I don't want to do no damn Shakespeare

Lot of buzz about this interesting case from my neck of the woods where juvenile delinquents are being sentenced to Shakespeare.  I scanned the article to see if there’s any mention of the very well regarded Shakespeare Behind Bars, but there is none.

I really don’t know how I feel about this, on a number of levels.  First there’s an issue regarding the quality of the journalism.  “I’ve been asked to refer to them by their first names to protect their privacy,” the author notes parenthetically, in a paragraph right next to a video of the kids?!  Thanks for the description of the same young man as, “sporting an over-sized red hoodie and a slight shadow of facial hair,” I see exactly who you’re talking about.

Second, I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare as punishment.  Equating Shakespeare as something *worse* than prison is not terribly helpful, in my opinion.  That’s why I grabbed the subject line that I did, it’s a quote from one of the kids.  A judge has just told him that he is *not* going to juvenile hall, he is instead going to do Shakespeare, and that’s his reaction.  That saddens me.  This is ten times worse than “Memorize the balcony scene because I’m your teacher and I said so.”  Forget about fear of a failing grade, now you’ve got the weight of the courts mandating you to drag your feet through it.

“This program is not designed to fix them,” the director says.  “That’s not our goal.”  Awesome.  Apparently the entire goal is to give the kids an outlet for their anger.  In the video voiceover (I do not see this bit in the article text) he also points out that Henry V was chosen specifically for the physicality, rather than a Hamlet where you sit around talking.  (Insert obligatory joke here about that year they tried Titus Andronicus and the chaos that ensued 😉 ).  The above-linked “Shakespeare Behind Bars”, in comparison, takes on The Tempest – a play with almost no violence at all, instead populated with magic, fairies and monsters.

I don’t really see the difference between this and those programs where you’d take kids down to the gym and let them punch the heavy bag for a little while, or take up karate.  Shakespeare teaches these kids self control?  So would a black belt martial arts instructor who put them on the ground every time they got out of control.  Maybe this is a good thing and I’m just too far removed from that end of our world that I don’t see it.  I see irony in the director quoting Macbeth’s “I have no words, my voice is in my sword.”  When they quote a student who punched his locker instead of his friend as if this were a good thing I think, “How about getting to a place where he doesn’t punch anything?”

“Am I allowed to say whatever I want?” asks one kid who’s obviously just doing whatever he can to stay out of jail.  “It just gives me something to do after school so I’m not selling drugs.”  There will be people that read that and say “See? He’s not selling drugs!”  All I see is “Ok, he’s not getting anything out of it other than a place he’s required to be for a few hours, and when his sentence is over he’ll go right back to doing what he’s been doing.”  The people running the program, who clearly state “We’re not therapists,” acknowledge that the kids might re-offend.

Maybe it’s a good program and a terrible article.  This “Shakespeare in the Courts” program has been running for 10 years, apparently.  Where’s the story from the graduate of the program who’s gone on to do great things with his life?  Have you got even one kid who got turned around? Any success stories? Any?

6 thoughts on “I don't want to do no damn Shakespeare

  1. I've heard upper class (as in social strata) high school kids say worse things about Shakespeare. –until they actually DO It, which is what's happening here. From reading the article, I don't get that it's really being billed as "worse than prison". But sometimes Shakespeare to high school kids CAN be worse than that 🙂

    Having been employed as a Youth Division Aide for a number of years (in one of my "real jobs") I can attest to the fact that the recidivism rate is probably always going to be very, very high in any kind of rehabilitative program for troubled kids. NO "program" is anywhere near perfect, nor is it expected to be a "cure". I'm happy I can point to a few ("those happy few", to misquote someone) who went on to accomplish all of the goals set for them. But I can also attest that any kind of program involving theatre can be worthwhile; instructive and cathartic, no matter the participants' background. I also think what's important to recognize is that the question that preceded "I don't want to do no damn Shakespeare" was… "What the hell is Shakespeare?"
    …Now he knows.
    A step in the right –not wrong–direction. What can be wrong with that?

  2. Re: "worse than prison", I was referring to the fact that the kids reaction to "no jail" was not "Yay, no jail!" but rather "I don't wanna", as if given a choice he might well take juvenile hall. Worse in his own mind, not the mind of those sentencing him.

    I agree that it's a step in the right direction, but I think it is a badly misguided baby step. "The goal is not to fix them. We're not therapists. We deliberately picked a play that is about violence, rather than talking." Like I said, where's the followup story about the kid who graduated from the program 10 years ago? Surely there's gotta be one. Having our boy Jesus punching a locker instead of his friend? That's our win? I deliberately linked in Shakespeare Behind Bars, which appears to be doing far more with people who were far more gone.

