!

But she probably isn't going to mark this up, partially because it's very difficult to mark things up on the Internet and partially because she may still be standing in that room at BHS waving around a copy of Julius Caesar and shouting, "Oh, the symbolism of it all! And what do you think, students, of his hubris? Why isn't anyone answering me?" {The "answering" would be sung out, a high-low melody as she looked at the class over her glasses, the classic English teacher move.}

I'm thinking of her today because it's William Shakespeare's birthday, and do you know what she did every year on Shakespeare's birthday? She wore a t-shirt with his face on it and would proudly point at her chest at the beginning of class and say, "Today, we celebrate him!"

And then most everyone would avert their eyes—this is when windows in the classroom would've come in handy—because who wants to look at your English teacher's chest?

Especially when it has a picture of a dead guy with funny hair on it, who, it seems, was very good at writing plays that high schoolers would love to mutilate for centuries to come. You can count on a 15-year-old to suck all the life, romance, daring, heft, challenge, and poetry out of Shakespeare when they're forced to read aloud in class.

They'll say, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, Horatio" as if there were no punctuation in there: AlaspoorYorickIknewhimwellHoratio. And then they'll sigh. And roll their eyes. And make a half-hearted attempt to push their hair out of their eyes. And make a side snide comment about the depressed guy talking to a skull. Creeeeeeeepy.

Then, about 10 years later, they'll voluntarily go to a production of Hamlet* and wonder why their English teacher didn't teach them this version—this exciting, moving, and sometimes terrifying version of intrigue and delusion. Why did they have to do all that boring reading? Didn't their teacher know how amazing Shakespeare's words are?

Of course she knew. English teachers always know; mine certainly did, as evidenced by her t-shirt.

In tribute to my sophomore English teacher—and, of course, in tribute to dear Will—here's a passage from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays: Much Ado About Nothing. Please read this with an English accent. Please do not read this as if you were 15 and weirded out by your English teacher's t-shirt.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy:
Then sigh not so, & c.

* This experience—this going to a play 10 years later and being astounded that Shakespeare is so good—is not my experience at all. My parents took me to a Shakespeare festival for the first time when I was 9. I had an eraser when I was in 8th grade that said "Out, out, damned spot!" In middle school, I went to nerd camp to study Shakespeare with a college professor.

Why am I telling you all this? Is it to cement, in case you were concerned, my English major nerdiness? Is it to try to convince you that I was ridiculously smart and you should, therefore, be intimidated? Is it to try to make you imagine me as a 15-year-old, rolling my eyes at my teacher, as I tried to blend in with the other kids, even though I really wanted to say, "Yes, I do see the symbolism"?

No, I tell you all this merely as a precursor to this: I also had a William Shakespeare t-shirt, and I kind of wish I still had it so that I could've worn it today.


  1. My high school's classrooms also lacked windows, because:

    a) the architect who designed the school spent most of his career designing prisons.

    b) the few rooms -- the library, the cafeteria -- that did have windows often had bricks thrown through them.

  2. Oh my! I wonder if the architect of BHS also designed prisons...But thankfully, we didn't have the brick-throwing thing at my school.

  3. Where are all those Shakespeare t-shirts, Mia?



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