The first few English classes Jake and I taught were pretty rough. We came up with some lame activities, without really knowing how much English the kids already knew or understood.
One day, the 10th grade teacher handed us a photocopy of Shakespeare’s sonnet Not marble, nor the Gilded Monuments.
Over our usual lunch of naan, chickpeas, chicken stew, yogurt, and cucumbers, we frantically plumbed our dusty knowledge of sonnets from high school. We were glad for the structure the sonnet would afford us during class, but nervous about teaching it. We had no idea what, if anything, they knew about Shakespeare, sonnets, or English literature in general. We also didn’t know how much we knew about these things.
When we walked into the class, it was about half full and almost all boys.
“Where is everyone?”
“The girls are at music, ma’am.”
Darn. I was secretly looking forward to having girls in class for Shakespeare.
“We go outside for sports?”
“No, this period is for Shakespeare.”
Jake established order in the class, as usual. As an extroverted, collegiate wrestler, he is well-suited for that. The kids opened their textbooks to the page with the sonnet. My nervous sweat was already mixing with my heat sweat and staining the salwar kameez that the all the female volunteers wear to school.
“Sonnets have patterns. Find the patterns in this sonnet.”
I wrote something to that effect on the chalkboard at the front of the room.
Before even reading the sonnet:
“Ma’am, the pattern is ABAB.”
Darn. They already know all this stuff! At first I was impressed and intimidated. But:
“So what is ABAB?” I asked the class.
There were some incoherent mumblings and a few more attempts to respond to the question with, “ABAB.”
Nice. A teaching moment.
So, as a class, we established what rhyme is, came up with some rhymes, and identified the rhyming words in the sonnet:
Then I asked them to find more patterns in the sonnet. Like a scavenger hunt.
A hint: syllables.
“Do you know what syllables are?” I asked.
They recognized the word, but didn’t know the meaning.
I realized that I couldn’t really answer my own question so I showed by clapping out some words, which highlighted the syllables. When I clapped, a cloud of chalk dust erupted and stuck to my sweaty salwar kameez.
Back to the sonnet hunt. Hint: syllables.
Jake and I went around to help the students individually with syllables. When they have questions, we usually have to stoop close to them and ask them to repeat their question because it’s hard for us to understand their accented English.
Here and there, kids were counting 10 or 11 syllables per line.
On the board I did the big reveal: all the lines have 10! Very cool.
On to content.
I asked, “What does the sonnet mean?” “What is it about?”
I tried, “What is a monument?”
“Ma’am, something that kings build.” “Big buildings, ma’am.”
“What are some examples of monuments?”
Then there was a whole flurry of answers. Most were the names of tombs and temples in India that I didn’t understand and couldn’t recognize. I heard “Taj Mahal.”
“Any in Egypt?”
“What happens to the monuments over time?”
“Ma’am, they decay.” “Fall down.”
unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
We (the volunteers) had visited Humayun’s Tomb the day before. It was reminiscent of the Taj Mahal — domed, big archways, sweeping. It was undergoing major restoration. There were big pictures of the restoration project, including workers applying thin sheets of gold to the crumbling finial. A gilded finial.
“What else happens to monuments?”
“People ruin them, Ma’am.”
When wasteful war shall statues overturn.
“So, what is better at remembering than monuments?”
On our first day of the program, a former professor at a college in India taught us about Indian history, politics, culture and how they affect contemporary India. It’s a very traditional country, and he remarked (with pride) that it’s been a continuous culture for thousands of years. An example he gave of the importance of tradition was about monkeys. Monkeys are considered sacred because of a monkey god in an ancient Indian story. So sacred that the farmers whose crops and livelihood are destroyed by monkeys can’t harm them. Similarly, a rock bridge from India to Sri Lanka which blocks boats from crossing must be left untouched. Apparently an ancient god placed the rocks there.
India’s history, its traditions and stories have persisted for thousands of years and even shape politics and the economy today. I was grateful to the professor for teaching us about Indian history, so that we could better understand the country.
In class, I was holding the piece of paper with my copy of the sonnet on it.
“So I could rip up this paper [in retrospect, I should have ripped it up for dramatic effect], and throw it away, but the sonnet still lives in all your textbooks and in thousands of books around the world and has been for hundreds of years.”
Teaching, traditions, sonnets and storytelling all can outlive finials, which often need to be re-gilded.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.