Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If you with patient ears attend...

Thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew'st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:
The law that threaten'd death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love:
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
--Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene iii

You would think that having English majors for parents would be quite nice when a high school student's educational journey takes them into the world of Shakespeare. Although I'm no Elizabethan scholar, my two semesters of Shakespeare at the University of Iowa probably make me more knowledgeable of the Bard than the average parent  of a high school freshman. Since I still get pretty geeked out by iambic pentameter, the Romeo and Juliet unit in Southeast Polk's freshman English curriculum has been a highly-anticipated event for me when each of the girls hit ninth grade.

Unlike most of her peers, Romeo and Juliet is a re-read for Jordan. I think she first picked it up sometime late in elementary school, and she knows the story far better than I would have ever anticipated one of my ninth graders knowing it when I taught freshman English at Valley High School. Even so, she probably wasn't prepared for my reaction when she told me this afternoon that the more she thinks about it, the less she considers it a tragedy, because Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers died for love. 

"It doesn't matter why they died," I told her. "It's tragic, because they didn't have to."
"But Romeo thought Juliet was dead. He didn't know she wouldn't wake up, so he didn't know that he had anything to live for."

And that's what got me started. In my lifetime, I've known too many young people who ended their lives because they didn't think they had anything to live for, starting with a murder-suicide at Southeast Polk when I was in high school, followed by a young man in one my classes who shot himself in the head after the very first week of my teaching career, and then extending into the series of suicides that became all too frequent at Southeast Polk a couple of years ago. I've seen far too much of the pain that suicide inflicts on the living to ever see it as a potentially romantic act, and for good or bad, I unloaded that all on Jordan as we drove from school to the grocery store today. What started as a literary discussion turned into a lecture temporarily, and that was probably unfortunate.

On the bright side of things, by the time we entered Fareway, I had backed off and we were back to just talking about the story. I'm guessing we were the only ones discussing whether it was possible to read some sort of backstory about the cause of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues into Shakespeare's writing as we walked down the aisles in search of chicken breasts for tonight's supper. (And a fine supper it was. My compliments to Brett, who saw a recipe on the back of a corn flakes box, and decided to try it out.)

Still, the words of Friar Laurence that began this post ring true, and they remain as important to anyone who thinks that life isn't worth living today as they were to Romeo, who didn't listen to them when he had the chance. No matter how bad things may seem, there are always opportunities, and the only way that life can't possibly get better is if you choose to end it.

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