(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)
Who said Shakespeare was irrelevant?
We were reading Romeo and Juliet. You may remember the story. At one point Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, gets in a dustup with Juliet’s cousin (and Romeo’s unacknowledged kinsman) Tybalt. Romeo wants to stop the fight but instead, like many do-gooders, he ends up making things worse and Mercutio is killed. In a spate of anger he revenges Mercutio by killing Tybalt.
The law (The Prince of Verona) arrives. He wants to know what happened.
“Where are the vile beginners of this fray,” he asks.
Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio, reports, accurately, all the sad events.
Over the usual classroom noise, I hear the comment, “Benvolio is a snitch!” but I try to ignore it.
We continue to read the play.
But someone else picks up on the Benvolio-as-snitch mantra. I hear a handful of remarks all to the effect that Benvolio should have kept quiet.
More than anything this year I have been trying to contain my anger, to deal with students calmly. I know that my tendency to get emotional only undermines my efforts to teach.
But I can literally feel the blood rushing to my face and my body writhing in fury. I’m in the throes of the ‘flight or fight’ response. I must say something.
A high school classroom is a dangerous place, especially for kids in the lower track groupings. The teacher exercises a considerable degree of control over the official business of the day. And that can be scary to many kids.
There are a thousand ways students can be embarrassed or held up to ridicule (generally by accident) by that adult at the front of the room. Very few kids have the confidence or bravado to risk the loss of face that can result from a ‘wrong’ answer or any public admission of imperfection.
But there is a more sinister enforcement that goes on in just about every classroom.
Every day bad things go on in my classroom when my back is turned or I’m bent over a desk trying to help a student. Big kids prey on smaller ones. School property is damaged or destroyed. ‘Different’ kids are mocked or intimidated.
But the troublemakers have very little fear of being caught. Every kid understands that you do not report crimes in a classroom. To do so would be to risk social ostracism or, in extreme cases, a bloodied lip.
Nothing about being a teacher frustrates me more than the knowledge that I don’t have the skills to provide a truly safe space for the kids who want to play by the rules. It breaks my heart that I can’t render justice to the bad kids, nor reassure the good kids that I can protect them.
Which is why I (foolishly) spent twenty minutes raging against the “Don’t Snitch “ ethos that day. My face reddened. I gave every ounce of my being to try to deflate the anti-Benvolio crowd. I wanted, more than anything, to reach the Silent Majority that I know exists but can’t afford to self-identify.
It didn’t avail me anything, of course. The enforcers laughed and taunted me, murmuring, “Snitch” whenever I paused in my diatribe. The majority sided, prudently, with the enforcers, incredulous that someone would actually defend snitching.
Kudos to Benvolio. We need more like him.
(This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary. You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)