23 April 2009

No Holds Bard

The Birthday Celebrations for Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son are in full swing. Stratford-upon-Avon is heaving with tourists (when is it not?) from around the globe celebrating the life, times, works and hometown of William Shakespeare.

 To add to the merry-making, today is also the Feast Day of St. George, patron saint of England. There are lots of festivities for both Will and George planned throughout the county over the coming weekend.

In my little pocket of Warwickshire, on the banks of the Avon, we have marked the day in our own quiet Barfordian way. Morning prayer at St. Peter’s with the vicar reading those famous lines from Henry V – “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George!’” – guess he was sort of killing two birds with one stone, as it were.

This weekend, there’s a special St. George service planned at the church, and our “local,” the Granville, is offering a special “olde English” menu all weekend, in honor of the saint.

As for me, I have spent the day out in the glorious sunshine, writing in the garden. This was a welcome and wonderful reprieve after a stint of “shakespearing” at the Shakespeare Trust this week.

I spent the past two days at the Trust helping to lead a Shakespeare-centered debating project for 14-16 year olds. This workshop is geared toward “middle of the road” students. Not the highest flyers, but the ones who, with the right encouragement could be high flyers.

The students who participated in this workshop were from 4 different schools in the area of the English Midlands called “the Black Country”.  Its moniker is derived from the regions heavily industrial past in coal and iron.

As such, it makes sense that the students in our groups were from mostly urban, working class backgrounds. This kind of work can be very demanding, more than a little bit draining, but it always rewarding. And yesterday was no exception.

There is a very funny British comedienne called Catherine Tate. For her sketch comedy series, “The Catherine Tate Show,” she has created a host of hilarious characters.

One of her characters is “Lauren Cooper,” a disaffected teenager known primarily for her now-famous catchphrase: “Am I bovvered?”

Imagine being surrounded by a group of Lauren Coopers, as you stand armed with only your wit, and the sole directive of getting these disgruntled garden gnomes to engage with you, each other and Shakespeare. Words fail to describe fully the very public nightmare this situation can be. Horrid.

There I stood, in a sea of discontented youth, trying desperately to light a spark, and these kids were having none of it. We limped through the first hour, which felt to me like pushing a boulder uphill, while wearing a backpack full of lead bricks. Make no mistake, it was worse than trying to herd a tribe of cats. Blindfolded.

And I have to say, the girls were the worst! Gangly arms folded tightly across uniformed chests, expressions on their faces at once blank and smug. They huddled together in a tight ,little groups, finding strength in their almost photocopy sameness. Wisely, I diffused each gaggle’s group mentality by splitting them up, and making everyone stand next to someone from a different school.

Breaking the groups up helped immensely. The ring leader, the main girl who was “too cool for school” was suddenly floundering at sea without her “back up” surrounding her. Also, not surprisingly, liberated from the ring leader’s sphere, her fellows were free to actually relax, enjoy themselves and excel.

One such girl was Annie, the smallest, shiest member of the “cool girl” gang. I could see immediately that Annie had different spark/spirit about her. My instincts were right, and as the day progressed she went from strength to strength.

The day actually ended in a competitive public debate, and Annie was shocked and elated to hear her name announced as one of the 6 semi-finalists. The finals round was a heated debate on the following motion: “This house believes that Shakespeare is no longer relevant.”

I was responsible for prepping the team opposing this motion, which included Annie and two other bright sparks. We had half an hour to formulate points and decide who was saying what. In this session, Annie took the lead, and then she led the troops into battle.

During the final debate, I sat on the sideline like an anxious stage mother. And, I was absolutely gutted when the judges declared victory for the other team, the Proposition. My heart sunk, as I immediately felt the day had been lost. I had visions of little Annie limping back to her circle of friends, only to be chastised for daring to try.

Thankfully, I was distracted by one of the other teachers. But, in the midst of our conversation, I felt a small tapping on my shoulder. I turned around to see Annie’s little face beaming up at me.  “Thank you, Miss. Thank you. I can’t believe I did that. Thank you so much!” she said as she threw her arms around me, and gave me a huge hug.

“You are very welcome. Listen, Shakespeare wrote ‘to those who have been given much, much is expected,’” I said to her, trying not to cry, “I’m expecting great things from you, Annie.” Her smile beamed again, “Thank you, Miss!” And with that she scurried away.

The power of Shakespeare to empower and change lives is something that I have had the good fortune to witness consistently throughout my life. And, It never ceases to amaze, unnerve and humble me that I have the opportunity be a small part of that process. Beyond the parades and the birthday cake, Shakespeare is 400 years old and still going strong!

Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

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