Palo Alto, Calif.
I was eager to meet him, this remarkable English teacher who could evoke such enthusiasm for Shakespeare in my teen-age daughter. So when "Back to School Night" came, I sat a little impatiently through course descriptions and grading techniques until we staggered into the seventh-period class, the last on the schedule.
My daughter is right. Her English teacher is "great," full of enthusiasm, dedication, and an untarnished sense of wonder and appreciation for the miracle of language. He blends these ingredients with the spice of humor and understanding to make that are commodity -- a superb teacher.
"I've always found Shakespeare hard to read and understand. Why teach it to our kids today?" a parent asked.
"Reasonable question," I thought, and listened with interest as the teacher explained with humorous examples that people must be familiar with Shakespeare because he says so many things in the very best way they can be said.
Simply stated, the teacher had presented the standard for all literature. Does this writer say things in the very best way they can be said? Shakespeare did. That achievement made him great. It also made him quotable. More than 400 years later, people quote Shakespeare because he expressed better than they could the idea they wish to survey.
We have gone through a period during which the public has demanded that children's interest be aroused by books that are "relevant." The attitude has been, "Never mind about expanding thought if the kids can relate." As a result, I believe intellectual curiosity and vigor have been stifled, vocabulary limited , and communication skilss diminished.
Action-based and often thoughtless fare on television has influenced authors and publishers who must compete with this medium for a child's leisure time. Parents and teachers apparently have often been satisfied if a child reads, without emphasizing the value of the material selected. Books and magazines with controlled vocabulary do not increase word usage. Relevant material does not necessarily grapple with universal themes. Action-packed stories don't guarantee intellectual stimulation.
And every year high school students' test scores show a decline in language and writing skills. The public views these results with dismay and points an accusing finger at the schools.
Perhaps one high school teacher in Palo Alto has found a way. He believes in exposing teen-agers to literature that says something in the best way it can be said. He introduces it with explanations and understanding that foster appreciation and interest among his students. He fires the desire to read high-quality literature. He sparks a longing for intellectual growth.
Now, where did I put that dusty old volume of Shakespeare I had in college?