"Can you give us a quote from Shakespeare?" the girl asks.
Her classmates crowd around, notebooks and pencils in hand, eyes expectant.
Ms. Pavelecky's third grade class is on a quest. They've been reading The Green Book, a science fiction novel about a group of people who have fled a dying Earth for a new planet. One of the travelers has brought along the collected works of Shakespeare.
Ms. Pavelecky wants her students to understand why this old dead white guy means so much. So they're traipsing through the school, asking everyone they meet to give them a quote. They've cornered me in the butterfly garden. Their pencils hover. I'm on the spot.
A quote from Shakespeare.
I think first of the four great words with which Lady Macbeth laid bare her unhinged mind. They have possibilities. Strong, single-syllable Anglo-Saxon words. A swell example of a grammatical "command." The kids would love to hear me say it.
But . . . maybe not.
I shake my head. "I'm thinking of something, but I don't think I can say it."
Ms. Pavelecky laughs. Ms. Bunting thought of that one too, she says, but settled for "Romeo, Romeo."
As my mind's gears keep turning, complications pop up everywhere. A phrase that contemplates suicide? One that pegs life as "a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing?" Hmmm.
As the students grow restless, I latch onto Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." This one will do. I love its call to self-reliance, despite the less-than-admirable motivation. I say it slowly, spelling out "fault," "Brutus" and "underlings."
As I say the words, they seem to call for explanation. So I start with something I figure will be easy –stars and destiny.
What zodiac signs are you? I ask.
The kids look blank. I feel suddenly old. Has astrology become a relic of the past? Do kids no longer know that crucial piece of information – the sign that they were born under? I look at Ms. Pavelecky. She shakes her head. I don't want to think about how long the Age of Aquarius has been over.
I feel little more successful with explaining "underlings." The idea of a social system placing some people beneath others is unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon.
The kids walk away, and I think about how what they've just done will never show up on a standardized test. They're learning about people, about culture, about the world around them. My halting explanations may have left them with only murky inklings about astrology and underlings, but they've seen someone they know get excited about Shakespeare and the words he wrote. And they have a couple of new ideas they might explore.
Her students have really taken to Shakespeare, Ms. Pavelecky says later. They love his stories, so full of drama, humor and humanity. She's worked hard to help them understand how the power of words can turn tragedy into a thing of beauty.
When they sit down to take that test, in contrast, it will ask them to draw painfully narrow sets of conclusions from badly written stories full of tired clichés.
I'm glad that teachers like Ms. Pavelecky don't spend all – or even most – of their time teaching to those tests. But I can't help worrying about what's ahead, given CMS's current pay for performance obsession. Officials claim that standardized tests won't be at the center of teacher evaluations, but I don't believe it. And if teachers' pay depends on how many test sheet bubbles children can fill in correctly, the pressure to dispense with Shakespeare and focus on test-taking skills will grow.
It seems time to stand up. Perhaps Cassius wasn't so wrong after all.