In Timothy Findley’s historical fantasy Elizabeth Rex, the Earl of Essex awaits execution for treason, and on the eve of his death, his queen has commanded Shakespeare’s troupe to entertain the court with Much Ado about Nothing. Afterward, she makes her way to the stables where the actors are passing the night, and there, she learns, among many other things, that the playwright’s as yet unfinished Antony and Cleopatra is patterned, to a degree, on her own reign.
In a wonderful piece of theatrical symmetry, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival presented all three plays this year, and we were fortunate to see them in the an order that ensured full appreciation of all of the clever casting decisions and related doubling of roles: the “original practices” production of Much Ado, featuring an all-male cast; followed by Elizabeth Rex, which offered the same cast, now “themselves” — actors passing a long evening in the court stables; followed by Antony and Cleopatra, in which Elizabeth becomes, in fact “the serpent of the Nile.”
We first saw Elizabeth Rex at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in late 2011, after which I accurately predicted that the regal Diane D’Aquila would receive a Jeff Award. To us, it seemed improbable that any actress could approach D’Aquila, but Milwaukee actress Deborah Staples met her, line for line, and then dazzled the next day as Cleopatra.
While nearly all of the Festival company were strong, another standout was Christopher Prentice. In one of those moments in which time folds in upon itself and leaves me breathless, I read in the program that Prentice is a founding member of the Signal Theatre Ensemble, where, in 2003, he played Benedick in Much Ado. Eleven years ago, my son and I saw that production at a studio of the Anthenaeum Theatre on the grounds of St. Alphonsus Church in Chicago. Prentice was a wonderful Benedick but a far more impressive Beatrice and then a perfect Ned in Elizabeth Rex.
The Festival runs through August 9. Highly recommended.
Since my last post, we’ve seen The Dance of Death at the Writers’ Theatre (reviews here and here) and the Globe-to-Globe production of Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (reviews here and here). The former, which featured the formidable Larry Yando, made us anticipate his Lear at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater next month. The latter employed a worn-out framing device but also offered a new (to us) perspective on the titular character: What if he weren’t melancholy at all? It took several scenes for us to embrace the idea fully, but we did, and it made for spirited conversation on the (long) trip home.
When we were in town for Hamlet, we finally saw Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary at the Art Institute. While there, we are certain we espied Naveen Andrews, who was in Chicago to film “Sense8″ for Netflix. Not wanting to be one of those fans, I refrained (barely) from squealing, “Sayid!” I know the actor is not the character, but perhaps he would have enjoyed knowing how much we enjoyed his portrayal. We’ll never know.
Other than than that, our little group has been working and studying, reading and biking, volunteering and really? Just relaxing. Which, I can assure you, is a good, good thing.
From In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (Professor X; 2011):
Over the years, I have come to think that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms. It is very difficult to make up for gaps in a lifetime of reading and practice over the course of a fifteen-week semester. As Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, says, “Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to college than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.”
I am actually surprised that a larger sprinkling of good students doesn’t turn up in my Huron State classes. I have come to think of two-year colleges as a great bargain. If you are a particular type of good student – someone who is in it for grades and low cost, someone who can sit through rudimentary lectures without falling asleep, who can listen to the rambling and disconnected answers of your fellow students without wanting to bludgeon them, who can listen to your teacher’s repeated attempts to pull answers out of a class without wanting to scream out the bleedingly obvious response – if you are someone who can avoid falling into despair when college classes have high-school-type problems, and the library is so lightly usesd, and no one really ever reads of word of anything, then a place like Huron State is a great buy.
There are many things to love about teaching writing and literature. It happens that I enjoy nothing more than trying to convey to a class something of my passion for a great short story, or the satisfaction a writer can feel upon nailing a point with a phrase that tells.
First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it difficult to fail people. Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity. We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another. So we level the playing field. Slow readers get extra time on tests. Safe harbor laws protect substance abusers. […] Our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.
I understand how we got to such a place. I understand the impulse to make college a welcoming and unthreatening environment. I can’t even say that I think, in theory, it’s a bad idea. Who would endorse the idea of anyone, under any circumstances, being frightened? And I understand the economic factors: that if we’re admitting to college hordes of students who have no business being there, college really has to be welcoming. The effect, though, is to leech all authority from the instructors by having them dance attendance on the students, and to render them impotent.
