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And Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them:
Shakespeare Through an Unschooling Lens

by Karen Ridd

spotlight on unschoolersThere’s a lot of giggling going on in the back seat of the car. We’re on our way home from the prestigious Golden Boy indoor soccer tournament. My eleven-year-old son Daniel has a gold medal around his neck after a hard-played final. He also has a book in his hand – not exactly standard “Grade Six” reading fare. It’s Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare – and he and his eight-year-old brother are quizzing each other on the lines that they are memorizing. And giggling.… They are giggling at how funny these lines are. I, on the other hand, have tears in my eyes, a smile that reaches to Pittsburgh, and a heart overflowing with gratitude that we are able to learn without school.

There is a beautiful poster on the wall of my sons’ bedroom that says it all to me: in black and white, it shows a young boy in complete football uniform, surrounded by his teammates – and he is playing a violin. It reads: “Celebrate the Whole Boy.” One way that we so fortunately get to experience this wholeness is through our weekly time with a group of other homeschooling families at our homeschooling Learning Center. There’s Science Club, Book Club, Help a Little Piece of the World Club, as well as a variety of games and programming. There is also the yearly play: this year an abridged, sixty-minute version of a Shakespearean comedy.

The performers are a motley crew. Some are talented dancers, gymnasts, and musicians. Some are kids who are enjoying being with the gang and others are just curious. Some were apparently born with a longing and gift for the stage – like our eight-year-old Ben. Recently, a friend who is considering homeschooling asked my sons what they like about it. Without missing a beat, Daniel replied, “It gives us the chance to follow our passion.” For Daniel, the passion is his beloved soccer; for Ben, it is drama and music. After last year’s production of The Tempest, Ben was asked, “Were you nervous?” Shocked, horrified, outraged, he responded, “No – I was delighted!!” So there are certainly actors in our cast. But there are also those who have had “greatness thrust upon them” and Daniel is definitely one of those.

In a school, only the ‘best’ would have been given the lead parts – here, we need everyone in the play, and look what we can draw out of kids who’d never star in a school production!

You see, Daniel walks with feet in two worlds: There’s the mainstream world of elite youth soccer where all his teammates go to school, listen to Hot103 radio and think reading is something you do when a teacher makes you. Like them, Daniel loves Hot103. Unlike them, he has held on to his love of reading, and his other world, the world of homeschooling, has been a major part of that. We have been blessed to be able to learn without school – and now, with this play, we’re blessed again. Because Daniel hadn’t intended to be a performer: He’s always been shy, he’d stage crewed last year’s production, and he was happily looking forward to doing so again. That is, until our intended Malvolio had to leave the Learning Centre… and we were left without a Malvolio. The consummate team player, Daniel stepped forward into the breech – and, to his surprise and wonder, he’s loving it. He’d never have had this chance without homeschooling, never have found this particular new interest inside him. In a school environment there would have been far too much peer pressure, far too little safety to take such a big risk. But here he is, giving his all as Malvolio, and loving it.

One of our directors, Marilyn Firth, said something to me at last year’s production that I’ve pondered a lot this year: “In a school, only the ‘best’ would have been given the lead parts – here, we need everyone in the play, and look what we can draw out of kids who’d never star in a school production! Look how great they are!” Daniel is living proof of this, living proof of the whole person inside us all, waiting to be drawn out.

And why Shakespeare? Isn’t he just another dead white guy? Shouldn’t we do something more current? The kids range in age from seven to fifteen: how could they possibly be able to understand Shakespeare?! To these questions, I’ll give the following answers: Firstly, Shakespeare is ubiquitous. Take “Some have greatness thrust upon them” – I got an elbow in the ribs from one of my kids recently when that line showed up in a Hollywood film we were watching. Lines pop up everywhere, and what a gift to know what they mean, what their origin is! Secondly, I’d say that if you learn to love Shakespeare early, before you are intimidated by it, you will love it for life. Moreover, if you can grapple with and come to love Shakespeare, surely all other theater will be easily accessible to you. Lastly, it gives the performers the chance to struggle with – and overcome – something hard, alongside their friends. Most importantly, though, (at least according to my children), it’s really, really funny!

The performances will be funny – I know that. I also know that Malvolio will be nervous, but he’ll do just fine. The small boy playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek will be utterly and completely delighted. And I’ll be the one (or maybe one of the ones) with the tears in my eyes.

Editor's Note: This article was published in 2010. The kids in this troupe have continued to perform Shakespeare, along with a few other young actors. Here's a review of a 2014 performance.

Karen Ridd is an activist, educator, retired clown, and delighted unschooling mother. Her children are responsible for the biggest growth curve in her life – and she appreciates that! Karen lives with her partner Gord and their boys in a fledgling co-housing community in the bush east of Winnipeg, Manitoba. An earlier essay from Life Learning Magazine is included in the book “Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.”

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