    I don't think that you can make people learn things. There's a gigantic curve to that, no doubt, where on one side you'll have the sponges who learn everything they can get their slimy little brains on whether you teach them or not, in the middle you'll have a whole heaping helping of school children who *say* they don't want to learn, but really they're just being stubborn like kids tend to do and they don't care one way or the other so you still stand a shot at convincing them they really did want to learn. And then there's the other side of the curve where it gets harder and harder and harder to make people do it because it's good for them. They eventually get the point where any new thing is met with "No." Had you sentenced them to 6 weeks of Morris dancing or philately you'd get the exact same reaction.

    Some people, such as these folks, seem to hold out hope that there's no such thing as a lost cause, and that you can seize upon opportunities for captive audience and force the value of Shakespeare upon them, even while admitting "It may not work, who knows."

    I'd rather play on the other side of the curve. I'd rather expose a classroom full of 5yr olds to Shakespeare than a roomful of 16yr old juvenile delinquents, any day.

  3. Duane wrote:"I'd rather expose a classroom full of 5yr olds to Shakespeare than a roomful of 16yr old juvenile delinquents, any day."

    I've done both. Neither is more rewarding than the other–just different.

    And no one knows whether a cause is lost until it actually IS–completely. And as far as "making" people learn things goes, we're unsuccessful at that every day in many ways. We "make" kids go to school. People "make" themselves work at jobs they hate. Does it serve some kind of purpose? I'd like to hope so.

    How much actual "Shakespeare" do you think kids get from rushing to the latest bad adaptation because their newest heart throb happens to be badly acting the lead and they've been marketed to incessantly about that very fact?
    There are all kinds of ways and all kinds of reasons. Establishing some sort of hierarchy of productivity as a way to compare "better or worse" doesn't work for me. I've had too much experience with this stuff to think in blacks and whites. Down the line is where it counts. And I may never "be there" to actually "see it". But it doesn't mean a life hasn't been changed and won't be different, for the better…somehow. That's what counts for me. We do what we can, we can do no more.

  4. I don't like the idea of any literature being billed as an alternate "punishment" whether it's punishing or not. If I ran a red light and was sentenced to read Nicholas Sparks novels, I'd probably throw a damn or two out there, too.

    It's not necessarily a bad thing to expose young minds to something challenging and beautiful, but if the intent is to make it feel like punishment, that is repugnant. I love teaching Shakespeare because my classes always start out groaning and fearful–absolutely certain that it's going to be torturous and incomprehensible–and by the end they're pleasantly delighted and a little less leery.

    A program like this seems to imply: since you're a bad kid, we're REALLY gonna hit you where it hurts–Shakespeare. Oooh! It's by a dead white guy who wrote poetry. Ooooh! It's elitist! Ooooh! It's so out of your league that you'll beg to be set free.

    It's that misappropriation that gives Shakespeare's work (and all poetry for that matter) a bad reputation.

  5. You are probably a more patient and forgiving man than I, sir. I'll take the 5yr olds because they haven't chosen a path yet that will make them choose between jail and Shakespeare. I said in the original post, maybe I'm too far removed from the side of the world. I acknowledge that my life has been good relative to some kids who have not had the opportunities I've had, and are not always solely responsible for where their decisions have led them. One of the reasons that I do not teach, and I know this, is that I will hit the wall way too soon where if someone chooses not to learn from me, I will write them off. They can come back if they choose, but I won't go chase them. I most certainly won't mandate that they must choose between what I have to teach them and jail, and then pat myself on the back that maybe someday somewhere it might turn out that I helped one of them, even though it put 99% of them back out on the streets.

    It is perhaps worth noting that a long time ago, before I was married and before I had kids, before I was even dating the woman who would become my wife, my girlfriend and I spoke of raising children, and the idea came up of using memorization of Shakespeare as a form of discipline, like "Go upstairs to your room and don't come down until you can do the Defy augury speech off book."

    Back then, without kids? I imagined that as the greatest thing in the world. The kids would end up way way ahead of their peers when it came to knowledge of Shakespeare.

    Now? With kids? The thought embarrasses me. Horrible horrible idea. I'd much rather pull a random page out of the encyclopedia and tell my kid to do a report on some random subject, than to spoil the enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare by using it as punishment.

  6. "Where's the story from the graduate of the program who's gone on to do great things with his life? Have you got even one kid who got turned around? Any success stories? Any?"

    Exhibit A: the former gang member who
    stopped him on the sidewalk to say, "Hey, Judge, I've got a job now. I'm
    doing good. It's a new me."

    "Kids want structure," Judge Perachi says. "They'll fight you tooth and nail. But if they think the rules are because you care, they respect that. That's not to say there aren't some who would step on the accelerator when I cross the street. BUT THEY'RE THE EXCEPTIONS. (caps mine)
    Finishing this program doesn't mean they've become model citizens. I
    can't prove it, but I firmly believe that the benefit may not manifest
    itself until some future time."

    A couple of links (easily found) to a slightly more complete view of what the program is, the awards it has won, what it HAS done, and what it CAN do.



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