Issue Twenty - Summer 2012

Shakespeare Unplugged

By Susan Foster Hale

Danny is a lanky sophomore in my 3rd period literature class. He has shaggy brown hair under a baseball cap and jeans that ride at least four inches below the belt. He sits right in front of the overhead in my classroom where I spend most of my time. We are reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth aloud together as a class. Danny has his book open to the right page, good thing; he’s playing the Messenger, but when I look at him both ears hold ear buds, the tiny earphones that sit right inside the ear. A small speaker wire drapes down his front and is connected to the I-pod that lives in his sweatshirt pocket. No doubt he has missed the murder of Duncan and the machinations of Lord and Lady Macbeth as they realize that the entire ocean will not clear them of their deed. This is the story of my teaching life; it is no small task to get students to pay attention.

I am exasperated for the nth time today. I wave my hands over my ears as if to tuck back my own hair. This is the motion that tells Danny to yank out those plugs and get down to business mister. I do this frequently throughout the day with many students. I am nothing less than a pitcher on the mound. In fact I have a whole litany of body language that I use to non-verbally communicate with offenders to: unplug, put the cell phone, I-pod, blackberry, and calculator away and get out paper, pencil, and pen and open your book please and thank-you very much I am so sorry for interrupting! I think in run-on sentences. It gets to be a grind. If only Shakespeare had written post-I-Pod.

He looks at me like he can’t imagine what could be so upsetting, shrugs his shoulders and then slides the plugs out of his ears. All the while, MacDuff laments Duncan’s death; the King’s sons decide to skip out before they are framed while both Lord and Lady Macbeth stand seemingly innocent in their night clothes. And I think I have problems.

I look at Danny again. Now he’s busy sliding the ear buds up his sweatshirt. He’s a bit too big and snaking his hand past the lip of the desk up through to the drawstring is no smooth move. He’s sure that if he succeeds I won’t see that the earphones have been reinstalled under the hood. He is miraculously on the correct page; he even manages to participate by reading the Messenger’s line. Academic dexterity.

So I give him the look. If looks could kill I would still be serving 20 to life in an orange jumpsuit teaching sentence diagramming to prisoners because frankly Shakespeare is way too violent. This I am good at. He drops the cord like a dog caught in the act, gives up and looks at the enormous blue English Literature tome before him. Eternal damnation.

He is not rude. He does not swear at me. For a short time he even sits up straight in his chair. Tomorrow we will re-enact the same pantomime. He will try to spend class time listening to his music while I try to download a love for the Bard. It is a dance that Danny and I will perform daily until school is out.

In fact it is a dance that I will do with over one hundred students a day each year. And each year it gets a little tougher to command the kind of attention that dictates the very quality of our lives. And while technology has certain undeniable benefits in an educational setting I feel the slow burn of the disintegration of respect that can only come from those who are really focused, paying attention and truly listening to the lesson. As a twenty year veteran teacher in a public high school most days I feel inept and incapable, unable to push back the tide of technology that leaks into my classroom daily sweeping true focused attention away with it in the under tow. I flounder when it comes to getting and keeping their attention.

It is not that the kids are rude or angry so much as they are unwittingly addicted and so very unaware of just how disconnected they really are. And the more attached to their hand held devices they become, the less willing they seem to be when it comes to engaging in real time learning and discussion about any intellectual ideas. Isn’t this the very foundation of our democracy? It is difficult to compete and some days the toll is personal. After all what would Shakespeare say if the audience was texting during one of his plays? Where for art thou?

And Danny? What will happen to him after he leaves school? I can only guess that much of the time his ears will be plugged for sure. He is a good kid as I believe most of them are but as he continues to mature and become an adult I often wonder what will really be going on in-between those ears. Will he ever manage to live his life truly unplugged?

Copyright Hale 2012