“Did all of you remember to bring your copies of Macbeth?” I ask the grade 11’s as they file into room 224. The collective groan. The groan means “Yes, but do we have to read this?” This is followed by the moan. The moan is more nuanced in meaning. The moan means “I forgot. Can I go to my locker?” The moan, however, also has a subtext: “On my way to my locker, I will stop at the cafeteria and shove wads of junk food into my face before returning to class, and you will not know the difference.”
Why is teaching Shakespeare to high school kids a Sisyphean effort? I push them forward, but they are almost an immovable stone. I am in competition with more pressing cravings—music, sex, food . . . and more food. So we roll backwards until, finding a new foothold, I am ready to grunt forward again.
“Yes, we have to. No, you can’t,” I answer. It is a game: The teacher makes you do something you’d rather not. You, the student, usually comply, but not without some sign of inertia, rebelliousness, or even disgust.
They settle into their seats.
“Sir, what does the ‘HB’ stand for in Shakespeare’s first name?” asks Nick. I look at the front cover of my trade paperback copy of Macbeth: It is the “HB Shakespeare.”
“Well actually, Nick, ‘HB’ refers to Harcourt Brace. It’s the publisher of this edition. Shakespeare’s first name is William.” I try not to let my disbelief infect the tone of my response.
A staccato of guffaws bursts from Neal’s mouth.
“Actually,” Neal offers, “Shakespeare was the inventor of the lead pencil. ‘HB Shakespeare Lead Pencils’.”
Neal has slid into stand-up shtick, and when he does, it is difficult for him to apply the brakes to his compulsion to invent, to recognize when he has gone too far.
“OK, Neal,” exasperation colouring my voice, “it’s an honest question from Nick. Don’t you think the publishers could have designed a less ambiguous cover?” I don’t wait for an answer. “Just leave Mr. HB Shakespeare in your backpacks today. I want to start with other things.”
And so I continue, probing their minds for what they know about Shakespeare, the late 16th century, mediaeval Scotland, battle weapons, the historical Macbeth, the history of the play itself and the curse associated with it, and finally a discussion of witchcraft. The mention of witchcraft strikes a collective nerve. Everyone has something to offer: The Wizard of Oz, witch burnings, testing for witches—whether they floated or not—and the Salem witch trials. Vicky, often daydreaming, is attentive during the discussion, visibly upset. Sitting upright, she raises her hand and speaks before being asked:
“You know, witches have been victims all through history. They have been depicted as evil and ugly hags. Casting spells. Doing black magic. Do you know how many women were tortured or killed because they were accused of being witches?”
“How do you know?” asks Bob, who sits at the front and who has spun around to challenge Vicky.
“Because witchcraft—really a kind of religion called Wicca—was a practice much older than Christianity, and the Church felt threatened by it. They wanted to get rid of the practice, and the easiest way was to paint a . . . terribly black picture of those that practised Wicca. Anyway . . . ” she persists, “the reason I know a lot about Wicca is that . . . well, I’m a . . . practising witch.”
The classroom hurly-burly transforms into silence, as if someone has opened a valve and let the sound escape into the corridor.
“Cool,” says Bob.
“That’s sick,” offers David, clearly impressed.
An opportunity is not something a teacher can ignore.
“Vicky,” I ask, “could you do a presentation about Wicca for us? There are witches in the play Macbeth, and it would be so interesting for us to know more.”
“Yeah, great. Maybe I’ll even take the class through a Wiccan ritual?”
The collective murmur returns and hovers over students’ heads until the period change tone snaps us out of 11th century Scotland and back into 20th century Toronto.
Bob arrives early for the next class. He is older than the other grade 11’s. Taking the course for the second time, he will fail it again if he continues not to submit assignments. This fact has little impact on Bob. He seems to be waiting for something else to enter his life and to carry him away from the irrelevance of school with its poetry and Shakespeare and chatter about symbols and metaphors. Bob is a recruit in the armed forces. Frequently, he spends weekends in training or on manoeuvres. One time, he wanted to show me photos of himself and fellow recruits on a typical weekend of military activities. A platoon of young men wearing helmets, t-shirts, boots, and nothing else paraded through the photos. “That’s me and my buds,” said Bob. “We have awesome weekends.”
This day, Bob wears a very long, black trench coat that just skirts the top of the floor, his black boots just peaking out from underneath. When Bob removes his coat, I can see that adorning his left hip is a very thick metallic chain. Attached to the end of this chain is the skull of an animal.
