TBT: Good Wife’s Guide

Having inundated you with parageography of late (look back a couple days for a parageographical writing prompt if you must), I’m going a little lighter this week for Throwback Thursday. This is an article from Housekeeping Monthly dated 13 May 1955. I used it with my Shakespeare students when we were studying Taming of the Shrew. The title of the article: “The good wife’s guide”

•Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favourite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.
•Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.
•Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.
•Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives.
•Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper etc and then run a dustcloth over the tables.
•Over the cooler months of the year you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too. After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.
•Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair and, if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimise all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.
•Be happy to see him.
•Greet him with a warm smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him.
•Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.
•Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.
•Your goal: Try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquillity where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.
•Don’t greet him with with complaints and problems.
•Don’t complain if he’s late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day.
•Make him comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or have him lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.
•Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.
•Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.
•A good wife always knows her place.

You can imagine how amusing my students (ages 10–14, roughly) found all this! But it opened up good conversations about why, exactly, Taming of the Shrew is considered a comedy when it largely consists of Petruchio abusing Kate. I’ve found Shakespeare to be a good starting point for a lot of serious discussions with teens: heartbreak, suicide, forms of abuse within relationships, relationship problems in general, family problems . . . Literature makes a lot of these topics “safe” because the kids can disguise their personal concerns within the context of “the story.” You just have to lead them into the work so that they connect and identify with that story and the characters. You have to bring it in close to them. Shakespeare—and a lot of literature—seems very far away to young readers. Sometimes it’s the language that creates the gulf, and sometimes it’s just preconceived prejudice, but that’s the big obstacle. Once you bridge it, the kids often really get into it. And that’s fabulous to witness.

This Is Me (Part XVII: The Shakespeare Thing)

I borrowed my love of Shakespeare from Lynn, my best friend’s mother. She was (is) like a second mother to me, always encouraging my creativity. And when I was still really young—eight or nine—she made me a calligraphy sign with a matte she had hand cut flowers into: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

It’s from Hamlet, crazy Ophelia carrying on, but the words inspired me, and the fact that Lynn had thought to give them to me made me feel loved.

Much later I would perform Hamlet a few different times, then teach it to 9–12 year olds. Who loved it. So many people get tripped up by the language, but get the kids (and adults) past all that and the stories are fantastic. Stuff of soap operas.

In high school we were required to read the four major tragedies, one per year: Romeo and Juliet our freshman year, Julius Caesar our sophomore year, Macbeth our junior year, and finally Hamlet our senior year. Somewhere in there we also read Twelfth Night.

Because I was in honors English Lit, we did a bit more than the other classes. Our freshman year we rewrote Romeo and Juliet—I and one other writerly student were the writing team—into a New York mob/gangster story. (Yes, before Baz did it!) I then played Lord Capulet with a ponytail, sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, and a thick Brooklyn accent. Our teacher videotaped it. For the next three years, freshman would come to me and say, “You’re Lord Capulet!”

For Julius Caesar I was Cassius. For Macbeth, the Third Witch. And for Hamlet I was at one point Ophelia, then asked to switch to Hamlet. For Twelfth Night, I was Viola. (I was also Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.)

When I went off to uni, I took some drama/acting classes to fulfill a requirement and had my teacher suggest I make theatre my major; only majors could take the higher-level courses, you see. But even as a non-major, I was able to participate in showcases. I did stuff from Sexual Perversity in Chicago (something about a naked la-la is all I recall), Holiday, Picnic . . . And when I did a scene from Crimes of the Heart with a thick Southern accent then came off stage and spoke in my normal voice, I got yelps of surprise—it seems everyone had assumed the accent was my normal voice. (I’m a natural mimic, which is why my kids love me to read to them; I do all the voices.)

My Winedale Class
My Winedale Class
Oh, but Shakespeare. Still and always my favorite. I once saw William Shatner interview Patrick Stewart, and Stewart said something about how Shakespeare came naturally to him, he never had any trouble with the language. It made sense to him. And that’s how it was for me, too. I read and understood. The language barrier simply didn’t exist for me. But then, that was true for poetry as well. I am programmed for these things.

