By Kallan Louis
Thirteen-year-old Sebastian confidently stood up and approached the front of the room. He paused, and then began reciting one of Shakespeare’s most notable soliloquies from one of his most famous works, “Macbeth:”
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!”
Sebastian moved to Charlotte from Colombia in December of 2016 and did not speak much English. “He was reluctant to be in class, because he didn’t want the teacher to call on him to talk,” said Sebastian’s mother, Dania Nino. “He thought students would laugh at him.”
She credits Mark Williams, the creator of the youth literacy program, “Shakespeare in a Chair,” for her son’s improvement. Williams facilitates weekly Shakespeare reading workshops at Alexander Graham Middle School in Charlotte’s Myers Park neighborhood.
Nino, a former English teacher in her native country, was excited when her son had the opportunity to participate in the workshops. “I was familiar with Shakespeare and read a lot about him. So I said, this will be wonderful, for him to get to know more about Shakespeare, one of the English language’s best-known writers.”
Sebastian is one of a handful of students in this reading group. The workshops are one of several programs offered as part of CrossRoads Corporation’s after-school youth program, housed at Alexander Graham. CrossRoads Corporation is a faith-based nonprofit organization, in partnership with Myers Park Presbyterian Church, that focuses on the revitalization of Grier Heights, one of Charlotte’s poorest neighborhoods. Most of the after-school program’s 60 students are from Grier Heights.
At 15, I had to read those same lines from “Macbeth” in front of my class that Sebastian recited in front of me. The difference was that I stumbled through it for a passing grade, while his rendition seemed effortless. My younger self didn’t agree with being forced to memorize lines from plays I barely understood.
“If you can read and understand Shakespeare, you can read anything,” said Williams. “There has to be a reason why we have been studying Shakespeare for over 400 years. Shakespeare writes about the human condition.”
Rather than reading entire plays from beginning to end, the group highlights sections, then goes in-depth to understand the themes and characters. Williams had the students start with “Julius Caesar,” because the action allowed the workshops to be interactive, keeping the kids interested.
Deymauriey, 12, was quiet and nervous when I spoke with him. His body language displayed his discomfort, but his face lit up when he was asked about his favorite scene in “Julius Caesar.” “Beware of Ides of March,” he said with a grin and a chuckle. He went on to talk about a workshop in which the group dressed up and reenacted scenes from the play.
According to data compiled by 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 16 percent of black eighth grade students are proficient in reading. NAEP’s average reading score for black eighth graders dropped two points (248) since 2013, and is 26 points lower than the scores of white counterparts. In North Carolina, black student scores are lower (243) and down eight points.
Rebekah Bowen, program director at Crossroads Corporation, believes exposure plays a huge role in closing educational and achievement gaps: “I think a lot of people make the assumption that kids like this won’t be interested in Shakespeare. So I think it is really powerful for kids to understand Shakespeare is understandable and relatable, especially these kids, as they are already removed from the idea of reciting, public speaking and the language of Shakespeare.”
Williams doesn’t claim to be an expert, and he doesn’t have a background in education. However, he has worked with early education professionals from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to build the program’s curriculum.
Bowen likes the results thus far, but is more impressed with Williams’ commitment and willingness to build relationships with the kids. And with nearly 40 plays and more than 150 sonnets credited to Shakespeare, Williams has plenty of literary options to share with these kids for years to come.