Editor’s Note: Please enjoy this excerpt of The Teacher Diaries: Romeo & Juliet!
Before they met Mercutio, I taught my 8th graders how to play Pac-Man. It’s basically tag on a basketball court, but you can only run along the lines. Whoever gets chomped by Pac-Man is out.
I wasn’t planning this with my class, but a few things happened that week, and by the time Friday rolled around,
I decided we all needed to participate in a little folly before we hung out with the ultimate fool, albeit a fool I knew would steal our hearts and then break them.
The first thing that happened was that I yelled at my students. In my defense, this particular group of 8th graders was notorious for its obnoxious, belligerent ways. Everything was a joke. Everything was innuendo. I was actually looking forward to introducing them to Mercutio because I figured they’d think they’d found a friend, and while I wasn’t too confident they’d learn to be respectful, maybe Mercutio could teach them how to speak with wit, and not go for the obvious joke. After all, part of the fun in a snide remark is creating how it’ll be delivered.
But they’d gotten on my last nerve with their paper throwing, their talking when I was talking, their sauntering into class whenever they felt like it, always with an excuse. I’d had it, and I let them know it.
What really got to me, I told them while I paced the room like a lioness ready to pounce, was how thoughtful and creative they all were. “But you’re all so scared,” I yelled. “You’re afraid to try so you cover up what could be with this bullshit.”
I dismissed class early, and drove home angry and crying.
Second, that evening, I received an email from a parent. I braced myself for getting reprimanded for swearing in class as I clicked open the message. This woman’s son was one of those All-American boys—great at sports, tall, blond, and an artist. Except he didn’t want anyone to know the artist part. It seeped from him, though. It was in his handwriting, in the margins of his reading homework, in the sentences he didn’t mean to write but couldn’t help. His work revealed so much. His mother knew this, too.
“Sometimes they don’t know,” she to wrote me. They don’t realize how confused and afraid they are, or they do, and they don’t know what to do about it. She told me, gently, that I have to show them. Over and again, I have to show them. It’s exhausting.
I let out a sigh as I finished the email, and considered Mercutio. Who had given up on him? Who had dismissed him before he was ready to be let go? What of his character was he afraid to reveal, but it seeped from his words anyway?
It was spring. It was here, or it was coming; nobody can ever be sure in March, but the world was getting ready for it. The branches were nubby and green with raw growth; the trees’ bark was warm in the afternoons. The mud was sloppy and gushy and we dragged in more grass and dirt than we did snow. The air still had a nip to it, but it smelled like it was turning over, like something else was on its way. So much around me seemed to be saying, “Hush, hush. Wait. Look carefully. Things you cannot see are happening.”
The swearing, the email, and the mysterious beginnings of spring were what led me to take my 8th graders to a park with a basketball court and teach them how to play Pac-Man. We’d play, and then we’d meet Mercutio.
On the whiteboard that afternoon were three short sentences by Mary Oliver: Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About it.
“We’re going on a walk, and I’m going to teach you how to play Pac-Man,” I told them. They shifted in their seats and giggled in anticipation.
“Take out a piece of notebook paper and a pen or pencil, and copy these sentences down at the top of your paper. When we get back, you will fill up this page, front and back, with what happened.”
With that, we left the school and took a short walk to a park across the street.
The air was crisp, and we needed jackets, but the sun was out and I knew that soon we’d all tie those jackets around our waists. I didn’t point that out, nor did I point out the brook we crossed, making its first spring gurgles as it rushed towards who knows where. Maybe the Potomac, or the Chesapeake Bay, or the Atlantic Ocean. Who knows where these twisting tributaries push themselves.
I didn’t point out how the class split up as we walked; most of the girls clumped and huddled together while the boys ran and jumped and shouted. I said very little except to give the directions to the game. I wanted my students to find astonishment for themselves, and then name it.
I watched though, and I listened, and I thought about these students I’d known since August. It doesn’t take long to get attached to a group, I thought, as I watched them run around the court. I was attached to this one. My concern and fondness for the classes I teach changes the way I teach. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever taught a story the same way more than once.
Last year’s 8th graders were more like Benvolio. They were truth tellers, and concerned about one another. I chuckled as I watched this year’s 8th graders shove and pull at each other. They are my wild things. They are my Mercutios. You can’t teach Mercutio the same way you teach Benvolio. Every day with these kids is a wild rumpus, and instead of trying to stop it, I need to get front and center and command its commencement.
I was terrified to teach this group. Their reputation for being mean and rowdy proceeded them. I saw it in the hallways and heard about it from other teachers. The group I’d had the prior year was so good and I was so afraid of the one coming, I considered asking if I could follow the kids I had and teach 9th grade English, never needing to deal with this group and my fear.
I would’ve missed out on so much, though. One of those things would’ve been seeing Mercutio for more than a narcissistic rabble-rouser. Last year, my students giggled at and tsk-tsked his antics. We were sad when he died, sure, but it was more of a “he had it coming” sort of sadness.
This group pushed me to see Mercutio differently. Maybe Mercutio was ridiculous and crass because he didn’t know how else to act. Or he was too afraid to act otherwise. Nobody showed him; they just called bullshit on everything he did and brushed him off as obnoxious, crude, beyond help.