“What’s that, Bob?” I ask, trying to keep my voice even, not knowing what I will do with Bob’s answer. I rarely know what to do with Bob’s responses. One day, in a moment of gesticulation, when I had flung my arms outward, as if intending to send my thoughts out into the classroom during discussion, I found a hand had reached into mine. Bob’s hand. Surely an open hand was an invitation for another, and Bob had decided that my hand was the place for his.
So, here is Bob, dressed in black—nothing unusual there—but with the skull of an animal dangling from a chain which circles his waist and enters a very large pocket.
“It’s a sheep’s skull, sir,” Bob says.
“Why are you wearing a sheep’s skull, Bob?” I ask.
“Well, a few days ago I was walking along Danforth Avenue, and–you know those Greek butcher shops along that stretch?—so, I went into one and asked what they did with the heads of the sheep hanging in the window. This guy says they trash them, so I asked if I could have one, and he said, ‘OK’, and like, I took the head home. Then I got a large pot of water boiling, dropped the head in, cooked it for hours, changed the water, and boiled it again. I was able to get all the meat off, clean the skull, and let it dry to look like this. Cool, isn’t it?”
At this moment things become clearer for me—“clearer”, not rational. School does not give Bob what he needs. Bob seeks the edge, something to whet his blunted appetite for school.
“Don’t you think our witch Vicky is really cool, sir?” Bob proposes. “I really want to see what she will be doing today.”
Bob and his sheep skull have arrived early, taking his usual front row seat. Vicky arrives shortly, completely dressed in white: long white dress, white shoes, and white gloves. She holds an audiotape player.
“As soon as everyone arrives, we’re all yours,” I say to Vicky. “Just take over.”
Blinds click shut, lights flip off, and Loreena McKennitt’s ethereal voice slips into dark corners. We assist Vicky in sliding the desks and chairs to the classroom’s perimeter. Vicky is a point at the centre of a circle formed by our kneeling bodies. She begins with the “real history” of witches, taking us through the politics of the church against older forms of animism and its discomfort with women who professed spiritual power. She lights aromatic candles and incense sticks redolent with myrtle and cinnamon, passes around fresh aloe leaves and dried rosemary for us to inspect and sniff. We close our eyes. Vicky incants a healing charm. Silence hangs like fog, and I can hear the sibilant whistle of inhalations.
Finally she says, “I just wanted all of you to understand better the roots of witchcraft. It’s not like Halloween and Hansel and Gretel. I just wanted to . . . break the stereotypes.”
We applaud as if on cue. We are moved, illuminated. Vicky packs her Wiccan-ware into a large cloth bag—ornamented with stars and a crescent moon—and flings its long strap over her head and onto her right shoulder. Extinguishing the candles with quick bursts of breath, she calls over her left shoulder, “I’ll come back at the end of the day to get the audioplayer. Thank you, Mr. Lightfield! Bye!” She swooshes out the door, a swirl of white fabric and long, black hair.
Bob remains cross-legged on the floor, a sheepish grin on his face, a skull resting comfortably on the floor at his left side. He looks at me, his eyes twinkling. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Oh yeaahhh.”
Two weeks later, the crisis of Macbeth having been reached—Banquo butchered, Fleance fled, and Malcolm safely ensconced in England at the court of Edward the Confessor—the class works in groups preparing dramatic interpretations of favourite scenes. Bob, however, is distracted, has slipped away from his group to a window seat where he reads a magazine article comparing Soviet and American weaponry.
“Bob, your group needs you. What role are you playing?” I ask.
“I’m playing a few roles, sir. I’m Lennox and Macduff. They don’t need me. I don’t like presenting in front of people,” he answers, his hands rolling the magazine into a tube that he raises to his eye.”
“Bob, you need to move on. Do some work. Get your credit in this course.”
He just nods.
I pause and continue, “Do you still have your sheep skull?”
“If you are willing to try something, I am willing to give you a substitute assignment. But you have to come in after school today to hear about it.”
“Well, maybe. OK,” he answers tentatively, worried that he will be asked to do something that goes against his grain, or worse: perform.
The rest of the day I wrestle with the ethics of excusing Bob from a class assignment, of offering some flimsy alternative. And yet Bob will take another failed assignment rather than perform in front of the class.
