Jan 15, 2011

Shake Spear

In sign language, to make the sign for Shakespeare, you shake your fist in the air, and then as though a spear suddenly appeared in your hand, you throw it—releasing it with and open hand—send it flying to pierce the heart of whoever happens to be walking past. Shake. Spear. It is an excellent gesture. In fact, it brings me so much amusement that I sometimes sign Shakespeare for no reason at all, or to punctuate a passionate statement. I love the athleticism of it—and the dramatic, arbitrary spearing of passersby is in itself Shakespearian.

My relationship with Shakespeare began in the 9th grade, when my English teacher, Ms. Crandall, who always wore scarves with cat broaches, introduced me to Romeo and Juliet. R and J is part of the 9th grade curriculum just about everywhere, but somehow Mrs. Crandall made me us feel like she was sharing something special with just us. She would speak about Romeo and Juliet in a reverent whisper that had a swoon on the edge of it. And she risked herself by letting us watch the Franko Zeffirelli version of the movie, which had a bare butt shot of Romeo. This made quite an impression.

From then on, Shakespeare was everywhere. Every English class in America--and probably the world--has a drawing of Mr. Shakespeare on the wall in his ruffled cravat, his bald dome, and the longish skirt of black hair that begins at his ears. Sometimes as I write about him, I feel like I should capitalize the H in Him, like one does when using the article for deity.

By college, I had read most of the well known plays, including Hamlet, and I thought for sure that a dramatic death for unrequited love, or honor, or revenge, was the only romantic way to end. I personally found drowning most exciting and stylish, in the great style of Ophelia. Looking back, I can’t help but think that if adults remembered how impressionable our young minds could be, they might not have let us read Shakespeare at all.

In college, I was destined to read even more Shakespeare. At Brigham Young University, where I spent several years, there was a well known professor who taught Shakespeare. The only reason he was well known was because his name was William Shakespeare. I’m not joking. That was his name. Professor William Shakespeare.

This brings me to Romeo’s famous question: would a rose by another other name smell as sweet? If you name your son William Shakespeare, does he have any other choice but to become a professor of Shakespeare?

As it turns out, Professor Shakespeare was not all that many students hoped for. Or so I heard. Shakespeare is a required course for English majors, and the word around the Humanities Building was that Dr. Shakespeare was boring. Dull as a depression era text book, and prone to droning on in a monotone.

I thought of Miss Crandall and the way she pressed her hand to her heart and gazed out the window at the falling sycamore leaves whenever she talked about Romeo and Juliet. Miss Crandall lived alone with two cats and the ghost of a dead cat named Fubar, but somehow, she seemed like the happiest of women. She was definitely the happiest of all the teachers at Hillside Junior High School, and somehow I knew it had to do with Shakespeare.

I decided that there was no way I was going to stand for a boring Shakespeare teacher. Looking back, I should have taken Shakespeare from Shakespeare just to say I had. But instead, I took a gamble on a “staff” instructor. Staff means that when they printed the registration guide, they still didn’t know who was teaching it yet.

The first day of class, when I met Nancy Christiansen, I knew I might have lost the gamble. She was a short woman, and her unfeminine body made her clothes fit all wrong. She had wheat-colored hair that looked like it had been cut with a bowl and garden shears. Her face was small and round and she had no lips to speak of. Nancy could easily have passed for John Denver. To further add insult, she had a mole on her face with several inch-long hairs growing out of it.

Her looks were not what made me shudder. It was the way she stepped forward and then shrunk back. It was her first year teaching at BYU and her insecurity hung around her like the smell around an outhouse. I could tell immediately that she had suffered at the hands of bullies most of her childhood, and she already hated half of us for being cooler than she was in high school—and she was going to punish us for it.

We went over the syllabus. She explained that we would studying Shakespeare from the discipline of rhetoric. The more I learned about rhetoric, the more I hated it. At that time, I understood it as the use of a bunch of Latin words to describe patterns of language that are used to be persuasive…yawn. Here is an example: “Palilogia—the use of repetition to get your point across.” Remember that one, it’s important.

I should have dropped the class and tried to add Professor Shakespeare, but it would have messed up my Tuesday/Thursday schedule. I decided to put my gut feelings aside and power through. I had not idea what was in store.