It seems that part of Shakespeare’s storytelling revolves around or begins with play, and Mercutio, though he seems reckless, is the most playful character in Romeo and Juliet. I wanted this group of students to laugh at Mercutio, maybe even be delighted and charmed by him. I think this helps us keep looking at him, to see what else is there.
My kids were quiet once they came back into the room after Pac-Man. They settled down quickly and began to write, the smell of spring and of growing bodies lingering thickly among us. One boy wrote about the mechanics of the game and the wind on his face as he ran. Another described these bristly brown nuts that fell from the trees. He wrote that they were perfect for throwing at girls.
One of the girls wove Hamilton quotes throughout her entry while at the same time exploring the different friendships in the class and how they’d evolved since kindergarten. Another girl, an exchange student who didn’t know a word of English at the beginning of the year, practiced capturing the dialogue of her American classmates while taking note of the cherry blossoms floating around—Japan’s gift to D.C., a symbol of growing friendship and a sure sign spring is here.
Some boys wrote about being the fastest runners to get to the court, and then acknowledged that there was nothing to do but wait once the glory of winning a race nobody declared but them was over. Other boys wrote about wishing they could keep up, and this led them to heftier topics: keeping up with homework, being popular, being cool. Many wrote about wanting to jump in the brook we crossed but deciding Mrs. Feyen would make the whole class go inside if they did. To this day, I’m not sure what I would’ve done. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have jumped in with them.
It was some of the best writing I’d seen from that class, and, as in most days of my teaching career, I was the one learning the lesson. On that day, the lesson was: step aside and let Mercutio play.
The next day, we met Mercutio. We listened as Romeo whined about being through with love while Mercutio eagerly threw on his mask to crash the Capulets’ party. “If love be rough with you, be rough with love,” Mercutio says. Boys guffawed, and some admitted wanting to high-five Mercutio for his philosophy. Girls gasped, and put their hands over their mouths in horror.
“Here’s a guy who has a line for everything,” I explained to hearty smiles and knowing glances. “We don’t have anyone in this class like that,” I joked.
Romeo isn’t persuaded by Mercutio’s boisterous energy, and isn’t interested in going to the party. Instead, he wants to talk about a dream he had.
I imagine the boys standing outside the Capulets’ home— music booming, smells of delicious food wafting through the air, beautiful people walking past, ready to party. I imagine Mercutio observing this too, and rolling his eyes at Romeo’s behavior. “Seriously, Romeo,” Mercutio might say today, “you want to talk about a dream when we’re about to crash a party?”
This is one of my favorite scenes in the play because I think it captures the quick wit of teenage boys and how much fun they are to be around. It was in high school that my brother and I got along the best. Part of that had to do with the fact that I stopped bossing him around, but I also remember Geoff and his friends’ roughhousing, nonstop wrestling, crashing into everything, let’s-see-who-can-burp-the-loudest behavior turning into a side-splitting, effortless humor that was endearing and made me forget for a while my teenage-induced drama. Geoff could take something I said in all seriousness and turn it into comedy in a blink of an eye.
Plus, Geoff and his buddies were always on the move. I can remember Saturdays: Celena and I’d be primping in my bedroom, deciding what to do that night, while Geoff and his friends had already been to the city and back and were getting ready for the next thing. Once, while Celena and I were in the kitchen eating popcorn, Geoff busted through the front door and sprinted down the basement stairs in a hysteric frenzy. Seconds later, he’d come back up with a baritone, out of breath from carrying the mother of all brass instruments up the stairs.
“What are you doing with that?” I asked in my perfect 17-year-old snotty voice.
“I’m gonna play the theme song from Jaws while Tim drives behind people walking down the street.” Geoff started to laugh, then said, “You know how the melody gets faster? Well, Tim will speed up the car while I play, ‘Duh, duh. Duh, duh. Duh, duh,’ faster and faster!” He put the baritone down because he was laughing so hard.
“Oh. My. God,” Celena said.
“That is so dumb,” I said.
Geoff, still laughing said, “Yeah. Wanna join us?”
“Yes,” Celena and I said, getting up from the table.
And so it goes with Mercutio and Romeo. When Romeo says morosely, “I dreamt a dream tonight,” he’s hoping Mercutio will take the bait and sit a spell with his friend to find out what this dream is all about. Mercutio plays right back: “And so did I,” he says, and it is Romeo who now takes the bait. He thinks Mercutio will join him in his reverie. “Well, what was yours?” he asks.
“That dreamers often lie.”
The volley between the two boys doesn’t end, and Romeo bounces back another line about those who dream, sometimes “dream things true,” and that is the serve that allows Mercutio’s Queen Mab to take flight. Without skipping a beat, without contemplating for a second Romeo’s mysterious statement about our ability to “dream things true,” Mercutio launches into a forty-three-line description about his made-up fairy who affects the dreams of sleepers everywhere.
