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LaurenBDavis

LAUREN B. DAVIS

Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

To Read, Perchance to Grow

Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me that Hollywood Couldn't - Mel Ryane

From the back of the book:

 

What happens when an idealist volunteers to introduce Shakespeare to a group of unruly kids? Bedlam. Tears. And hard lessons learned. Convinced that children can relate to Shakespeare's themes—power, revenge, love—Mel Ryane launches The Shakespeare Club at a public school. Teaching Willis a riotous cautionary tale of high hopes and goodwill crashing into the realities of classroom chaos.

 

Every week Mel encounters unexpected comedy and drama as she and the children struggle toward staging a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Woven through this fish-out-of-water tale is Mel's own story of her childhood aspirations, her acting identity, and the heartbreaking end of her onstage career.

 

In the schoolyard, Mel finds herself embroiled in jealousy and betrayal worthy of Shakespeare's plots. Fits of laughter alternate with wiping noses as she and the kids discover a surprising truth: they need each other if they want to face an audience and triumph. Teaching Will is an uplifting story of empowerment for dreamers and realists alike.

 

This is a wonderful book.  And far more complex and layered than one might expect from the publisher's blurb.  Yes, it's a memoir about an actor at a crossroads, choosing to teach Shakespeare to kids in a public school, but it's also about finding oneself and one's purpose through literature and -- no less importantly -- in other people.  Ryane -- who I happen to know and admire immensely, even more after reading this book -- uses the schoolroom to frame the memoir, to guide us, as she guides her lucky students, into the world of Shakespeare, and uses that world as a mirror in which to reflect our own memory (using hers as a prompt) and our preconceived notions of self and our relationships to those around us.  

 

The voice is wonderful, totally free of pretension, but always thick with empathy and compassion.  Her willingness to look at her own blind-spots, her own fear and failings as they are revealed through her interaction with the children is impressive.  And she's hilarious.  I laughed out loud time and again. The reader feels as though s/he's listening to a tale being told by a master teller and it's a great gift.  The passages in which Ryane takes us out of the schoolroom, into her own past are poignant and perfectly situated.  They add great depth.

 

The structure is a bit quirky, with straightforward memoir capped off in every chapter by a snippet of "Children's Writes", such as this one (sic throughout):

 

Dear jirnal,

 

Queen Elizabeth was a good queen. She was so nice people love her. William Shakespeare went to London because I like his plays. William Shakespeares son died when he was 11 year old. But William was in London his wife wrie a litter to him was that his son died.

 

These are follows by little bits called "Lesson Plan"  as here, which follows the child's writing above:

 

Ask, ask, ask.  Three years later, during a casual conversation with another teacher, I learned that Daniel could barely read and had been failed upward.  He hadn't been rolling around, laughing in joy.  The boy had been in a state of terror.

 

It's a bold structure, and one that might have looked too clever in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ryane pulls it off, using each one as an opportunity to poke the reader right in the heart.

 

Reading this book I learned new things about Shakespeare (which I hadn't really expected), about teaching, about connection, and about meaning.  Well done.

 

Recommended for, well, just about anyone.