Fourth-graders and Shakespeare: Much ado about something

April 24, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

The sword fights are cool. Death scenes are even more fun. And boy, are there some great curses.

But the kissing scenes -- definitely "too mushy."

That's the assessment of Shakespeare from some fourth-graders at Gardenville Elementary School in northeast Baltimore. Members of Carol Dezes' gifted and talented class, these 9- and 10-year-olds have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past two months -- and have had a ball through it all.

One class member, Ashley Ward, in fact, recently won a poster contest for schoolchildren in the Washington-Baltimore area sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her drawing of the Bard, selected among several dozen entries, will be seen on posters and balloons today in the library's annual celebration of the poet's birthday (he was born April 23, 1564). A classmate, Anne Metzbower, 10, was a runner-up, and both were to receive awards today in Washington from the library.

Ashley, a somber young girl who says she's "9 and 3/4 years old," drew a portrait of Shakespeare with his famous words, "To be or not to be./That is the question" depicted above his head in a balloon. "I just looked at a picture that Mrs. Dezes gave us and did my own drawing," she says matter-of-factly.

Were you surprised to win?

"No."

Well, then, what do you like about Shakespeare?

"The action and the sword fights," she answers, then adds quickly, "but not the kissing scenes."

That's the assessment of her classmates as well.

"It's definitely been more exciting than we thought it would be," says Leroy Timpson Jr., an energetic and irreverent (more on that later) 9-year-old. "All those sword fights -- wow!" He and a classmate draw imaginary swords and begin to do battle, all the time uttering such Shakespearean invective as "You clodpoll!" (Translation: blockhead).

"We had heard about Shakespeare before, but we didn't know anything about him," chimes in Eamon Pac, 9, who will play Romeo in the class performance of "Romeo and Juliet." "We thought it would be boring, but it's really been a lot of fun."

Eamon is asked if it's spooky to do Romeo's death scene.

He doesn't answer directly. Instead, he clutches his throat dramatically, his eyes bug, and he begins to quiver uncontrollably. Other boys do equally vivid impressions of a death scene.

Yes, they've done their homework.

Ms. Dezes got the idea of introducing Shakespeare to her class after attending a Folger workshop for teachers last fall.

"I had studied him in high school and college, of course, but I really didn't remember much," says Ms. Dezes, who has taught in the city school system for 24 years. "But this experience has made him come alive for me. I have gotten as much out of this experience as the children."

She had taught the gifted and talented students last year and discovered "they had a real flair for the dramatic," so she figured they might be able to handle Shakespeare. And they have: In addition to performing parts of several plays, they've absorbed extensive background on Shakespeare's life and times.

"I think 'Romeo and Juliet' showed how hard it was to be a teen-ager then," says Joshua Hill, 9, during a free-wheeling discussion of the Bard in the school library.

"I think it's something that Juliet was only 13 when she got married -- that's because girls got married a lot earlier then," adds Stephanie Montanarelli, 10.

That means if you had lived during Shakespeare's time, you'd be married in a few years, she's told.

Stephanie shivers, and some of her friends laugh. "Too early for me, too," says Kerry Wixted, 9.

"It's really sad, all that bull-baiting and bear-baiting that went on," Leroy observes.

"Yes," interjects James Fletcher,10, "and the people in the audience would throw fruit and vegetables at the actors if they didn't like them."

"Me, I'd just take the vegetables and make me a nice salad," Leroy retorts.

Leroy seems to understand intuitively Shakespeare's love of bawdy wit. During a class rendering of "Macbeth," he was supposed to recite the lines "Double, double, toil and trouble;/fire burn and cauldron bubble."

What came out, his classmates recall gleefully, was "Bubble, bubble, toilet trouble/call a plumber on the double."

"I was misunderstanding the words," Leroy explains innocently.

Although the children say their parents were surprised that fourth-graders were learning Shakespeare, the Folger encourages teaching his works to youngsters, according to Peggy O'Brien, head of education at the library.

The Folger will be host to its 14th Children's Shakespeare Festival May 18-20, and has encouraged such festivals in other cities. In Baltimore, the second annual Center Stage Children's Shakespeare Festival was held earlier this year, featuring performances from 20 city and Baltimore County schools from third-graders up to high school.

"Shakespeare is for all kinds of students," Ms. O'Brien says. "We start in the fourth grade, though you could probably start younger. And we've found that he's for learning-disabled kids, gifted and talented kids, kids with English as a second language -- all of them.

"At that age, the appeal is two things. First, the stories -- he was a terrific storyteller, and kids respond to that. They see a lot in 'Macbeth,' which is a great rip-roaring story about a king and a pushy wife, and a ghost, and blood.

"The other thing is the language. These are kids who are at an age when they are learning new words in their vernacular every day. They're not so cowed by words that look a little funny. And they're also not so old that they know they're not supposed to like Shakespeare."

That's something, the Gardenville students would tell you, that even a clodpoll could understand.

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