While they might not speak with the same rich language as Shakespeare’s Mercutio, male students are notorious for weaving some fantastical tales explaining why their homework is not with them. So proud they are of what they’ve told me, so wrapped up in their stories, they always end with this:
“So, can I still play in the [insert sport] game Friday night?”
And like my students who go on and on telling me about this adventurous night that prevented them from doing homework, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech does nothing to advance the plot; rather, it reveals Mercutio’s character. He has a wonderful imagination, and a witty sense of humor.
Following the suggestion of Shakespeare Set Free, I divided the speech into sections and assigned students two to three lines to illustrate; then, we put the drawings together to discuss. I have found that drawing Shakespeare helps to understand him more, or, at the least, sit with the words a little longer.
We decided that Mercutio’s Queen Mab is a fairy who both helps and haunts. Much like Mercutio, much like my wild middle schoolers, much like me. None of us are one thing.
We often feel and think and even do a multitude of things at once. Especially adolescents. They notice bristly, craggy nuts fallen from trees, pick them up, feel them tickle their palm, and simultaneously consider darting them at girls. They whisper with their friends while they wonder what happened between the girls ahead of them. Last year everything was great; they are proud, perhaps even arrogant at how strong and fast they are. And they are terrified of going to high school where they’ll be weaker and slower.
This is where I wanted my students to stand—somewhere between Romeo, who believes in dreaming things true, and Mercutio, who creates a dream so magnificent and terrifying, then poof!, Queen Mab and her walnut of a chariot are no longer. He shrugs those forty-three wild lines as nothing more than a creation from an empty mind. Mercutio refuses to see the truth in what he’s told his friend. Or maybe he doesn’t have the courage to see the truth. Maybe he just wants Romeo to stop moping around and come party with him. Maybe it’s all of the above.
At least, that’s how it is in my classroom.
I think that, when it comes to middle school students, every day is a chance to play around with, step into, create something they’re unsure about. This is risky business, figuring oneself out, and, frankly, it’s safer to go in for the stupid joke, to be disruptive, to tease. For years this group had been identified as tough, and rightfully so, but that spring and with Mercutio flirting around the pages of our notebooks, I wanted them to lean towards something they might not quite believe about themselves, but hoped for. And, instead of brushing it aside after they’d thought it up, I wanted them to dream it true.
So I gave them a DIY Queen Mab assignment. They were to create a character who both helps and haunts, and write a fourteen-line sonnet in iambic pentameter, Mercutio-style. Along with their poems, they were to make a puppet for their character.
Their audience was the kindergarten class downstairs. For several days, my students worked on sonnets. They made puppets to go with their poetry, and they wrote a lesson plan to share with kindergarteners to help them understand rhyme and iambic pentameter.
Then, my students—who trip, sneer, rip stuff off walls, push, roll their eyes, check their phones when my back is turned—carried their puppets and their poems, and sat down with five-year-olds for an afternoon. They clapped out iambic pentameter together. They gave them words to practice rhyming. They asked them if they were ever afraid to do something, but at the same time wanted to try it.
“What if you could make up someone who helped you do what you’re afraid of?”
“Like a monster?”
“Like a fairy monster,” one of my 8th graders suggested.
Kindergarteners smiled in awe of these big kids who, normally, they fear for their loud and crashing ways. My 8th graders were still Mercutios, but they were softened Mercutios, vulnerable and gentle.
The evening before my class shared their poetry, I received another email. This time, it was the All-American Artist who wanted to talk to me. “I have a lot of missing work,” he wrote.
He was right. The first three quarters he’d turned in gorgeous assignments, but this last one his name in my gradebook had zero after zero next to it. He told me he wanted to do the work, but at this point, he was so far behind he didn’t think doing the work was worth it. “Maybe I’m not a poet,” he said.
“Talk to me after class,” I wrote back.
After my classroom emptied that day, I opened up my gradebook, and this boy and I sat down to have a look.
“You showed me you’re a poet in August,” I told him. “It doesn’t go away because of this,” I pointed to my gradebook. “Your gift is there for you to take and turn over and develop. What you decide to do with it is up to you, but your gift will never go away.”
Together, we looked at what was missing.
“It’s so much work,” he almost whispered.
“Let’s not worry about all of them,” I said. “Which ones make you excited? Which ones interest you?”
He pointed to five or six, and I wrote them down. I asked him if he had everything he needed to complete these assignments. He told me he did.
I told him to show me what he could do with those assignments, and we’d go from there.
I didn’t want him to give up when it got hard or confusing or scary. I couldn’t promise him success, or assure him he could be a poet (though I think it’s possible). However, I could show him that he’d thought up a reckless dream, and he could dream what he imagines true.
Mercutio spins a delightful and haunting tale about a made-up fairy who pays us visits when we dream. Now, it is your turn. Create a character who comes along to haunt or to help (or both!). Examples: a fairy that helps with homework, a leprechaun that grants you speed on the soccer field, an ogre that always makes the best donuts.
You are to write a sonnet about your made-up creation. To get you thinking: What does your character look like? Does your character arrive with anything? Is your character always around, or does she/he/it arrive at certain times? How does your character help? How does your character haunt? Does your character have any magical powers?
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s one from Richard Maxson we enjoyed: