We were about 45 minutes into our three-hour Shakespeare class the other night when the classroom door opened.
I was perched atop the instructor desk in front of the blackboard, my 25 students arranged before me in a semi-circle. We were working through a scene in Troilus and Cressida, and when I heard the door open, slightly behind me, I didn't look over. I was mid-sentence, and figured it was a student slipping in late.
Instead, a young man and young woman walked right into the center of the room and started performing part of the banquet scene from Romeo and Juliet.
We stopped abruptly. Fucking theatre kids, I thought. They must be advertising a production. Assholes. But since I knew the scene, and they'd already started, I figured I'd let them finish--surely they were just going to do the shared sonnet, and would be done in another dozen lines.
But they got to the end, kissed, and kept going.
The door opened again, and a third person came in: the Nurse. She got out a few lines, but when it became clear they weren't going to stop, I stood up.
"Thanks so much," I said sharply. "But you have the wrong semester: we do tragedies in the spring."
For the first second or two, even after I'd stood up, they didn't break character, but showed every sign of wanting to continue.
"You can leave NOW."
They slunk, grinning and only slightly abashed, to the door. As they got there, the woman playing Juliet announced something about this being a senior project--guerrilla Shakespeare, or some such shit.
After they left, my students and I stared at each other, rattled. We confirmed that none of us knew what the hell that had been, and that it hadn't been planned by any of us. One volunteered that she'd seen them doing this around campus--in the student union, and the bookstore.
There was a bit more nervous venting, but finally it seemed time to regroup.
"Okay," I said. "Let's return to the play we're actually reading, which is not Romeo and Juliet." I paused, thinking fast. "But the language you just heard Romeo and Juliet using--that overblown, self-consciously romantic language? That's really the same language Troilus is using in the scene we were just looking at. . . "
From the back of the room one of my students called out, "NICE segue!"
"Yeah," I shot back. "Most important thing I learned in graduate school."
* * * * *
We recovered, more or less, but what strikes me most about the episode is how different my reaction was from that of my students. I was pissed from the moment the actors entered, and although I didn't know what they were doing--and thought one of my own students might have engineered it for some misguided but well-intentioned purpose--I knew they weren't supposed to be there, and that I could get them out. My students, though, were much more shaken; some seemed genuinely upset.
It occurs to me that this is about the power dynamic in the classroom: I'm in charge and I know I'm in charge. My students, in a way that I don't often think about, are not in charge--even in a boisterous class where it can take me a while to get them to quiet down or to hush those having side conversations. Yes, they can tune in or tune out, and get up to go to the bathroom without asking my permission, but they don't feel they have the power to change what happens in that confined space; when something does happen, all they're able to do is watch.
The interruption also made me think about how vulnerable the classroom is. We think we're in a separate and semi-charmed space for those 60 or 90 minutes, but the world can come inside without our permission--whether it's jerky drama students or a medical emergency or a kid with a gun.
I'm still pissed at the actors (I spent almost 24 hours walking around muttering "fucking theatre people" under my breath), but I'm not sorry to have had the chance to think, in a concrete way, about my obligations to those in my charge for a few hours every week.