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There Is A Place For Us

February 19, 2021

Fast backwards (That’s a favorite term of mine.) I am a newly minted English teacher in San Fernando High School in my hometown of San Fernando, California and I am attempting to teach Romeo and Juliet paired with Westside Story. Back in the day I was an innovative type of teacher, “newfangled” as we were called back then. The common practice then for us newbies was to pair the two in order to bring Romeo and Juliet to life in the modern era.

My class was a typical inner city affair with about 45 percent Hispanic, 45 percent black and 10 percent white students. I was having a terrible time trying to get the core concepts of the two paired pieces of literature to hit home. The class just didn’t get it. After a week of frustration, I hit upon a most unorthodox idea.

I divided the class purposefully along racial lines, a thing that  absolutely could not be done today. I put all the black students on one side of the room, the Hispanics on another side and left the white students in the middle as impartial “judges.” I then thoroughly explained the background of the opposing sides in each piece of literature. That being done, I calmly walked over to the black students and said, “You’re the Capulets. These Chicanos just called your mamma a whore. What do you have to say to these half brown honkies?” There was a lot of murmuring at first and then finally a young man stepped forth and said to the Hispanic group, “Fuck you.” I smiled and said, “Now you’ve got the idea! That’s just what a Capulet feels!” The lesson proceeded as I let each side take a couple of verbal swipes at the other while exploring the motivations of both the Capulets and the Montagues. Without many words from me the class began to truly understand the guttural theme from both pieces of literature. It also helped relieve some of the racial tensions that I had observed in the class early in the semester. Of course the three white students in my class asked, “What about us?” With I wink I replied. “You are like Shakespeare. You don’t really belong to either clan. Count yourselves lucky!”

Over the years I have often wondered if I had gone astray and a bit overboard in my lesson planning way back then. Again, today a teacher could not even legally use this method nor even think the thought. My vindication came some 40 years later in the form of messages from former students on the website Classmates indicating how much they enjoyed my choice of teaching these two great pieces of literature. Several commented that it was certainly the only way they ever would have been attracted to literature. I had made it very real by force. In fact I never received anything but praise for this unique approach from the 30 plus students who contacted me. On the whole, I guess I did well so many years ago.

🎵There is a place for us🎵, all of us. Whether it is Shakespeare in the inner city or West Side Story in the suburbs, we all need to learn the lessons from both of these pieces. How you choose to give or take that lesson is a matter of personal choice and circumstance.

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5 Comments
  1. I enjoyed Shakespeare in high school, so much that my attention in class was almost non-existent. I was so involved in reading that I missed out on the discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very revolutionary, but the class must have understood the concept in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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