I find myself viewing the study of literature as one more indignity visited upon the proletariat, like too-frequent traffic stops and shoes with plastic uppers and payday loans.
I had an art teacher in high school who once said something I think is very important. He was teaching us to sculpt clay, and he said as we began, “There are several important things you want your sculpture to do.” I was young at the time, and enraptured with my newly acquired vocabulary of art. I thought he was going to talk about form and function, about depth and resonance. He went on: “Here’s the first one. Your sculpture has to stand up solidly. It can’t wobble.” I was disappointed at the time, but have since come to see his instruction as profound, and the words of not just an art teacher but an artist. Art can’t wobble. We expect our houses to plumb, our tables solid – why not our paragraphs?
The following two weekends were consumed by swim meets. You know, sometimes things end in a sigh, not a shout. So it was with this summer swim season — and perhaps even this chapter in our lives. The short story is that they swam beautifully this season but missed their goals. The longer story is that the team is finalizing its winter practice and meet schedule, and my swimmers wonder — just as their brother did at about the same age and the same point in his studies — if they really want to continue in the sport.
They have been knee-deep in their college courses throughout most of the summer season and know that they can do both, but neither intended to swim competitively in college. While Miss M-mv(i) will be a bona fide college freshman, Miss M-mv(i) will only be a high school senior this fall, and a young one, at that. (Her conventionally schooled peers will be juniors this year.) Her ambivalence is understandable, then, especially since leaving the team now renders her ineligible for the senior scholarship.
That said, theirs are not necessarily easy rosters. Over the next two semesters, they have trigonometry, calculus, college composition I and II, physics, introduction to psychology, and electives. They work ten hours weekly during the academic year, and Miss M-mv(ii) has already committed to continuing her piano and guitar practice, lessons, performances, and competitions.
So, we may have attended our last swim meet this past weekend. Sweet, bitter. Bitter, sweet.
JAQUES: Why, ’tis good to be sad and say nothing.
ROSALIND: Why then, ’tis good to be a post.
More from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
Act One, Scene Three
CELIA: Why, cousin! why, Rosalind! Cupid have mercy! not a word?
ROSALIND: Not one to throw at a dog.
CELIA: No, thy words are too precious to be cast away upon curs; throw some of them at me; come, lame me with reasons.
Act Two, Scene One
DUKE SENIOR: And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
Act Two, Scene Seven
JAQUES: Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.
Act Three, Scene Two
JAQUES: God be wi’ you: let’s meet as little as we can.
ORLANDO: I do desire we may be better strangers.
Act Three, Scene Five
ROSALIND: But, mistress, know yourself: down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love:
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets:
Cry the man mercy; love him; take his offer:
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.
So take her to thee, shepherd: fare you well.
Act Four, Scene One
ROSALIND: But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
Some of the things we did last month:
■ Bike rides
We aim for two or three each week, mostly over the weekend. We’re not setting the trail on fire, but we are definitely stronger than we were when we ventured onto it a few years ago.
■ Driving Miss Daisy via “Broadway on Screen”
Starring Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. Simply wonderful.
■ Henry V at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Sigh. Perhaps it was not in this production’s best interests that we saw Tom Hiddleston as Hal in The Hollow Crown just a week or so prior. And then there is our fondness for the 1989 Branagh film. In any event, we all thoroughly disagree with the reviews (here, here, here): For us, this was a Henry V in which titular character was o’ermastered and outdone by nearly every other character on stage. As Miss M-mv(ii) put it at intermission, “He’s a minor character in his own play,” and his lack of gravitas and charisma pointed to an underlying want of vision that deeply disappointed us.
■ Long-course meets
Neither swimmer is hitting her stretch goals, but both have managed to cut a few times and may do so again in their last regular LCM meet mid-month. They are both swimming in the summer regional championships, too,
■ “Kandinsky: A Retrospective” at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Completely, thoroughly, and totally worth the drive. If you’re in the area before September 1, make time for this exhibition.