The English department that I knew up till then was frenzied and alive and indulgent of comedy, intrigue, and artful divergence from assignments in the name of creativity. I was about to see another side of the English department.

My first project in class was an oral presentation and a paper on Love’s Labors Lost. This play is about some bumbling noblemen that are trying to win love, and the ladies they try to court are not having it. In it, there is a play within this play which is poorly performed by the players. My paper was about this play within the play, and particularly on Shakespeare’s thoughts about bad performance.

I should note that I was the second person in the entire class to give an oral presentation. The first person gave a boring, lecture style presentation which was the equivalent of him reading his paper aloud.

When it was my turn, I stepped into the hallway to prepare. Our classroom was at the end of a hallway in the most dimly lit corner of the basement of the Humanities building, which would seem fitting later on, but at that moment I was still full of light and mischief. Out of my bag, I pulled a long, sparkling blue prom dress. A thrift store find. It was more than a decade out of style and had plastic costume jewel beads hanging from the sleeves. I slipped it on over my clothes, then threw open the classroom door.

I stepped in to face my audience, linked my hands in front of my chest, and sang in an operatic, pitchy voice, the Billy Joel classic, “Piano Man.”

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man. Sing us a song tonight. We’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling....

I had intended to finish the refrain, but stopped. In the back row, my friend Eliza was the only one who seemed to be enjoying this. Her face was splotchy from stifling her laughter. No one else was laughing. Jaws hung open. Some people looked away, others down at their desks. Dr. Christiansen looked like she had eaten bile. It was bad, I admit. But that was the point—to illustrate bad performance. I knew I would tie it back to my thesis, and Eliza knew it, but no one else seemed to understand.

I cleared my throat and tried to proceeded, somewhat less confidently and still in the prom dress, into the heart of my presentation. Words came out of my mouth, but I felt sure no one was following. They were too busy wondering what the hell Billy Joel had to do with Love’s Labors Lost. I finished as fast as I could without really getting my point across—the point being that Shakespeare was not arguing against artifice, but against poor artifice—which I had so elegantly demonstrated.

I got a C on the paper.

This was unexpected, even given the unenthusiastic response. I had never gotten a C in my life. But the C wasn’t what hurt—what hurt was that everyone who followed my presentation for the entire rest of the semester basically read their paper aloud. No creativity whatsoever. And yes, I took it personally. It made me stand out as the only one stupid enough to believe the line, added like an afterthought at the bottom of Nancy’s syllabus, which said “be creative.”

By this time, it was too late to drop the class, and things had gotten personal. I had never felt so creatively stifled and unappreciated in a Humanities class, and I hated her for creating this class culture. Maybe I also felt found out. Because, if I were honest I would have admitted even then that I often used creativity to help me skate through when I couldn’t pull my scholarly weight. Whatever the reason, I felt exposed and angry.

The next assignment was a 5-7 page psychological analysis of a Shakespeare character. We were to choose 10-15 lines spoken by one character in any play and analyze the passage in “minute detail.” She referred to this as putting it through the “lemon squeezer.”

I got excited when I realized that my favorite monologue by Ophelia was exactly 10 lines. I walked around campus reciting and thinking about Ophelia’s monologue, which I had memorized years before. But I did a lot of sighing when I thought about this assignment.

Winter had already begun to melt and spring was charming us out of doors. On a beautiful afternoon, I put my hammock up in the tree next to my back porch and stared at the sky, sectioned off in odd shapes by tree branches and power lines. Yellow flowers bloomed on the tree, and the smell put me in a happy trance. I tried to take a mental picture as I looked up, but the energy required to take and then develop and store a mental picture was ruining the moment, which was a pure physical sensation. I took a deep breath and sighed. I hated the idea of the lemon squeezer. I knew that if I put Ophelia’s lines through the lemon squeezer, they would never again be as magical to me, like that spring day.

In a moment, I made up my mind. I went inside to my computer, sat down, and started typing, chuckling to myself. In just a few minutes, using copy and paste, I was done. I had seven neatly typed pages that read, “ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES FELICE A DULL GIRL.” I went back outside and fell into a daydreamy sleep in my hammock.

The next Monday, I entered the dreary basement of the Humanities building, smiling all over my face, and handed in my paper. I told Eliza, snickering, that I had written one long palilogia.