Jelena is a talented flute player in my grade 10 enriched English class. Sociable and animated, she is frequently involved in class discussions. Self-anointed gadfly and contrarian, she usually argues against the popular position: abortion, women’s rights, capital punishment, smoking lounge for students, cafeteria food choices. It doesn’t matter. Jelena will take an opposing perspective. Music is her passion. In her spare time she studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street. I remember her independent poetry project: a two-track audiotape of her reading original poems, self-accompanied by a piece from Schumann. “I like the Romantics,” she had said.
“Jelena?” I ask her in class. “I’m wondering whether you could do me and another student a favour and play the flute as background to something?”
“Bonus marks, Mr. Lightfield?” she responds, not missing a musical beat, which seems to throb almost imperceptibly behind her sentences.
“Bonus marks,” I answer.
“Do you know the story of Hamlet?” I ask Bob at the end of the day.
“The ‘To be or not to be’ guy?” he asks back.
“Exactly. Well, there’s a wonderful scene late in the play where Hamlet, in a graveyard, holds up the skull of his court jester playmate, a fellow named Yorick. Hamlet is sad. He talks about death. How we all eventually die and disintegrate into skulls and dirt. Here’s the deal, Bob. You memorize that famous ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy, which Hamlet actually says earlier in the play. You use your sheep’s skull as a prop. You dress in black because Hamlet dresses in black—I think you two have much in common—and I videotape your performance. I show it to the class and grade it as a substitute assignment. Oh, and for more atmosphere, more punch, one of my students has offered to play background flute music off camera. What do you think?”
Bob hesitates. It has parts that push him; it has parts that he can connect with. It has edge.
“By the way,” I press further, “Hamlet is a senior level play; it’s more sophisticated than Macbeth.”
“I’ll . . . do it,” he pauses, “but you can’t show the video to the class. It’s just between you and me.”
Perhaps I am asking too much of Bob. But what I want is not to put another zero beside his name. “Deal,” I say.
It is a week since my deal with Bob. The performers say they are ready. Bob has actually sought my advice on voice and gesture. Jelena has read the soliloquy and has selected “something dark and brooding,” she says. “Schumann, from his Eusebius.” She and Bob have rehearsed. I lock the classroom door, tape a file folder over the small window in the door, and signal that I am ready to shoot.
Bob is dressed in his black formal wear: boots, pants, t-shirt, and trench coat. Today, however, there is an additional touch—a toque clings to the top of his head, bottom edge rolled over once. A black hemisphere in the crepuscular light of the classroom.
Jelena begins to play Eusebius. Bob lifts his boiled sheep’s head—a smooth dome of white—caresses its vault, and begins: “To be, or not to be . . . ” Bob speaks slowly, evenly, the soliloquy memorized, nearly flawless; gesture, subtle; eyes, unusually wide, occasionally searching the room’s darkness for answers to his universal questions. “. . . Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them. . . . ” Cued by Bob’s pace, Jelena shapes her musical phrases, sways gently. Bob ascends with measured steps toward the crescendo of the piece. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all . . . And lose the name of action.”
He stands up, placing the skull on his stool. Looking toward Jelena, who is off camera, he continues, “Soft you now!/The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins remember’d.” I push the Panasonic’s stop button. Jelena’s playing fades out. Bob’s eyes glisten as he faces her. Iambs of silence separate their conversation.
“I was crappy, wasn’t I?” he asks her.
“That was so great,” she says, no sign of false flattery anywhere.
“Cool,” says Bob.
“Are you walking home?” she asks him.
“Lights on, sir?” Jelena looks to me, as both leave the classroom together.
“Sure thing. Thank you both. . . . You floored me. Both of you.”
I partially rewind the tape and press play. Looking into the LCD display, I see a homunculus of a seventeen-year-old boy inside a man’s body holding a sheep’s skull, mouthing HB Shakespeare’s words:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
Jelena’s Schumann is a faint flute melody from the camera’s speaker. Was it madness or syphilis that ultimately claimed him? I eject the tape and slide it into my briefcase. I snap the buckle, securing it carefully with its leather strap. The drive home might give me pause, might offer me time to dream, a momentary quietus to make sense of the day’s events.
Martin Kofsky (BA 1974 UC, BEd 1975 OISE, MA 1977, MEd 1983, EdD 1996) recently retired after teaching English at high schools for more than 30 years, and is working on a collection of stories drawn from his teaching experiences.