Encounters with Shakespeare

by Rob Peck

When the last bell rang at 2:55 pm, three years after I’d left I returned to Tenafly High. The hallways of my old high school hadn’t changed. Hopefully homeroom assignments hadn’t either.

Just before 3 o’clock I slipped into Room 212. Frank Spada (my 11th grade English Teacher) sat at his desk, head down, right hand gliding a ballpoint pen across a page. I stood motionless, my mind replaying the past.

The room was exactly the way I remembered it. Books neatly lining shelves, blackboard with white chalk letters listing essay titles and due dates, and well worn posters in all the same spots. It was like the class had been hermetically sealed.

Mr Spada capped his pen, folded a few pieces of paper, and stuck them in his desk. He stood up, and walked to the peg on the back wall which held his coat. Same spot, same peg… probably same coat. It’s like I’ve stepped back in time.

When he turned and headed for the door, Mr Spada spotted me and stopped. We faced each other in silence. I searched for words but came up dry. Mr Spada saved me, “Bobby Peck- as I live and breathe. What brings you here?”

I manage to mumble something about my college Shakespeare course. Mr Spada smiles, and says “I hope the syllabus includes Macbeth.” I nod vigorously. Mr Spada’s smile broadens, ” So did any of it come back to you?” I nod more vigorously. Mr Spada’s grins widens, ” See, I told you it was timeless!”

Finally words formulate in my brain and I’m able to speak, “You got that right, and you had it right at the time that the Bard’s best lines would stick with me.” Mr. Spada winks and says in full Elizabethan dialect. “Prithee sire, an example I pray thee.”

Doing my best to match him, I intone “Let this be thy counsel, good sir. Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent beneath.” Nodding wistfully, Mr Spada says,”Aye verily, Foul is fair and fair is foul.”

Then he adds softly, “Never more true my boy, Never more true.” I don’t know if it’s cause he called me boy but impulsively I put my hand on his shoulder, and we’re suddenly speechless.

Mr Spada eyes me strangely. I stare at him directly, and pray I’ll get this right, “I’m here because every time my Penn prof read a passage aloud, I kept comparing him to you, and it wasn’t even close. My first night home from break I couldn’t sleep because my conscience was killing me.”

I take a shallow, scared breath and push myself to say it. “I owe you an apology for making fun of how animated you always got when you recited Macbeth’s soliloquies. I was too juvenile to understand that it was your passion that made the play come alive.”

Mr Spada softly places his palm over my hand on his shoulder, “Bobby, I understand- and I appreciate, your desire to make amends. But honestly, none are necessary”

Relieved, I grip his shoulder and pour out, “You’re amazing. I mean, I never knew back then what it took to be a great teacher. But this whole last semester, every time Professor Ames recited a passage, all I could think of was how much more life you breathed into it. I don’t get it that he’s an Ivy league professor and you’re a High School English teacher. It’s not fair.”

Mr Spada presses his palm down on the back of my wrist, and winks, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. As it was in Elizabethan times, so it is for modern English teachers.” I wink back and say, “Aye there’s the rub.” Mr Spada grins and retorts, “Look at this, a college boy, quoting Hamlet.”

Abruptly, he takes his palm off my wrist, twists his shoulder free from my hand, and strides briskly back to his desk. Reaching into a drawer, he pulls out a cassette tape and motions me to accompany him over to a player.

We listen to a a dusty recording of Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy. When it scratches to a conclusion, I’m startled to see tears glistening on Mr Spada’s cheeks. With a reverent nod, he removes the cassette, puts it back in his desk, and dabs his eyes with a handkerchief.

Again, we’re speechless. This time Mr Spada puts a hand on my shoulder, and peers into my face. The silence grows more awkward… a LOT more awkward. I knew the guy was intense. But he’s looking at me like he’s going to propose!

Instead, he simply says, “Thank you for coming.This means a lot to me.The man we just listened to was my college professor. It was his passion for Shakespeare’s tragedies that got me into teaching. It’s true the bard’s writing withstands the test of time. But today Bobby, you reminded me of something just as timeless.”

His voice cracks, and instinctively I place my palm above his wrist on my shoulder. The role reversal isn’t lost on Mr Spada. Peering into my eyes, he continues,”When a love for a literary gem gets passed to a student, the import of the author’s work doesn’t just span another generation. It validates the craft of teaching, and confirms the worth of my profession.”

Touched- and a tad eager to lighten the mood, I intone in my best Elizabethan English,  “Verily good sire. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished forAnd amen until we meet again, anon” Mr Spada chuckles warmly, removes his hand and wishes me well.

Epilogue

I made a return pilgrimage that summer, and visited Mr. Spada annually from then on. Two years out of college I created a solo Shakespeare show. Natch it was a a juggling parody of Macbeth, aptly titled: A Man’s Home Is His Hassle. At the time there was a nation wide circuit of Renaissance Faires and I booked a 4 month tour. I was glad to have steady work. (Cause hey- an unemployed Jester… is nobody’s fool!)

A decade later, Gene Jones, then President of The International Jugglers Association, heard a similar spoof of Hamlet; titled: The Crown Prince of Denmark- With Three Balls. Intrepidly, Gene invited me to perform it in a three thousand seat theatre at the public show he was planning for the association’s summer conference in New York, (modestly titled “The Cascade of Stars“)

The line up included luminaries like The Flying Karamazov Brothers, comedian Michael Davis, and Broadway bound ingenious clown, Avner The Eccentric. Performing in The Cascade of Stars was such a big deal my mother proudly attended (my father not so much), and my then wife and several friends were in the audience. My act was hardly a smash, But just to share the stage with such legends is an honor I’ll always cherish.

Sadly, Mr Spada never saw it. I invited him, but found out the week before that he’d passed away. I wasn’t able to attend the memorial. But if I was, I know just how I’d end my remarks (and this blog): “Good night sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Yep, William Shakespeare knew how to write timeless prose – and Frank Spada knew how to teach… for all time.

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Author: Rob Peck

Rob Peck is a triple treat: riveting speaker, empowering trainer, and a multi-talented emcee. Check out his humorous 3 minute video highlights on YouTube or at www.zestworks.com. Rob's highly interactive programs on Keeping All The Balls In The Air (Tips to Get a Grip on Overload and Overwhelm) are individually designed to help leaders and teams reduce burnout and regain a better life balance. Clients include: Panasonic, Hewlett Packard, Baystate Health, National Head Start Conference, Global Optics, Franklin First Financial, and Smith College.

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