As I embark on a Shakespeare unit with my students, nine graders reading Romeo & Juliet and AP Lit reading Hamlet, we start with questions. Questions Elizabethan thinkers might have pondered in 1598; questions we still ponder in 2018. I am struck with our timeless preoccupation over destiny: Are we the masters of our own fate? I ask students to think and write about their beliefs on this topic. Certainly, these teens, like those penned by Shakespeare, want to believe they are, indeed, in control of their outcomes, while I, I who have screamed up at the Heavens in distress, frustrated by the unpredictability of chance, those ‘why me’ moments; “O, I am Fortune’s fool” situations. As if we are pulled by strings invisible to our own hands. Just when we want/need/hope for a different outcome we must settle for what is… but as I look across the classroom at my students, into their hopeful eyes, their exuberant optimism, I see their uniform belief that yes, they are masters of their fate. They aren’t phased by headlines or politicians’ lies; they see their own trajectory as it slants up and beyond, straight into the starry night. Straight into heaven.
I am troubled by the litany of abusive tweets shared under our president’s moniker, as I am disgusted by the men who have wielded power in base and damaging ways, and the simplest of obligations broken to our children to keep them warm and fed and safe. How dare we build walls across southern America as if we are some sort of raised empire not to be touched by outsiders’ dirt and scandal? We sit and watch the sabotage of the present governing body to our government and think what? “To Be or Not to Be” indeed, the question still rages on… rages inside. Are our elected officials aware of our needs, our concerns, really?
I must confess I adore the present tense where teens exist. I am impressed with their ability to see what changes must be made. My students ask about the systems of food waste while hunger exists in our community. About the damage climate change is having on our natural environment, from global disasters to the decline of our Vermont maple sugar industry. On small things that represent huge things, like still allowing the Confederate flag to be displayed in school yet voicing access for all. Or the fact that nearly every educational video they are shown is a blatant reduction of stereotypes, from gender to race, still. Teens notice what we take for granted. Like the bullshit. Like the abuse of power. Like the decay. And the injustice. The shame. The boxes that hold people down. The avenues closed to the under-served, yet open wide to the over-served. They say no. Stop that. Change, would you already, we want our world to reflect the whole of this country, not just those ultra-rich white guys. I’m with them there. I’m with them. Now.
We only read the tragedies at my high school. And at first I wasn’t sure why. But then I understood. These are Shakespeare’s hard stories. Where reckless behavior, ruthless ambition, stalled action, all tumble down the players. Even when those in the other world break through the veil, returning to caution, inform, or in Macbeth’s case, misinform. As we enter into Act III, in any of Shakespeare’s plays, we witness a downward spiral. The promise of the crown or love or justice, always morphs into something wildly out of control. We readers/theater-goers are warned sufficiently from such foolishness. But then, as mortals, we wonder, can we still get it? Can we overcome ancient grudge? Revenge those who wronged our ancestors? Take power regardless of the means? Warnings come with rapid fire as the play wanes. Treachery goes punished. But often so does innocence. Naivete. Lives lost. We are left with questions. Are we the master of our own fate?
Stay Woke, the marchers caution us as they canvas towns and cities across our country. Read. Listen. Vote. Run for office. Might we not consider those pulling our invisible strings with more scrutiny? Construct a litmus test more exacting for those we grant power? Might we not spend a day listening to those who are rising up after us, and begin to affect change to better their world? Perhaps if we gaze up, with them, these young adults, we too will see the stars. Tonight, as I stumble slightly in the cold and dark, I am happy with a perhaps.
**Art credit goes to marnika weiss for her “Stay Woke” poster; photos are mine, inspired by planet Earth