Sunday, January 5, 2014

Real Linguistic Horror

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

Stephen King has been dethroned; at least, he has been dethroned as the king of horror among young adult writers. Tapping into what could accurately be many teenagers' worst nightmare, Michael LoMonico has written a novel about a young man who must (gasp) speak only in Shakespearean verse. My students would be, and were, horrified at the thought. If your students are anything like mine, they fear the Shakespeare unit more than most things because they are, well, Shakespeare. So many students come to the high school English classroom with one of two Shakespeariences (Yeah, I said it):

1. The Dummy Experience: Nothing makes someone feel smarter than being handed a copy of a novel with a "simpler" version of the text on the opposing page. Did I say smarter? My mistake. Just as translations of great works of literature only hint at the meaning tucked away in its original language, so too the "No Fear" and various other off-brands of Shakespearean play sacrifice meaning for accessibility. So, when students come to the high school classroom, if they've had the dummy experience, they sit waiting and ready to jot down the answers that the teacher will provide and then ask for on a test. The loss of complexity is a loss too dear to be taken lightly. There are lines and phrases in Shakespeare that still defy a single interpretation; heck, some lines still defy any interpretation. To remove that layered and personal process of meaning making reduces the study of Shakespeare to a gotcha course in plot summary. I did not sign up for that.

2. The Play Experience: For clarity's sake, let me say that I do not mean actual performance of the plays. As a matter of fact, you will see that I advocate that later. What I mean here is the let's-all-dress-up-and-pretend-we-are-doing-Shakespeare-but-remove-the-difficult-language approach. One of my favorite lessons in the Romeo and Juliet unit is walking through the opening, guiding my students to an understanding of what those naughty young men are saying. Students think Shakespeare is the stuff of old, stodgy men in bizarre costumes. They don't really believe the language says so much in such a small space. When they do realize what those two bawdy young men are saying, they usually claim that I have either ruined the play or made the play for them. After all, Shakespeare is a classic, he cannot be "dirty." They never get this in the versions they do in Middle School. In my experience, the Middle School experience is limited not because the teachers don't have the knowledge nor that the students are incapable of dealing with the language (I mean, the original audience was largely undereducated by today's stringent middle school standards). What I mean is that the "fun" of creating the play usually outpaces the struggle to understand what the play says. Oftentimes, the aforementioned dummy versions of Shakespeare are substituted in these productions.

What Mike LoMonico's novel does for young adult readers is build the very confidence needed to take on these plays using a bit of magical realism and a plot straight out of Disney. The moves the narrative makes are so familiar, so unthreatening to young readers, that they cannot help but be charmed by its invitation to sit for a while and enjoy a story about a young man who magically cannot speak in anything but Shakespearean phrases. Opening with the requisite establishment of a teenage voice in all its slang-ridden glory (I seriously felt that I have taught multiple Emmas in a single year), LoMonico's narrative quickly moves the two protagonists to the inciting incident in Peter's parents' study. As anyone who has owned a Riverside Shakespeare can attest, and as I am sure the Reverend Hale of another well-known play would attest, it is certainly a text weighted with authority. Once the tome strikes Peter's dome, he is unconscious until the EMTs place him on a stretcher and he says "For this relief much thanks." I write this in italics because this is how LoMonico denotes Shakespeare's words in the text, providing a quick visual reference for students as they read. The emphasis is unnecessary, but it draws attention to Shakespeare's language. At the end, this focus seems to be LoMonico's thesis: Shakespeare's language is not just immortal, but magical in the way that it transports the imagination to new places. Whether Peter, the eponymous Shakespeare Kid, is at school or a Mets game, the presence of the Bard's words in his speech amplifies everything.

A few students have read it and they are amazed at how enjoyable the experience was. Their horror at reading a "Shakespeare" book has, to once again shamelessly paraphrase, converted from disdain to courtesy. They even seem more open to the idea that we will be tackling one of the plays in a month's time.

This eagerness borne of LoMonico's novel is what classroom teachers can harness. In the Commonwealth Governor's School program, we have limited, but mandatory, summer assignments. My proposal for next year will be to adopt this text as summer reading for the ninth grade. The way the story incorporates and comments upon the play Romeo and Juliet is the perfect introduction to a year that has them encountering the play at the beginning of October. Besides, the story is fun and fast-paced, perfect for a day at the beach or a stormy day inside.

Bottom line: Go get this novel. It is widely available from Amazon. When you open the front cover, be warned. You won't be getting much done until you reach the end of Peter and Emma's journey through Shakespeare. So now the wheel is come full circle, and I will bid you good night, good night until we meet again.