Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Romeo & Juliet: the full play—includes essays and annotations by Callie Feyen of The Teacher Diaries.
I don’t remember a thing about reading Romeo and Juliet my freshman year of high school. That’s not true. I was late to class once during our study of the play because I’d gotten into a fight with a boy whose locker was next to mine. He’d poured grape juice on me, and to pay him back, I punched him in the face with my combination lock. That’s not true, either. Well, the grape juice being poured and the combination-lock punch are true, but it wasn’t a fight. It was one of those rowdy flirtations that boys and girls engage in because they don’t know what else to do with their feelings. Clearly, it had gotten out of hand.
I walked into Mr. Young’s English class, textbookless, my royal blue sweater my parents gave me for Christmas splattered with grape juice, riled up, and confused over what just happened. My seat was in the middle of the classroom, and I had to walk in front of Mr. Young to get to it. The wooden floor creaked under my feet. The desk squeaked as I sat down. Mr. Young was the only one in the room who wasn’t looking at me. He read from Romeo and Juliet as though nothing else was going on.
I sat still for a few minutes, trying not to focus on the tragedy of the juice on my sweater, and analyzing the events of the last thirty minutes. Had I hurt him? I mean, physically? Did he like me? Did I like him? Is this why we were treating each other this way? How much longer until this class ended and I’d see him again?
Mr. Young handed out an assignment we were to work on and discuss in class. I raised my hand.
“I don’t have a pen,” I told him.
He stared at me for what felt like an hour and said, “Sounds like a problem.” Then he kept teaching.
A boy two seats behind and across from me whispered my name. I didn’t turn for a couple of reasons. I was starting to cry—how could I behave this way? What was wrong with me? I was here to learn, not to think about boys. Why was I always thinking about boys? And two, this boy who was calling my name, I had decided was a jerk. He was obnoxious, said gross things about girls, was rich, and, I assumed, spoiled. He was probably going to make some nasty hand gesture if I turned his way.
“Callie,” he said again.
I turned sharply.
“What?” I mouthed as ferociously as I could.
He handed me a pen.
Decades later, I was at a park with my friend Mindy, our babies and toddlers teetering and scooting around depending on their level of walking, as she and I did our best to have a conversation. She handed me Twilight, telling me something about how she noticed I liked stories and that maybe I’d like this one.
I don’t know how Mindy knew I liked to read, especially since at the time it seemed all I was reading were books on how to get a baby to sleep at night, how to get a baby to eat vegetables, and of course, books on the elusive task of potty training.
I know I wasn’t sharing about these books, because I hated them. I have a deep disdain for books with all the answers. I find them dull, and so I wasn’t talking to Mindy about metaphors I found while reading about blending green beans with chicken, nor the finely structured sentences in the chapter on whether or not to use Pull-Ups.®
“I mean, it’s not literary.” Mindy rolled her eyes and brushed a wisp of brown hair from her face, with a perfectly French-tipped finger. “But I think you’ll like it.”
Mindy was from New Jersey. She had a great big smile and an accent to match, and she always had her nails done. I loved Mindy’s nails. Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved the look of French-manicured nails, though I worry it’s something I shouldn’t like. Maybe it’s showy, or not in style. Maybe a woman shouldn’t concern herself with frivolous things. Still, I liked the style, and deciding I did felt like I had a secret.
“It’s a fun story,” she said.
I took the book and opened it. Stephenie Meyer used a part of Friar Laurence’s words from Romeo and Juliet as an epigraph: “These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / which, as they kiss, consume.”
“So, is this a Romeo and Juliet story?” I asked her, pointing to the Friar’s words.
Mindy shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t really get Romeo and Juliet.”
I laughed. “Me either.”
It didn’t take me long to get sucked into (pardon the pun) the world of teenage vampire romance. I can remember sitting on my couch in the living room with Mindy’s poor book profoundly creased, the pages threatening to rip from the spine, and telling my husband Jesse, “I know exactly what’s going to happen, I see exactly what Meyer is doing, and I don’t care. I cannot get enough!”
I finished the first book the day before Thanksgiving, in a Starbucks. I remember putting it down, looking out the window at the streetlights glowing on the cars in the grocery store parking lot and watching people running in and out of the store for what I assumed were last-minute Thanksgiving items. Watching them, I made up stories: This one is grabbing cans of pumpkin because Aunt Sue got sick and can’t bake the pies. This one is getting cranberry sauce because Grandpa won’t eat the relish with the whole cranberries in it; he likes the kind that looks like Jell-O® and has dent marks in it from the can. One woman walked out with a bouquet of flowers—orange, yellow, and red—the colors of fall. She didn’t get anything necessary. She picked up what she thought was beautiful and took it with her for no other reason than to enjoy it and to have others enjoy it. I liked her story the best.
I pulled at the napkin that was under my coffee cup and slid it in front of me, then took out a pen from my purse and wrote, “The Making of a Heroine Class” in the center. I wrote Twilight, and then Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Speak, A Wrinkle in Time, and Make Lemonade. If I were adding to the list today, I’d add Maggie Stiefvater’s werewolf and fairy series, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, and anything E. Lockhart ever wrote. I was imagining teaching these stories to a dream middle school class, an idea I found hilarious because no school would ever allow these books to be studied; nonetheless, I was entertained by my reverie. I thought it would be fun to analyze their characters’ actions and decisions, discuss how (and whether) the characters grow and change, and perhaps compare and contrast that to our own coming-of-age stories.
