29 March 2022: On Romeo and Juliet, Real Teen Tragedy, and the Heroism of Teachers

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene . . .”  

Aileen and I have just returned from a lovely weekend in Verona. The weather was perfect and we fully enjoyed the Roman Amphitheater, the imposing Castelvecchio, the large and small piazzas, the views of the city from Castel San Pietro and the Giardino Guisti, and the outstanding food, Prosecco, and espresso at the many al fresco cafés. The one thing we did not do was to visit “Juliet’s House,” or “Romeo’s House,” or “Juliet’s Tomb” – the completely manufactured attractions in Verona my parents would have properly dismissed as “tourist traps.”   

Even so, Romeo and Juliet are inescapable in Verona, with many businesses named after them, for instance. Indeed, they have their own reverent section of drawings and paintings in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna Achille Forti. Here are a couple of dramatic renderings from that collection:  

But whenever I think of Romeo and Juliet – whenever Aileen and I said “In fair Verona” this weekend, for instance, which we did frequently – I think of my very first teaching position, at a middle school in Lake Ronkonkoma, NY, out on Long Island during my 5th year at Stony Brook in the spring of 1985. Suffice it to say I learned a LOT, in new and challenging ways, every single day on the job. Teaching English, I quickly discovered, was actually way down on my list of activities every day. I had far more pressing roles to play each day as a father figure, older brother, narc, parole officer, drug counselor, psychologist, diplomat, negotiator, first-line social worker, and relationship counselor. And these were good kids from mostly stable backgrounds. They were just 14 and 15 years old, and it is really, really hard to be 14 and 15. We older folks forget that, I’m afraid.  

Things picked up, though, when we started reading Romeo and Juliet, because Romeo and Juliet were also 14 and 15, and Shakespeare understood and portrayed how powerfully love can work on young people’s hearts and minds and actions. And things were going very well until one student, Eileen, was gone for about two weeks. Eileen was already on my radar. She was smart and quiet and well-behaved, but her clothes were dirty. Every day, I wondered where she was, and I hoped that she was OK, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t.  

When she came back to school, I was relieved to see that she was, in fact, OK, that whatever had happened to her must not have been too bad. Things were back to normal from what I could tell. And she jumped back into Romeo and Juliet with an obvious pleasure that was heartwarming to see. But it didn’t last. About two weeks later, she came to me after class one day and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to miss another couple of weeks of school.”  “And why is that?” I asked, with an edge in my voice I will forever wish I could take back. “Well,” she said, “I have to have another abortion.”  As it turns out, this would be her second abortion in two months. She was 14. Her “boyfriend” was 23. I was 22. I had absolutely nothing I could offer her. I mean, what could I possibly teach this poor child about fictional tragedy when her own life was already so painful, so far beyond what most of us will ever have to deal with?  

For a short while, I thought the tragedy of Eileen’s experience was over the top, a one-off, something so distressing to consider that it couldn’t possibly be happening to that many other people. But I was wrong. While I was teaching in Lake Ronkonkoma, I was still working at the Sizzler Steakhouse in Wantagh, and one day one of the busboys – I think his name was Gabe? – came up to me and said, “Paul, you gotta talk to Kat! You’re a teacher, so maybe she will listen to you. She won’t listen to me.” Gabe and Kat were in 10th grade, just old enough to start working, and they were good friends. “OK, what’s going on?” I asked, foolishly thinking I might be able to help. Gabe said, “Every day after school, and I mean every day, she goes over to her boyfriend’s house and they fuck before she comes to work here.” “And?” I asked, trying to buy some time because I knew this was over my head, but I had no idea how far over. “Dude,” Gabe whispered, “her boyfriend is like 25!!”  

I think public school teachers are heroic, but the war on teachers and teaching in the United States is taking an awful lot of casualties. I personally know of three excellent English teachers in my town who have left the local high school recently and taken staff jobs at Virginia Tech, for instance, driven out of their professional and humanitarian calling by people who have no earthly idea what the job actually entails. A nationwide poll last month discovered that more than half of America’s public school teachers are thinking of quitting, and more than 90% of them think burnout is a serious problem. Doesn’t surprise me a bit, and I am not even considering all the damages wrought by having to teach online in a pandemic. What is clear to me is that – even back in 1985 – I wouldn’t have lasted a year in the job, wouldn’t have lasted a year with the emotional toll of relating to and trying to help the young people in my charge. I would have imploded, simply and utterly. The only alternative would have been to tune them all out, watch them spiral out of my life and into the darkness, and die inside in the process.

Leave a comment