You Only Have to Be One Lesson Ahead

Austin L. Church
May 25, 2016
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I was twenty-three. I had graduated with a B.A. in English in May, had started teaching high school in August, and within a couple of months, the inevitable happened: I found a gray hair, or rather a white, hair attached to my scalp.This aberration had the coarseness of horse hair. Somehow, I had managed to vault straight over gray into white.Extreme trauma can blanch one’s hair. (Or at least that's what I gleaned from the Crash Test Dummies’ 1993 hit song, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” and have never bothered to verify.) Regardless, trying to teach Shakespeare to high school freshmen gives you gray hair. Fact.Romeo & Juliet is one of the most significant literary works in the history of humankind. Tragedy aside, it has all the best stuff: young love, feuding families, braggadocio and sword fights, secret marriage, honor, and the deaths of lovers that seem so unnecessary. Nearly five hundred years after it was written, the story still has the power to disturb and cut our media-hardened hearts.Shoot, R&J introduced phrases like “star-crossed lovers” into the Western lexicon. It makes The Bachelorette, where no one dies from sword wounds, look rather sedate by comparison.

one lesson ahead

Photo Credit: Joe Campbell via Flickr

How on earth was I supposed to teach Shakespeare to pubescent teenagers? It was all I could do to make it to my first class on time, let alone make Elizabethan English stick in those distracted, hormone-saturated brains.Sure, I’d made an A in Dr. John Parker’s Shakespeare’s Tragedies course in college. He wore turtle necks underneath tweed blazers and had the right eyebrows for the job. But in a single semester, we could only graze the surface of the majors. After all, Hamlet and King Lear and Macbeth all deserved attention too. To plumb their depths takes months, years.Knowledge comes with a full cargo of irony. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Knowledge is like a flashlight. The beam of light only illuminates the magnitude of darkness.I was acutely aware that many adults never fall in love with literature because their high school English teachers taught them to hate it first. Though I didn’t expect all my freshmen to go on to become English majors, I didn’t want to make them hate literature either.Teaching English literature is similar to rearing your children while knowing how many of your friends in their late twenties and thirties are in counseling. While you listen to them relate how they're sorting out all of the wounds and dysfunction inherited from their parents, you realize that you are now in the position to become the perpetrator. You are, in fact, a Parent. "Out, damned spot!"If we were really responsible adults, we’d set up therapy funds right alongside college funds.I can’t remember what day the epiphany came. It may have been the First Gray Hair Day, or perhaps I was doing something banal like making copies.POOF! Most of my anxiety evaporated when the thought struck me: I only have to be one lesson ahead.I don’t have to be a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar with a pet raven and a second home in the Cotswolds. I can be a very young man with almost no practical teaching experience who at worst wants to do no harm and at best wants to impart some small appreciation for the art, for the fine music of this incredibly rich linguistic moment in the English language, for the truths about human nature and desire that rise to the surface and hold up a mirror for us even four centuries later.To be the expert, you need only be one lesson ahead.I knew how the story ended. I could peg the plot twists to the narrative arch. Shoot, I could even fudge an explanation for “denouement.” With people who still forget to apply deodorant, that counts for something.True, Shakespeare’s genius mostly eluded me. I’m quick on the uptake, but I simply hadn’t put in the time. If I had allowed my lack of “expertise” to deter me from teaching what I did know, I would have missed the opportunity to connect with my students, who became my kids, mind to mind, heart to heart. I made a halting attempt to convey knowledge to another halting attempt to receive it.I believe that I did more good than harm. Those high school freshmen are now in their twenties. With smiles on their faces, they come over to say hello at a wedding, at a startup event, in a restaurant.We joke about how green I was, about how cute, clueless, and exasperating they were. They do not remember nearly as many of my mistakes as I do. Funny, that.They tell me that they could tell I cared, and that caring mattered more than anything. Facts don’t change us. Caring does. Love does—however faltering. Shakespeare may just be the excuse to do life with and show kindness to humans who are trying to survive a terribly awkward stage of life.And tell me this: Who will profit from your silence?Knowing one’s imperfections, and giving the performance anyway? That takes courage. I think my students profited from that glimmer of courage required to stand up in front of them each day and share what I did know, and more importantly, what I didn’t.Maybe the real lesson was even more discreet than the shotgun wedding that Friar Lawrence officiated. Teach what you do know. Choose yourself, then share yourself. Don’t ever underestimate how much people will care if you give them the chance. Go out and stumble today. Someone is waiting for your help, so stand up and give an imperfect performance.To be the expert, you only have to be one lesson ahead.There you have it, folks.If you found value in this blog post, please sign up for my weekly newsletter. I’ll send helpful freelancing tips your way.Save