Speaking of art… We had planned to attend a members’ preview of “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary” at the Art Institute of Chicago but instead relished a thoroughly unscheduled Sunday. We will be downtown later this month and will catch the exhibition then.
■ Volunteer service at the local library
Mr. M-mv and I do this together, one evening a week. Later this summer, we will also begin training to become literacy volunteers.
■ College courses
The Misses are in the fourth week of summer session at the local college. Their second course, which runs for only four weeks, begins after the holiday weekend. In early June, they completed new student orientation and registered for their fall semester. Miss M-mv(ii), a high school senior now, has selected the colleges to which she’d like to apply, and Miss M-mv(i) already knows to which colleges she will apply for transfer admission. Exciting times for both students!
“When I’m not here,” Isabella of Magnificent Octopus writes, “I MOOC too much.”
I’m not certain that what I’m doing qualifies as “too much,” but I am working on two courses (programming and statistics) and am registered for another (about comic book art), and this next bit from that same entry describes some of my thoughts about the work:
What I am establishing in taking these courses is some kind of discipline: setting a goal, sticking to schedule, completing the task. The trick now is to carry this ability over to the rest of my life, remove the MOOCs from the equation (wean myself away), but transfer the energy and focus to something else. (But what?)
But what, indeed. For nearly eighteen years, home education, parenting, and my paid writing and researching gigs (as well as the occasional “real” parttime job), structured my days. When I retired in 2008, home education and parenting continued to order the daily. Now both of my students are enrolled in college — about three months earlier than we had planned — and the ninety or so days that I had thought would give me a gentle transition from homeschooling to, well, not homeschooling anymore await my plans.
The MOOCs have quickly, easily, familiarly filled a void while I ease into what comes next.
We have several adventures on the calendar, including five plays (three of which we will see at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival) and the aforementioned exhibit at the Art Institute. We’re also looking forward to the Bristol Renaissance Faire and a trip to Fermi Lab.
Several years back, it caused many a twisted panty and no small amount of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing when I posted the February 29, 2008 Wall Street Journal article, “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?” to a homeschooling message board. The article simply asserts that “well-trained teachers and responsible children” are the key to that country’s educational success.
There had been a similarly angst-y flurry a few months earlier, when I posted The Economist‘s “How to be top,” which asserts, “The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else.”
Begin with hiring the best. There is no question that, as one South Korean official put it, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. [Emphasis added.]
Why the knicker knots? you wonder. Because I posited that the same could be said about homeschooling — that is, for the most part, the endeavor will only be as successful as the parent-teacher.
I was reminded of these two articles (and the irritation my insistence on drawing analogous conclusions about home educators inspired) yesterday, while reading a lengthy discussion about homeschooling and using resources and teachers in co-ops and other settings.
For about seventeen years, I’ve maintained that I am the opposite of a homeschooling evangelist. In short, I don’t think everyone can do this. I don’t think everyone should. And I most certainly have met people — in person and online — that I fervently wish weren’t attempting this since they, their children, and the stereotypes they perpetuate are the reason my family rarely announces that we homeschool.
That’s not a popular position, of course, because it’s not all daffodils and sunshine and “You can do this!” It’s not particularly encouraging or affirming. But sometimes, the kindest thing is the truth, and the truth is not everyone who decides to attempt this thing will be good or even adequate. You see, it simply is not enough to love your children. It’s not enough to design a school room, wallpaper your homes in books, buy memberships to museums, and collect curricula. Nope. You must also teach, and to teach well, you must be capable, smart, engaged, and certain.
The wonderful Marva Collins Collins wrote plainly but enthusiastically about the call to teach well:
Many of us can be excellent for a day, but we find a lifetime of excellence to be just a bit difficult. Good teachers leave their egos and problems at the door each morning. They become so immersed in the children they teach that they forget time, problems, who they are, or what they can’t do. They believe that they exist for their students. They hear with their hearts, they see with their souls, and they teach with their conscience.
Parker J. Palmer also defined the essence of teaching well:
Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are not in their methods but in their hearts — meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.
Let’s face it: Palmer is describing a level of expertise here, isn’t he? You can’t, after all, “weave a complex web of connections” if you don’t possess information and experience — expertise.
