My stomach was butterflies, or not butterflies, something worse. Something much, much worse. Moments away from the first lesson I would ever do with students, I wanted to run away. Feign ill. Magically evaporate. Whatever it took to put the moment off just a little longer. It didn’t help that the lesson was on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you know anything about me, it’s that I am not a Shakespeare fan. If it were solely my choice, I would probably never teach a Shakespeare play in my classroom. Okay, maybe I would, but only if it were in conversation with another text. But that’s not the point of this story, or at least, not really. So back to profusely sweating, knees knocking-me.
I was taking a “Shakespeare in the Classroom” course during the first semester of my graduate program in teaching. I figured, if I had to take a Shakespeare class, it may as well be one that prepares me to teach it. The ultimate goal of the class was to have us, the students, enact a lesson on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an 8th grade ELA class. As always, the semester seemed endless until all of a sudden it was my group’s day to go. I wasn’t entirely sure how that had happened. One moment we were just observing class, and the next moment we were leading it. I’ve never walked a plank, but I imagine it must feel the way my walk to the classroom felt that day. I’d have probably passed out right there, twenty-eight pairs of eyes watching, if it hadn’t been for the other three “co-teachers” up there with me.
With absolutely no smoothness or subtlety, we jumped right in. I went through our Prezi on the characters of the play, trying to pace myself and scan faces for comprehension. So far, so good. Still, I was more than ready to pass the baton when I was done. We made it through a few rounds of Shakespeare bingo and then moved into the crux of our lesson. We divided the class into four groups, one group for each of us, and moved to different areas of the classroom or the hallway, armed with crayons and art roll paper. The assignment? Pick one character and translate that character into who they would be as a student in their school. My group struggled through the hesitation, me prodding someone to please. just. draw. Minutes seemed to stretch into oblivion. I was convinced we would run out of time before we even got a stick figure on the page. I could use this as an excuse for what I did next, but I won’t. That wouldn’t be fair, to myself, to the students, or even to this story.
Finally, finally! Someone was willing to draw. Before the student could change his mind, I handed him a crayon. I handed him a peach-colored crayon. The moment it slipped out of my fingers and into his, I wanted to grab it back. I wanted to rip it out of his hands and throw it down the hall. I’d just done the kind of thing I had promised myself I would never do. We were not in a very peach-colored school. He was not a peach-colored kid. Why on earth would I automatically hand him that crayon? Because I am peach-colored. Because drawing people who look like me is so heavily normalized. Because when I read or think about Shakespeare my default is to imagine everyone in the play as white.
I didn’t grab the crayon, and I didn’t throw it down the hall. I wish I had, or I wish I had been able to take that moment and admit to the students that I had done something wrong. I wish I could have paused and said, I messed up, use whichever crayon you want. These were not my students, though. We didn’t really know each other. I wasn’t ready to open up a conversation that would make them uncomfortable. So we kept drawing.
All-in-all, the lesson was a huge success. Our character was Oberon as middle school class president, drunk on power (maybe a white guy was fitting, after all). We had more fun with it than I could have ever anticipated.
But I wonder. Had it been my classroom, would we have stopped what we were doing to talk about it? When you’re in the throes of a lesson, and it’s going well, is it worth pausing to reflect on something as seemingly small as the choice of crayon made by the teacher? I’m still not sure. But I also don’t think it was just some small thing to be glanced over, forgotten. Not when you consider the context. Not when you consider that for most of their lives, particularly their school lives, they’ve been taught white is normal. That is something we absolutely need to disrupt.