A week later, when Dr. Christiansen handed the papers back, I tapped my fingers on the desk in anticipation. I had never received an F before, and it was sort of exciting. When the paper fell into my hands from the girl in front of me, I looked for a big red F on top of the paper. But there was nothing. I looked at all 7 pages. She hadn’t made a single mark. I had even left out a few periods and put in a few misspellings just to tempt her red pen.


I scowled at Dr. Christiansen from my seat.

As everyone filed out after class, Nancy and I paused and stared at each other like two animals in the wild. I was clearly the superior animal, so I held my head up and made as if to approach her. She shrunk back a little, then cleared her throat and said stiffly, “Can we talk in my office later?”

“Sure.” I relaxed my shoulders and tried to look casual. I held up my paper. Why didn’t you put a grade on my paper?” I asked.

“We’ll talk about it in my office,” she said, fumbling with a stack of papers.

Dr. Christiansen’s office was dark and windowless just like her classroom. Books were piled to the ceiling and doubled up on bookshelves. I sat in the only other chair and smiled a little too brilliantly. I pulled out an egg salad sandwich and proceeded to eat it.

Nancy stiffened and her face froze as she watched me. I pretended not to notice that her whole office now smelled like egg salad.

Because it was apparent that she did not know how to begin, I said nothing.

After a silence full of muted torture sounds, she finally said, “What are you going to do about your paper?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Oh. Did you like it? I thought it had a really strong thesis sentence, and I supported it pretty well throughout the piece.”

She stared.

I took another bite of my sandwich and smiled. “Have you ever seen The Shining?”

“No,” she said.

“Oh. It’s really good. It’s with Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall.” I smiled even more brightly.

Her eyes bulged. I heard the clock tick. Someone laughed down the hallway. I tried not to look at her hairy mole.

“You’re not going to rewrite it?” she said.


“What do you plan to do about your grade?”

“I’ll come to class, take the final, and hope for a C.” I smiled again, thin-lipped this time.

She said nothing.

“I guess that’s all then?” I said, as I got up to leave.

She did not say goodbye.

I went to class, as promised. But I sat in the back and made sure to send her the message, via wise cracks and mad glares, that I didn’t like her or her teaching style. When it came time, at last, for the final exam, I did the math and realized that no matter what I got on the final, I would not pass the class. I shook my head when I realized that I had been going to class all that time for nothing. My only hope at passing (D credit didn’t count for my major) was to actually rewrite the paper. I considered it for half a second, then closed my notebook. Forget it, I said out loud. I will retake the class with Professor Shakespeare. He can’t be worse than her. I let out an involuntary sigh of relief, and strolled home enjoying the brilliant April sunshine.

A month later, safely home for the summer and enjoying a ripe hunk of pineapple, I called to get my grades from the automated system. I listened for the mechanical voice to announce my grade for English 382. I waited with anticipation to hear my first and only F of my life. But the automated female voice announced “C Minus.”

What? I choked on my pineapple. I listened again. C Minus.

I stood with the phone in my hand and wondered why in the world would Nancy Christiansen, whose life I had made hell for 3 hours a week, give me a grade I hadn’t earned. She should have known that I wouldn’t take her class again, and she had enough evidence to show any administrator that I had more than failed. The mechanical voice was going on and on but I couldn’t hear it anymore. Something was boiling up inside me. I slammed the phone down.

“I can’t believe she didn’t even have the guts to fail me,” I said when I called Eliza. I wanted to shake my fist in the air and spear someone. I had worked hard for an F, and I thought I had found a worthy opponent. We made cracks about how weak and afraid was Dr. Christiansen.

Over the years, I found myself telling this story many times. I would tell it at parties, animatedly, including the operatic Billy Joel performance--and it has been the source of much fun and laughter. I loved to watch my listeners eyes widen, knowing that the story revealed something about my character—thinking it revealed what happens with someone tries to mess with me. But in writing it down I see that this is just one of the stories within the story.

Like Shakespeare, I could never stand mediocre performance. If I couldn’t be the best, I wanted to fail with the most style. If was going to die, I wanted a romantic, tragic death. I always thought Nancy Christiansen was weak, but perhaps in her I did meet a worthy opponent, because by giving me a C-, she didn’t allow me either. In the end all I had was my story, and my love for Shakespeare, still in tact.