This is, of course, why teaching the upper grades is difficult — which is why we must introduce our students to other teachers, other learning settings. Many may be able to teach with excellence and heart in the elementary grades, but only some can do so in the secondary school grades, and then, only in some subjects. At that point, it becomes critical to identify resources — virtual schools, co-ops, dual enrollment programs, community mentors, or, if nothing else is available, the local high school — for the subjects in which we are unable to weave a complex web of connections. Oh, and by the way? This is a good thing socially, too, since some (not all, but some) homeschoolers and their parent-educators seem to have a tough time adapting to conventional classroom habits and expectations.
So, how are you doing?
Just as the students of the good and wonderful teachers we remember from our own school years did not all enroll in a “big name” college (or in college, at all), did not become prodigious accumulators of wealth or heroes on the battlefield or whatever, our own students may not, either. So if success in this endeavor will not be measured by where / if they attended college or what profession they enter, by what will it be measured?
I thoroughly believe that if you are doing this thing well — with excellence and heart — you already know the answer to that question.
Good luck, folks.
My tour through Ulysses was led by a deft literary guide, a full professor who preferred his students to his study, a rare, rare breed, indeed. He took us by the hand (and some us by the nose) as we sometimes walked, often plodded, occasionally skipped through his favorite book in all the world. And those who could afford the annual pilgrimage to Dublin, he happily ushered through the streets and narrows that his beloved Bloom paced.
As I have done each June 16 since taking Marty N.’s seminar on James Joyce, today I pulled down my tattered copy of the tome and reread a paragraph here, a margin note there, assorted slips of paper quoting Marty, and Chapter 18 in its entirety. Our discussion of “the ‘Yes’ chapter,” all those years ago, was prefaced by a screening of Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan’s performance of Molly Bloom’s monologue. The stunned silence that followed the film’s end was recalled to me when I read this bit in the Times Literary Supplement several years ago:
This is particularly true of Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy, which may end on a “Yes” but is tragic in its implications. Here is a wakeful woman, beside her sleeping husband, left with nobody to talk to but herself. After an afternoon assignation with her lover, she feels compelled to m-st-rb-te repeatedly in the bed, because her visitor took all the pleasure for himself. The blank pieces of paper which she posts to herself seem like emblems of her lonely condition, just as her “yes” seems a desperate tactic to convince herself that life is better than it is. When the Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan performed the monologue in this way on an American campus in the 1980s, some elderly professors handed back their membership cards to the Joyce Association in disgust at her alleged blasphemy against a sacred text.
Not Marty. Like us, he was staggered by Flanagan’s interpretation. Oh, what a discussion followed.
Yes, it’s Bloomsday again. The twenty-third that I’ve marked. I grow old.*
You know, reading Joyce, hell, reading any of the “heavier” books, requires a time-space that few of us willingly make. Oh, the children, we chide. Ah, work, we moan. Oh, dear, the chores, the errands, the lawn, the home-improvement projects. We toss the books aside in dismay because they are no easier now than they were when well meaning English teachers and professors pressed them on us in our teens and early twenties.
Bulletin! They were never meant to be “easy.”
* From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Do you want me “to bring it all home”? Okay. Modernists Eliot and Joyce (and Ezra Pound) influenced, nay, arguably shaped twentieth-century literature. In a 1922 review, Eliot described Joyce’s Ulysses as “the most important expression which the present age has found.” It’s no small coincidence that Eliot identified the “mythical method” in Joyce’s work: “The Waste Land” was meant to be read as a mythic quest, too.
Hence, it is not remarkable that a discussion of Joyce might remind me that “I grow old… I grow old…” and that growing old in that meter might call to mind Eliot.
Which reminds me of this, from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye:
“‘I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ What does that mean, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Not a bloody thing. It just sounds good.”
He smiled. “That is from the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ Here’s another one. ‘In the room women come and go/Talking of Michael Angelo.’ Does that suggest anything to you, sir?”
“Yeah — it suggests to me that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”
“My sentiments exactly, sir. Nonetheless I admire T. S. Eliot very much.”
“Did you say, ‘nonetheless’?”
Also from The Long Goodbye:
I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.
The company of books is unimaginably rich, and the reading life is rife with leaps and connections, links and consolations.