So then I found out about Winedale. And signed right up. And we did Hamlet! But the First Quarto, which is somewhat different from the known text.

The class was actually titled “Shakespeare Through Performance,” and a lot of kids had signed up thinking they would be watching a bunch of Lawrence Olivier movies or something. But a few of us had friends who’d done the course, so we knew the truth. And we were stoked. Once a big group had dropped the class, a core group of us were left. For months we would live together on weekends, practice almost every night . . . It was such a camaraderie.

The auditions were a bit strange. Everyone would participate in the show, and everyone would have two parts: one for the first night, a different one for the second. We were given Kenneth Patchen poems to memorize for the auditions so that Doc Ayers and Madge could decide what our roles would be. My poem began: “Because to really ponder/one needs wonder” . . . I was cast as Corambis, which was the name of the character most people now know as Polonius. (For the second night I was the Murderer in the play and a mere herald, the idea being I shouldn’t be given too many more things to memorize.)

When I perform, I can’t ever remember it afterward. But I suppose I did well since I had people coming up after the show to thank me. I knew that, because the audience was laughing when they were supposed to, it must have been all right. And I was able to cover when Hamlet almost forgot to join me on stage for our discussion of cloud shapes.

Later, having moved to Massachusetts, I was asked to teach Shakespeare at a summer camp. It was surprisingly a very big hit. “My kid won’t stop talking about Shakespeare!” parents kept telling the camp director. And, “I wish we’d learned it that way. I might have liked it more.” I taught Hamlet the first summer, Romeo and Juliet the second, Taming of the Shrew the third, and Macbeth the fourth. Then we moved.

My Hamlet and Macbeth students opted to rewrite and play with the stories. My R&J and TotS students wanted to do the pieces as written. I always gave the class the choice. First rule: Don’t shove it down their throats. If you do, they’ll only gag on it and spit it all up.

I found that discussing the plays opened the door to discussing much bigger issues: suicide, abuse (cuz Petruchio isn’t really very nice to Kate). In every instance it was the kids who broached the topic. But my natural counselor instincts kicked in, and it made for interesting conversation. Later, the girls would ask me for advice about this or that boy, and one of my male students wanted to talk in private about a friend who cut herself, while another wanted to relieve himself of the story of a friend’s brother’s suicide. I like when my students trust me and are comfortable with me.

I don’t have students any more, and I haven’t done any Shakespeare in a long while, but I still enjoy him whenever I get the opportunity. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado was a real treat. And I do believe it’s better to either watch or perform Shakespeare than to read his plays. (Sonnets, you ask . . . Well, I’ve read them . . . But it’s the plays I really like.) Not sure what the educational system hopes to accomplish by having kids read a play, any play, really. Maybe to introduce them to the form? What it looks like on a page? But then, too, plays published for reading versus those published for performance often look different.

I always reminded my students that Shakespeare wasn’t writing to be lofty. He was trying to crank out the next blockbuster play (since there was no film in his day). We treat the work with such reverence, but that’s a bit silly. Better to come at it with a sense of fun. We wouldn’t treat a copy of a Michael Bay script as something to be venerated. No more should we Shakespeare’s plays. To put things on a pedestal automatically makes them distant and untouchable. Shakespeare should be something you get into, like a pit of mud. Wallow in it, splash around. You’ll enjoy it a lot more that way.

Open Teaching

I have no formal teaching certificate, and only took one class as a graduate student that was designed to turn me into a literature instructor of some kind, though I decided in the end not to pursue a post. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, and not even because I didn’t want to do it, but because—and this is probably a silly reason, but it was (and is) the reason I opted not to teach at our college—I didn’t like the book they’d chosen for the course I would have taught. And I had the idea that if I wasn’t invested in the material, I couldn’t teach it effectively. Which probably isn’t actually true. I could have faked it. I just didn’t want to.

