Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Hamlet Isn't Dead

When our daughter Josephine was in second grade, her school hosted a "summer camp fair." We attended mostly because it was a chance to socialize with the parents of her classmates, but while there we became engaged with a charming teenager who was manning the table for something called Camp Bill, a two week program for elementary school-aged kids offered by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. A fondness for Shakespeare has always been a common bond between my wife and me: she grew up in a theater family, her mother's second husband was a Shakespeare scholar, and I had fallen in love with his work while studying for my English minor at university. As a young married coupled we traveled to Shakespeare festivals from Ashland to Stratford and attended dozens of performances together.

That part of our lives was put on hold with the birth of our child, but this Camp Bill seemed like an opportunity to expose her to something that was important to both of us, so we rallied the parents of a couple of her best friends and signed them all up. The kids were enthusiastic about spending those two weeks together, although none of them were particularly excited about Shakespeare. Indeed, when the first day of camp rolled around, Josephine balked enough that we wound up agreeing that if she hated it on the first day, we would eat the fees and not make her go back.

The rest is history. She came home afire, retelling every detail of that first day, demonstrating what she had learned, reciting favorite lines, and anticipating tomorrow. It's what all parents want for their child: to discover something in the world that inspires them to the core. Of course, I had no way of knowing that this was to be the beginning of her life's work.

From Camp Bill she went on to "Short Shakes," another Seattle Shakespeare program in which kids up to 18-years-old rehearsed and performed whatever was being produced on the professional stage. She did three shows a year all the way through middle school, a period of time during which her expertise surpassed that of both of her parents. It was these years that solidified her ambition to become a Shakespearian actor when she grew up, as if she wasn't one already. By the time she was a 14-year-old eighth grader she declared that she had done her research and that she would be attending the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU since, as she put it, "That's the best Shakespeare acting program in the country." She then spent her high school years performing in every show her school produced, preparing herself for the life she envisioned.

She had always been something of an indifferent student, managing decent if uneven grades. We all knew that she could likely do "better" if she would just apply herself, something her teachers regularly told us, but getting the highest marks was never the goal for any of us. No, what was important was that she had discovered her passion. That is what gave us confidence that our kid was alright.

She is now a rising senior at NYU, and if anything her passion for both Shakespeare and acting has grown. I'm her father so I really can't be looked to as a judge of her talent, but she receives plenty of praise from others and what I can say with confidence is that she is no longer an indifferent student: she is still that seven-year-old, afire.

There is no greater satisfaction as a parent than to see that flame blazing in one's child. As parents, we could have sought to "make" her more well-rounded, to mold her, insisting that she apply herself more rigorously, even to those things that deadened her soul, but to what end? To hedge her bets? No, it's much better I think when young people are free to pursue their dreams . . . And that doesn't just go for young people.

This summer, Josephine is remaining in the big city, working her "day job" in a restaurant while tackling no less than three internships, two of which are with Shakespeare companies while the other is a more "corporate" position with a large record company. She has done this on her own, through her passion, through following her dream.

She has rarely spoken of alternative career paths, back-up plans, but she once said that if the whole theater thing doesn't work out that she would consider following in my footsteps as a preschool teacher, which is why she has taken a few child development courses these past three years, classes she has said were made fairly easy by the fact that her childhood was spent alongside me as I "grew up" as a teacher. I love that she found herself often disagreeing with her professors.

Particularly gratifying for me is that one of her summer gigs is with a young theater company called Hamlet Isn't Dead, where she will be working as the program director for a project called ShakesPreK, an initiative that takes Shakespeare into preschool classrooms. It's hard not to feel as if she has come full circle. When she tells me about the work she is doing with the program, about how the children light up, she is again afire. Right now the program is focused on schools in the NYC area, but they are interested in exploring how their program can be expanded into other parts of the country. So, if you or someone you know is interested in introducing preschoolers to Shakespeare for a day or longer, especially in the New York area, email Josephine at info@hamletisntdead.com. To learn more click here.)

To say I'm proud is an understatement. To say I feel "vindicated" in our approach to parenting goes without saying. We're born to pursue our dreams, all of us: we're born to be afire. Our job as an important adult in a child's life is to ignite that flame. That is all. The rest is up to them.

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