The Teacher Diaries:
Romeo & Juliet
An excerpt from this book:
It’s easy to wince when reading the Nurse’s debut scene. In fewer than fifty lines, we learn of her daughter’s death, and she shares the very palpable details of how she weaned Juliet, as well as her body’s reaction to that weaning. We learn that her husband is also gone, and we hear a little anecdote about Juliet’s toddler years. After my first reading of the Nurse’s speech, I wrote in the margin, “Girlfriend could’ve started a blog.”
Shakespeare’s Nurse is off-color, and she gives far more information than she needs to. She is also the person Juliet trusts most. When I teach Romeo and Juliet and we get to this part in the play, before we read, I give my students a warning.
“She says way too much, and she might make you squirm a bit.”
This, of course, makes them want to read on. Dangle any hint of something taboo in front of a middle school student, and they’ll devour it.
I go on to explain, though, that I believe it is her stories, perhaps even the inappropriate and overloaded details of her stories, that make Juliet trust her and tell her things.
“She’s kind of like me,” I tell my students, and they look at me, shocked at the comparison.
“C’mon,” I’ll say, “you know I have a story for everything.” They laugh, thinking they are the ones who throw me off course, taking up class time, when I meticulously plan for it. I offer my stories—my vulnerable, awkward, growing-up stories—because I’m leveling the playing the field. I want to bear some of what it is my students are going through so they will trust themselves to get at their stories. I’m attempting to pull something out of them, as the Nurse does for Juliet, as [my mom’s friend] Mrs. Carlson has done for me.
The opening line in Act 1, Scene 3 is a question and a command. “Where’s my daughter?” Lady Capulet asks the Nurse. “Call her forth to me.” We can interpret that line literally. Mrs. Capulet doesn’t know where her kid is and is asking the Nurse to help find her.
I think this line can be interpreted figuratively as well. That is, we mothers don’t always understand what’s going on with our children—their experience is not our own. Recognizing this can be scary, when we see them on the brink of adolescence, marriage, motherhood. Where’s the daughter we once knew? Who is she now? How much of this experience do we help her navigate? How do we help her become who she’s going to be? Why not bring in our friends to call forth something in our children.
Before Lady Capulet tells Juliet to “Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,/And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen,” before Juliet falls for Romeo on the night she is to look at Paris, before the Nurse and the Friar take part in this starcrossed romance, let’s look at the Nurse in all her vibrant, story-telling glory. Let’s watch her and Juliet together, then nod along with Lady Capulet when she tells the Nurse to “come back again,/ I have remember’d me,” because it can be our friends who not only call forth something in our children, but help us remember a part of our selves we’ve forgotten.
Mrs. Carlson, my mom, and I stand together in the kitchen for a few minutes before the rest of the company arrives— these two women sharing the space where I’d been listening to and wondering about the night, each of them with an arm on my shoulders, making me laugh.
[My daughter] Hadley wakes up, and I bring her downstairs to show her to friends who’ve watched me grow up. There’s Mrs. Padour, who made pancakes in the shape of my initials while her daughters and I watched, sleepy-eyed from staying up too late, and happy from the sizzle of buttermilk and flour, eggs and vanilla shaping itself into a perfectly fluffy C. There’s Mrs. Roldan, who, on a Saturday night when Celena and I were broken-hearted over a boy, sat with us on her bed and told us her own broken-hearted boy stories. Mrs. Todd is here, too. She gave me one of my first jobs, helping her sell tea in her tea store. I loved lifting the big glass jars, gently scooping up jasmine, Ceylon, or, my favorite, cinnamon spice tea leaves and spilling them into golden bags for customers. And at lunch time, Mrs. Todd and I would sip Diet Coke® and eat our sandwiches and giggle about one thing or another we found silly. Now Mrs. Carlson is smiling, her eyes twinkling, and I think she’s coming up with her next story. Mom smiles, too.
All of them, like the Nurse, calling me forth.
[COPYRIGHT 2018, Callie Feyen. Reprinted with permission of TS Poetry Press]