“If we mortals have offended, think but this and all is mended-” It is the way she says the words that really grabs me. I sit up straighter, and watch my 7th grade English teacher transform into someone else before my eyes. How? How did she do it? She didn’t change clothes, or put on makeup or a mask. Her bearing seems altered, but the words themselves seem to have awakened a snapping, cheeky imp from the familiar old shape of Mrs. White.
I am fascinated. I don’t want the reading to end. She has hooked me in the duration of this brief recitation, and while the next few weeks will pose a huge challenge, slogging through the old English twists of phrase employed by the jolly old bard, every time my teacher recites a passage it takes on life for me, and for a magical moment I actually understand the meaning of the words.
I want to do it. I want to be able to stand up in front of people and become a whole new person; I want to talk like she talks. I am not the only one.
Shy and reticent, it was no small thing for Mrs. White to spark a desire in me to stand up in front of others and recite. Even more so for the student in our class who suffered a speech impediment. Jacob was his name, and while his peers had begun to branch out into more complex social interactions, Jacob remained the class clown, locked into a perception of childishness by his classmates due to those lazy r’s and a sibilant S. Jacob was floundering, and his body language communicated that he understood the mounting alienation that the speech impediment costed. He sat back, arms crossed, and maintained an expression of extreme boredom. He was an angry kid.
But when Mrs. White recited, well Jacob, he sat up. I don’t know why I noticed him on the particular day of the Shakespeare recitation, but there was such a mix of longing and frustration in his face when he heard Mrs. White read, all his body seemed to lean forward with attention.
Mrs. White was a wily old thing. She hooked quite a few of us and reeled us in. Within weeks, students were going up to the front of the class to attempt Shakespeare, Byron, Keats. In contrast to our teacher’s performance, I found most of these efforts lackluster. I began to sweat my scheduled monologue, the old shy tendency making my stomach turn inward at the thought of getting up in front of everybody. But I knew one person in the class dreaded it more than I.
His chosen poem was a passage from Beowulf. Mrs. White had helped him with the careful selection, and I wondered at her choice. If anything was more word-twisty than Shakespeare, it was the dense English tale of hero versus Grendel. I heard Jacob practicing on the school bus and I simply didn’t understand.
What she’d done, you see, is chosen a passage he could relate to. A key moment in the tale of heroism where Beowulf is tested and must prove himself.
The day I recited, I didn’t even hear anyone who spoke before me, so acute was my anxiety. At home I had practiced the words, and entered into the spirit of the piece, but at school when the time came, my speech was flat, the recitation had no meaning. I was happy to finish the passage and retreat to my seat, red-faced, having passed the exercise externally but feeling the utter failure from within. It was dreadful. I hated poetry.
I wasn’t cognizant of anyone else’s presentation until I suddenly realized that Jacob was up there, face red, stumbling through his words. Someone was giggling. Other students were carefully averting their eyes. Oh, I felt for him, I felt terribly, knowing how awful it was up in front of the class.
“Just, forget it.” He finally said in frustration. “I can’t do this.”
Mrs. White stayed where she sat and eyed him with the oddest expression. “Ruthless rushed on us, now was the surge…” she murmured. All the classes eyes swiveled to her face. Then Mrs. White did something that teachers don’t ever do, she talked to Jacob as if 44 ears weren’t listening in; she talked to him like he was the only one in the room.
“Forget them. You know this piece in and out. It doesn’t matter what they think, it doesn’t matter if it’s hard. Slay the monster. You know how to do that.”
Jacob was looking down, down at the podium where I imagined his hands were knotted in fists. I knew he would stalk off in a rage, but I was hoping against hope, hoping he could just show them all, somehow.
And then he looked up- and he had transformed. Completely, just as I had longed to do. There was a light in his eyes, an ancient glow, and the words, softly accented by his lisp seemed strangely proper that way.
“Now the wrath of the sea-fish rose apace
yet me ‘gainst the monsters my mailed coat
hard and hand-linked, help afforded
battle-sark braided my breast to ward
garnished with gold, they grasped me firm
and haled me to bottom, the hated foe
with grimmest gripe. Twas granted me, though,
to pierce the monster with point of sword.”
In the space of three exhales, one of my classmates would repeat the word ‘breast’ in a harsh whisper, and giggles would echo, dissipating the power of his reading. But for an instant Jacob stood, Beowulf the hero, and we envied him. Even more than that- for just a moment, we understood.