Monday, August 12, 2013

The Greatest English Teacher Ever

School starts for me this evening. Shortly after supper I’ll venture again behind the steel fences and concrete walls of Sterling (Colorado) Correctional Facility, there to teach Humanities 121 for Northeastern Junior College to a score of inmates working to make something of their lives. And a week from tomorrow I’ll start the weekly drives to Morgan Community College to teach English composition. I’ve been teaching college English and related classes for over five years and it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. And every time I crack open an English textbook, I remember the Greatest English Teacher I Ever Knew. She was the teacher who first instilled in me the desire to teach (God, that I had followed that instinct she awakened!) and who sealed forever my love affair with the English language.

Her name was Catherine Hume, and she taught senior English the year Charlie Morris, Ralph Nelms and I were forced to take her class because … well, because it was required and we were seniors. I’ll never forget her leading poor Ralph out to the water fountain in the main corridor to run cool water over his wrists because he was falling asleep in her class. It was a nice effort, but didn’t change the fact that Ralph was working nights at his father’s business to keep it afloat. Things were not easy in a small prairie town in the 1960s.

Anyway, one day Mrs. Hume decided we needed to understand that William Shakespeare’s plays were not meant to be read, they were meant to be performed and watched. She was especially enamored of “The Scottish Play” (if you think I’m going to invoke Bill’s Curse by typing the name of the play here, you have another think coming!) and so decided to present to us high school seniors her version of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in Act 5, Scen 1 (not to be confused with Lady Macbeth's Soliloquy, which takes place, coincidentally, in Act 1, Scene 5.)

On the appointed day, Mrs. Hume directed us to arrange our desks in a huge circle in the classroom. She drew the blinds down on the windows (it was believed the lead-impregnated blinds would protect us from Communist A-bombs exploding over Denver) and turned out the lights. She draped herself in a shawl, lighted a candle (today’s school administrators would suffer a heart infarction at the mere thought!) and stepped into the center of the circle of students in that darkened room. Remember, our town is a farm/market hub in the center of America. Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas come together here. This was high school back in 1968. Ralph Nelms’ wrists hadn’t been adequately hydrated yet.

Try to imagine what we saw: A woman at the end of her teaching career, already a great-grandmother, who has reminded us that the only “accurate” depictions of this play present this scene with Lady Macbeth nude (now there’s a mental picture for high school seniors!) holds a lighted candle in the middle of a darkened classroom and recites, from memory:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

Mrs. Hume left out the other characters’ lines, reciting only Lady Macbeth’s lines, while we followed along in our textbooks. When it was over, when she’d instructed all in the castle to put on their nightclothes and return to their beds, she blew out the candle. There was complete silence in the classroom. Her next words were, “Jeff, please turn on the lights.” I jumped when Lady Macbeth said my name. Even Ralph was still awake and paying attention.

Mrs. Hume cast off the shawl and set aside the candle, then spent the rest of the period drawing out of us ideas about the power of the throne and the true power of those behind the throne. It doesn’t compare with the discussions of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen in graduate school, but it was the first time it ever occurred to me that what William Shakespeare wrote about was more than just a naked old queen sleepwalking in a blood-drenched castle. Mrs. Hume’s performance awakened in me a curiosity about what Shakespeare was really writing about.

Years later, while fulfilling my undergrad requirement for a BA in journalism, I happened to take two sections of Shakespeare in one quarter. It was an exhausting immersion in The Bard, and toward the end I struggled to keep straight the plot lines and character lists. But the result has been a lifelong love affair with William Shakespeare’s work and the way he used language to evoke emotional responses from audiences.

I took those classes because Catherine Hume went far above and beyond what was required to teach English lit to us High Plains seniors. Every time I attend a Shakespeare play, every time I laugh at the antics of Elbow or shed a tear at the fate of Ophelia or tremble with rage at the connivance of Iago, I remember that day when Mrs. Hume put on her shawl and lit her candle. That simple act of educational courage opened my mind to my native tongue in a way no one else ever had.

If I am a successful English teacher, it is in no small part because of Catherine Hume’s devotion to the idea that even we South Platte Valley high school seniors could appreciate one of the greatest playwrights of all time. I can’t speak for Charlie and Ralph, but as for me, she was right. And that’s why Catherine Hume is, to this day and forever, The Greatest English Teacher Ever.

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