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One recent Wednesday at 12:15 p.m., the ruler of Verona stood among his constituents, fiddling with his robe.
The monarch was Maximiliano Rangel, age 7. His robe, a blue blanket whose knot kept untying. The constituents: Rangel’s classmates in the second grade at John A. Otis Elementary School in National City.
A grownup walked toward Rangel.
“I’ve played a few kings,” he said. “Now let me help you out.” The veteran giving the tips was Craig Rovere, a semi-retired actor who spent years working in New York City and moved to San Diego recently. He’d coached Rangel and his classmates for several weeks in a reader’s theater version of “Romeo and Juliet.” The day of the show had finally come.
Rovere fastened the blanket with a double-knot. Rangel balanced a plastic crown on his ears and took his seat.
About 20 students, just months into their first year of school taught in English instead of their native Spanish, sat in a rectangle of chairs. Rovere stepped out of the center of the circle to let the performance began.
I was there to watch for a few reasons: A nonprofit group called Young Audiences brings resident artists to elementary schools to help students access arts, and I’d been meaning to check out their work. I wanted to see what a handful of sessions with an actor had done for this class. The National School District contracts with the nonprofit so each grade gets some kind of arts education, from dancing to music to acting.
The students stood in turns to read their solo lines, highlighted in yellow on their scripts. They raised their voices to yell in unison echoes of tricky English lines like “Rebellious subjects!” and “Wherefore art thou?” and to proclaim their allegiances, whether “Capulet!” or “Montague!”
They even gave the characters some Latin flavor, calling the lead “Ro-mé-o” instead of “Ro-me-o.”
As Juliet stabbed herself, the students looked around. The narrator nonchalantly announced, “The death of Juliet.”
The play ended, and the students stood to applause of the parents, teachers, younger siblings. The king bowed, his crown falling off his head.
Rovere teared up. “I’ve learned a lot from you guys,” he said.
Their principal, Steve Sanchez, congratulated them in English first, and then Spanish, on their newfound confidence in speaking their second language. The students beamed.
As they milled around and moved their props aside, one boy spoke up softly. “What about the quarter?” he asked.
“The quarter!” several others echoed.
“The quarter!” Rovere said. He appeared to get choked up again. He walked over to the chalkboard and reached his hand up to the top frame, his fingers running along the rim. He pulled down a quarter and held it up.
“What are we going to do with this?” he said. “Should we keep it here?”
“Yeah!” the students agreed. The girl who played Juliet hopped up on a chair and replaced the quarter to its previous spot.
Later, I asked Rovere what that was all about.
He said this play got off to a bit of a rough start. He had six scheduled sessions with the class, and donated his time for two more to help them get the play off the ground. In one of the first meetings, he grew discouraged. Why did I think I could teach Shakespeare to kids who don’t speak English? he thought.
That day, he’d dropped a quarter on the floor, and several kids alerted him to his lost coin.
He picked up the quarter, held it up and placed it on the chalkboard frame. He looked at the class and vowed: When they’d practiced all of their lines and it came to the day of the show, some parents and teachers there to watch, they’d remember all of the work they’d done and how much they’d learned, and they’d remember together to pull the symbol of their work, the quarter, down from the chalkboard.
He’d forgotten all about it, but the kids hadn’t.
I’ve seen a lot of things in a few months on the arts beat. Some heartrending, beautiful things and some attempts at that sincerity that have fallen short.
This little lunchtime theater performance has popped into my mind a few times in the last few weeks. These class sessions don’t solve the massive problem that is trying to find money for arts education when schools can’t pay for all of the other things they need. But on this scale, for what this short production was, I think it leaves an important mark. I’ve thought about how difficult it would be to be 7 or 8, able to speak one language but told to learn another. And I’ve wondered how many of those kids doubted they’d be able not just to read, but to act, to emote in their second language. As Sanchez said, one of the biggest hurdles in teaching English is getting kids to feel confident enough to speak it.
As I left the classroom, I looked up at the overhead screen and saw a transparency of William Shakespeare’s likeness gazing out over the scene.