Susan Russell, associate professor in the School of Theatre and 2014-15 Penn State laureate, was a speaker at the "All In at Penn State" kickoff event in October 2016. This is the second installment in a six-part series that is part of the University's ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion. In it, Russell talks about working with middle school students. To read the second installment, go to: http://news.psu.edu/story/447918/2017/01/30/all-leaping-faith-part-ii
To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1
The kids and I talked a lot about Hamlet. They wanted to know why he was such a bad kid and why his family was so messed up. I told them that all we had were Shakespeare’s words, and those words were clues to the truth about Hamlet. The words were not the whole truth. Words never are, but words can open a door in your heart, and that door, if you are brave enough to walk through it, will help you know a person a little bit better.
Hamlet wanted to know some things about Hamlet too. He wanted to know how he had gotten so alone, friendless and frightened, and he wanted to know what to do with everything he felt about his situation. The kids felt like they knew Hamlet. After all, most of them felt alone, friendless and frightened most of the time, and I thought maybe if we could figure out why Hamlet had gotten so scared, we might know more about why he did what he did. So. We went to the words.
Lines two through five said that there were slings and arrows and outrage in his life. That’s harsh, but when you read that he saw only two choices available, to suffer or to fight, you got to know how harsh Hamlet felt his situation was. The words show you other things too, like he could see what was going on around him and he was thinking about what he saw. You also know that he saw something else out there for him, but he didn’t know how to get out there to find whatever it was. You can figure all of that info out from one word he uses: “noble.”
He wanted to understand that word. Noble is a word usually attached to good people, so maybe he wanted to be good, but he was in a bad situation that he didn’t know how to fix. The kids got that right away.
I’ve never met a kid that didn’t want to do the right thing. I have, however, met many kids who were in bad situations and didn’t know what the right thing was to do. These kids knew why Hamlet felt like fighting, and they said it was because he only had two options. The kids thought that having only two options wasn’t fair, and if all he could do was to suffer or fight, then being mad was legit. The kids also knew that Hamlet knew that neither option would make him happy.
These middle school “back of the room kids” saw what thousands of articles and books have been written about with no problem, which could have been the moment I was looking for, but then the kids did what kids do best. They surprised me. The kids decided to look at the “Hamlet problem” from a different point of view, so instead of trying to figure out why the guy wasn’t happy, the kids decided to give him some more options. They decided to re-write the story.
They talked about finding another set of friends, finding some other kingdom to go to, and finding a local church or priest or someone like that to talk to. Many options were put on Hamlet’s table and we talked about them all.
Then, on the last day of class, the smallest kid in the room, and the kid most quiet and still, read a poem he had written to Hamlet. This boy thought that Peace was an option for Hamlet, and not only did he write about that, he created a space for Peace in his poem and opened the doors in all of our hearts to another possibility. Teacher Mom submitted the poem to a local writing contest, and this young man got to read his poem to hundreds of parents, school administrators, peers, and community members.
After he read his poem to all those people, I asked him how he felt. He said, “Miss Susan, I feel rich.” To know the richness of Peace and to let that feeling into your heart, that is something “devoutly to be wished,” as Shakespeare would say. What if Hamlet had decided to look for Peace instead of revenge, Peace instead of power, and Peace instead of… everything else? It would have been a much different story. Give yourself some Peace today, then give that richness to someone else that they might know it too. Take the word of a 13-year-old really good kid in a really bad situation. Peace is always an option… always, and in all ways.