So what did I teach and when? For four summers I taught at an academic camp for middle-grade students ranging from ages 9 to 14. I taught Shakespeare, playwriting, mythology, Parageography, journalism, and special subjects (like vampire literature). And I was told multiple times that I was a favorite of the students, that parents would call and ask, “What is the Shakespeare teacher doing? My kid won’t shut up about Shakespeare!” and usually add, “I wish I’d had a teacher like that when we had to read Hamlet.” Yes, I liked hearing these things. It made me feel good that my students totally grooved on The Bard once we worked past the language. But it also sometimes made me feel like a big phony, too, because despite lots of research and lesson planning, I was really just winging it a lot of the time.

I teach the same way I parent: by open discussion. I don’t know if this is technically the Classical or Socratic method or anything, but I prefer a classroom dialogue to having to lecture for a couple hours at a time. I do lecture a bit—I talk a bit about the subject, but I’m always open to questions and thoughtful remarks. I like to make my students (and my kids) feel listened to. I like to make them feel like they add value to a discussion. I find that if I take them seriously, they take me and the topic seriously in return and are generally less likely to goof off. They become as invested as I am.

I remember when teaching Romeo and Juliet the kids began to ask tentative questions about teen suicide. Someone brought up the fact that a friend’s brother had killed himself . . . Someone else mentioned a girl he knew at camp used to cut herself . . . This is tricky territory because I’m not certified as any kind of counselor (though I was a peer counselor in high school), and I don’t want to get in trouble, or get parents angry with me. But I liked knowing my students felt safe enough to want to talk with me about these things. So we did talk about it a little bit, and about relationships that feel so intense, &c. And I was careful to warn the camp director that the students had wanted to explore that a bit so she knew we’d touched on the subject.

Again, when doing Taming of the Shrew, the students began to wonder about abusive relationships. Why was this play supposed to be funny? That was easier to discuss because of the historical context, but it was still a somewhat deep and dark topic. It eventually became an open conversation about human rights, gender differences, and so on.

I found after a couple days of teaching this way, the kids came in armed with questions and topics that had occurred to them. That was always encouraging because it meant they were going home and actually thinking about the material. “Dude, shouldn’t Hamlet have been king?” Well, let’s think about that. Do you think he wants to be king? Is that one of the reasons he’s upset? Would he have made a good king? What goes into making a good leader or ruler?

You see, that’s how I like to teach. Because then you not only learn the material—and believe me, those kids knew Hamlet by the time they were done, knew it and loved it—but you end up learning a bunch of other stuff besides, almost as if by accident. I’m a big proponent of critical thinking skills, so I like forcing my students to consider things, and they like that there’s no right or wrong answer and therefore no condemnation for anything they might suggest (short of hate speech or bigotry, but I never had any problems with that with my students, either).

It’s funny; having just read Quiet, I now realize that, yes, I had several students who stayed mostly, er, quiet in classes. Two or three spring to mind, the types to just take notes on what everyone was saying. Though almost always they spoke up once or twice, particularly if we touched on a subject about which they felt strongly. But a lot of these quiet students would seek me out later for one-on-one conversations instead. And that was fine, too. They’d sidle up to me at lunch or during break and start a chat. And that was kind of exhausting (since I, too, am an introvert), but rewarding in its own way.

I don’t teach any more; I haven’t the time or energy. But I do have children, and I use the same methods with them that I did in the classroom. The other day my six-year-old wanted to know about demons. I have no idea why; maybe something he saw on Scooby-Doo? But we had a very serious discussion about Lucifer being cast out of Heaven, and different ideas of the devil, and fallen angels becoming demons, and whether or not a demon can be “good.” And I think the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn (though I’m so glad to know it now), is when to say, “I don’t know.” Because our education system breeds this idea that we should somehow already know so much . . . That we’re somehow all stupid for not knowing things . . . And certainly there are things everyone should know, and a little common sense goes a long way, but sometimes you have to say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out. Let’s look it up. Let’s talk about it and see if we can figure it out.” And it’s okay not to know everything. So long as you’re also open minded and willing to learn.