I looked at Friar Laurence’s words again. Violent ends, I thought. That’s terrifying. I thought of the combination-lock punch and the boy who gave me a pen. So are the teenage years, I thought, and wrote Romeo and Juliet on the napkin.
I actually had no interest in teaching Romeo and Juliet, but soon I found myself in my kitchen on a summer afternoon with another teacher from the school I’d be teaching at in a couple of months—a copy of the play between us. She brought it over with the rest of the 8th grade English curriculum, a few days after I’d signed a contract to teach.
She talked about some of the concepts I’d need to make sure to teach: paragraph structure, citing sources, how to use quotations in writing—while I fiddled with my fingernails. I’d treated myself to a French manicure after earning my MFA in creative writing, as an inside joke I had with myself: You can lead a girl to Gerard Manley Hopkins, but you can’t make her put down Stephenie Meyer. I liked what I liked.
I was nervous about teaching, though, and concerned that I’d been gone from it too long and would be out of touch with my students. Plus, now I was a mother, and I wasn’t sure how to be both a teacher and a mom. Both seemed all- encompassing.
“I’m a little nervous about teaching Romeo and Juliet,” I said, eyeing the book between us. I didn’t know this woman well enough to tell her all the rest. Shakespeare’s language and Romeo and Juliet, a whopper of a tragedy, seemed like a good scapegoat. I could blame Shakespeare; he’s too hard to understand. I could blame the content: teenage love and suicide. I could blame Mercutio.
She gave a quick nod, then picked up the play, handling the book the same way I did. That is, not carefully. She fanned out the pages, bent back the cover, and flattened the spine as she showed me the features that would make the story easier to understand and teach.
The books I read are always marked up, creased, and tattered by the time I’m finished with them. I was reminded that afternoon how messy reading can get. I realized, too, that experiencing a story can be wild.
And so it was. That year, a girl in my class who was seemingly meek about her studies blossomed into a slightly sly, slightly rebellious, bold young lady (she was still an excellent student). Teachers who’d known her since kindergarten were uncomfortable and saddened by the change, and I understood, but I also understood what was growing, and I did my best to attend to the person she thought she wanted to become. She loved Romeo and Juliet, especially the masquerade and balcony scenes, and in one debate, over whether Juliet should listen to and trust her parents and marry Paris, she was adamant that Juliet should pursue Romeo.
“She doesn’t even know him!” one of her classmates shouted.
“So what?” she argued, flipping her long, blond hair over a shoulder. Two boys behind her eyed each other and smirked. She looked at me and gave a slight shrug. “If she marries Paris, she will always be thinking of Romeo.”
Juliet will forever want to know Romeo. What’s more, Juliet will never know if she’d rather not know Romeo—if what she was blossoming into, if what she was leaning towards, would turn into something else.
Maybe this student, months away from high school, was trying a personality on, walking around in it to see if it fit. Maybe she wanted to see what she could do with it. Maybe one day she’ll remember something else about herself, and lean towards that. Maybe the two will merge.
When publisher Laura Barkat first asked me to write about teaching Romeo and Juliet, in a new series called The Teacher Diaries, I didn’t want to. I’d recently left a teaching position that left me confused and sorrowful about what teaching has become. I wasn’t sure I fit in that world anymore, and I didn’t want to write about teaching Romeo and Juliet, because I was afraid it would be too painful remembering how teaching used to be. I was also afraid my stories would reveal I’d taught the play wrong and that, indeed, I had no business in the teaching profession.
I didn’t tell Laura no, but I also didn’t dive in.
Then one morning, I went for a run. The day was cold and grey and raining the kind of rain that mists so that I couldn’t tell if I was sweating or freezing. All I knew was I was uncomfortable.
Around mile two, as a Justin Bieber song pulsed through my earbuds, I suddenly remembered my first kiss. It wasn’t so much the kiss that intrigued me (though it was memorable); it was the events surrounding that April 1991 evening. I started comparing it with the first scene in Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet. There were a lot of similarities.
My fingers began to twitch for a pen. Meghan Trainor came on and I ran faster. I let myself remember other things: making iambic pentameter valentines out of candy hearts, a high school food fight, making Queen Mab out of playdough, teaching my students a dance routine and making masks for our own masquerade, and, sadly, teenage suicide.
Jennifer Lopez came on next—my favorite song of hers, “Let’s Get Loud,” because she sings about figuring things out for yourself, and doing things your own way. I was practically sprinting for how happy I felt.
Before Laura suggested I write about Romeo and Juliet, I’d been working on another manuscript for her, but it wasn’t coming together. She’d told me, “Something needs to shake loose.”
I didn’t know what that something was, but on that dreary winter morning I think two Callies were ready to come out—the teaching Callie and the teenage Callie.
I would write and merge the two.
I would become the heroine.
For Personal Journaling or Discussion With a Friend
1. What book suggestion have you received from a friend that you were surprised you liked?
2. How do stories help you see another side of yourself? How do they help you “try on” a personality?
3. In this essay, both my friend Mindy and my teaching colleague show me a story to consider and, in turn, another side of myself to explore. How do your friends pull something out of you that you doesn’t normally come out to play?