Remembering Shakespeare: Advocating Arts in Education

William ShakespeareOn William Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23rd*), I thought about the impact of Shakespeare in my life. Although I majored in English (British Literature emphasis) and took an excellent college class on his works, my most memorable experiences with “the Bard” were in junior high and high school – and it had nothing to do with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

I was in the GATE program (Gifted and Talented Education) where select public school students identified as gifted are given educational opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.  The California Department of Education describes that

Special efforts are made to ensure that pupils from economically disadvantaged and varying cultural backgrounds are provided with full participation in these unique opportunities.

Like almost all of of my peers, I fell into the demographic of “economically disadvantaged” and being of “varying cultural background”.  Much of the GATE programming leaned toward the arts.  In fifth grade, I worked with paints and learned about Vincent Van Gogh (French Impressionism is still my favorite period of art for this reason). In junior high, I went to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Downtown Los Angeles.  It’s still one of the best days in my memory.  Without this program, I know I wouldn’t have the appreciation for arts and culture that I have today.

When I was also in junior high, we put on two short adaptations of William Shakespeare – I was Juliet in Romeo & Juliet and in Macbeth I portrayed the different apparitions.

In Romeo & Juliet, my suitor Tybalt was a fourth grader when I was a seventh or eighth grader. He stood a good foot shorter than me (I’m sure he’s much taller now).  In part of the play, using our basic English translation of it, he literally looked up at me, saying:

“Hello, my love.”

In Macbeth, we didn’t really have much of a cauldron. You had to be creative with your props with limited resources and funding. We made due with a trash can that generally carried PE equipment. I was dragged onto stage while in this trash can. I went through my different incarnations as the apparitions and then the trash can was dragged off-stage.  I’m not sure why, but I tried to get out of this trash can in mid-movement. I think I was embarrassed due to the audience’s laughter of seeing me in a trash can in the first place. But my exit only made made it worse. Instead of escaping my embarrassment, I very “elegantly” fell out of the trashcan…in front of the entire Community Center audience.

In retrospect, it’s really funny.  At the time, not so much.

Fast forward to senior year of high school and I am cast as the Prince(ss) in Romeo & Juliet. Our Thespian Society did a 60’s adaptation…I was more like a mayor than a prince(ss). We didn’t have a real auditorium so we used the middle part of our campus that had lawn space for chairs, a staircase and a balcony, perfect for the famous Romeo & Juliet balcony scene. I remember my drama teacher Mr. Healy advising me on my role – telling me that I was seen as a leader at school and that it should carry through in my performance. Even though I had spent the last few years as an officer in various school clubs and was told the importance of being a leader for college applications, it was the first time anyone had ever put it that way. It was a good thing to hear because it presented “leadership” to me as quality I had, not as something I needed to be.

Remembering Shakespeare in my life reminds me of how important it is to support arts in education, to let it simmer while you’re young. While I don’t advocate that more students fall out of cauldron trash cans (though it does make you learn to laugh a little more), I do advocate the importance of arts education.

There’s value in knowing how much it takes to put on a production. There’s strength in knowing how much is at stake to be a performer or the teamwork required of a cast, even if you’re never going to be a performer when you grow older or you’re okay that your last claim to stage fame was being a tree in your first grade play.  Maybe you learned how much you liked making that tree, rather than acting like one.  There’s depth in how the arts can bridge gaps of self and social awareness and understanding, how teachers can help you learn lessons through the arts themselves.

Drawing, acting, singing, dancing, film making, writing – these are spaces where students are made better by exploration and the opportunity to learn and thrive.  These are spaces that should be available to all students, not those selected to be in a program or needing for something special to happen for it to exist in their lives.

So on your birthday, Shakespeare, I raise my glass to you, but really I raise my glass to teachers who work in the arts.  I raise my glass to everyone who makes arts something more accessible every day.  Without teachers and arts education, I really wouldn’t be here, and – I’m thinking – neither would you.


*I’ve been told that he was baptized on the April 26th and his DOB is unknown 🙂