Last week I wrote that I was attempting to read all of Shakespeare in 2021. So far, I’ve completed Twelfth Night, and the plan is for me to finish Henry VI Part 1 in the next few days.
I’m reading with two other people, and we check in and share our thoughts with each other about once or twice a week.
I’m enjoying myself, but I’ve made a few mistakes. For example, I printed out the reading schedule, plus copied it onto my wall calendar, plus purchased the first several books but last week in a group chat I wrote, “Looking forward to reading Henry V!”
One person wrote back, “I think it’s Henry VI.” Indeed, he was correct.
Phew, I thought as I clicked on my resource links and study notes for Henry IV, I’m glad he pointed that out.
Did you catch that? I clicked links for Henry IV.
There are too many Henrys, and Roman numerals are hard for some people.
I was so eager to read about Hal and Falstaff and their rowdy ways, and so I was totally confused when Joan of Arc shows up and beats every man in a duel. How was this not in the study notes? I thought. A woman warrior seems like a really big deal!
I admit my mistake, but Shakespeare did me no favors having all these Henrys around, plus a Worcester in one and a Winchester in another play—both schemers, both vindictive. It’s like he wanted to confuse me.
“The central conflict in the play is the clash of appearance and reality,” I wrote in my notes. No kidding, I thought as I taped the correct character chart over the wrong one. “An example of the central conflict is that it appeared I was reading Henry VI, when in reality I was reading Henry IV.”
The good news is I don’t have to start over. I am reading the correct play, I was just in the wrong story.
A handful of years ago, on a late November evening, I received a text from a good friend I hadn’t spoken to in months.
“This may sound strange,” she wrote, “but you’ve been on my mind a lot, and I think it’s time for you to leave teaching.”
She went on to explain that it wasn’t about failure, or giving up. Rather, she felt I wasn’t in the right place. In short, I was in the wrong story, but I was too afraid to admit it. I didn’t have enough courage or trust in myself to believe in, or even look for what the next story would be. I thought I’d have to start over.
“Each hath his place and function to attend,” Winchester says in Act 1, Scene 1 of Henry VI. “I am left out, for me nothing remains.”
Here may be the motivation for Winchester’s scheming and vindictiveness. It is a vulnerable act to observe others have a “place and function” and perhaps if Winchester had a good friend, that friend could’ve said, “Dude, so do you. It’s just not here.” I imagine this bro slapping him on the shoulder, pointing him to the open road, and adding, “With a name like Winchester, you know you have important work to do yet.”
Instead, Winchester tried to make himself part of a story that no longer belonged to him.
I can pinpoint the exact moment that teaching, as I knew it, left me. I was writing on the whiteboard in my classroom in Maryland, and I thought, as clear as a blue sky and a sun like a daisy, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Nothing in the class was wrong. I wasn’t having a bad day. The thought came to me the same way identifying the day of the week would come: It’s Tuesday. I don’t want to teach anymore.
That was it. A space—a mysterious vacancy—opened up.
If you know this part of my story, you know I didn’t explore that space. I didn’t listen to my ballerina patronus who held out pointe shoes and whispered, “It’s time to dance to another story.” Instead, I made like Winchester.
I don’t believe I was vindictive, but I held onto what my place and function was because I was afraid if I let go, nothing of me would remain.
What a terrifying thing it is to believe everyone has a place and a purpose except you. I don’t endorse conniving manipulation, but I also confess Winchester’s words resonate, and while they don’t excuse his actions, they add a more nuanced and empathetic layer to his character. This in turn helps me stand empathetically with myself and others in all our nuanced layers.
Winchester failed to see that he still had a place and function, but it needed to be reframed, or taken to a different story. This is what I believe about myself: I am still a teacher. I will probably always be a teacher. I’m just not a teacher in the way I used to be.
The best part of all this is I don’t have to start over. I can take all of who I am, and all of who I was, if I wish, and bring it to the next story. I don’t have to reinvent myself, which is what I believed I had to do years ago.
“How’d you know to tell me to leave teaching?” I texted my friend recently.
She explained there were some unsaid things I’d expressed in emails, in Facebook, and blog posts. She told me that she thought I needed to say them, but couldn’t. “So, I said them for you.”
It was a powerful moment, that evening she sent the text. I was watching the TV show Luther and, well, crying for the guy who couldn’t turn away from a career he was brilliant in, but was also killing him. She texted me, and the vacancy I thought was gone reminded me it was still there, perhaps larger now.
But a vacancy is not a void. It’s a space for something new to grow.
I’m sorry Winchester did not recognize that reality.
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.