Skip to comments.The Greatest English Teacher
Posted on 12/07/2011 7:11:37 AM PST by Kaslin
The Rev. John Becker, S.J., sat at the front of the classroom, paperback in hand, glasses pushed to the end of his nose. As he spoke, he looked intently from one student to another.
This semester, I am going to teach you how to read 'King Lear,' he said. It may be Shakespeares most difficult play. But it has a powerful message to tell.
When we were done reading Lear, the priest promised, we would not only understand it, but we would have learned the secret of understanding any thing written in English -- anything, that is, with a meaning to discern.
And we would love Shakespeare.
At the time, I dont think any of us understood what Father Becker meant. But the things he started teaching us that day made him the greatest English teacher I ever had.
That was in 1974 at Saint Ignatius, the all-boys Jesuit high school in San Francisco.
For several weeks, Father Becker sat patiently with our class as we read King Lear, line by line -- out loud. Whenever we came to a word or phrase he suspected we did not understand, he would look with mock ferocity at one student and jovially ask another on the other side of the room to explain what it meant.
When it was clear no one knew, we would look it up in the glossary. Father would then pick someone to read the definition out loud. Then we would read -- again -- the line where the troublesome word had been found.
Reading King Lear like this was tedious -- at first.
But as we read deeper into the play -- then moved on to Hamlet and Macbeth -- we needed to stop and start and visit the glossary less frequently. But we appreciated the need for doing so more. We discovered Father Becker was right. The more we understood Shakespeares plays, the more we loved them. Our hard work and attention to detail was rewarded with the ability to detect, understand and appreciate even the subtle nuances of the greatest works of literature ever written.
Then there was the memorization and recitation. At first this, too, we faced with dread.
Father gave us a quota of lines from each play. Each student could choose which ones to memorize and when to recite them. But by the end of the semester, each was responsible for completing his share.
By the time everyone had recited their quota, it was possible Father Beckers students were as familiar with the most popular lines from that semesters Shakespeare play as from the latest Grateful Dead or Eagles album.
Then there was the continuous writing and rewriting. Father made us write one essay per week. He gave us some freedom in choosing a topic, but no freedom from the rules of grammar.
He often returned a graded paper with a neat A/F inscribed at the top. The A was for the merits he thought he detected in your creativity or thought. The F was for mangling English.
Father Becker did not give these Fs arbitrarily. Using a red pen, he meticulously marked every mistake with a code -- A61, D128, H53. Each referred to a specific rule in the Writing Handbook -- a clear, systematic and exhaustive 592-page text published in 1953 by two Jesuits. A student with an A/F needed to look up each rule he had broken and rewrite the paper to correct the errors. Father Becker would then change his grade to an A/A.
This, too, I found incredibly tedious. But then I went to college.
Father Becker was one of the teachers who recommended me to Princeton. I was accepted. I read more Shakespeare -- and Chaucer and Pope. I earned a degree in English literature. I became a professional writer and editor. Along the way, I had the opportunity to learn from many great English teachers. Yet, as time passed, I more deeply appreciated the teaching of Father Becker.
At St. Ignatius -- in Father Beckers class and all others -- we wrote the letters AMDG at the top of our papers. They stand for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam -- To the Greater Glory of God. These are the strategic watchwords of the Jesuit order: Everything ultimately must serve this purpose.
Father Becker taught us that Shakespeare was great not only because of the power and wit and poetry in his language but because his plays truly served the greater glory of God. They helped readers see good and evil and the consequences of choosing one over the other.
Father Becker also taught by example. He had the skills to succeed in many lucrative professions. But he took a vow of poverty and spent five decades as a good and faithful priest teaching boys to become strong and confident Christian men in an increasingly secular world.
In his later years, Father Becker published two mystery novels, while a third was published posthumously after he died three years ago. The hero, Father Luke Wolfe, teaches English at a Jesuit high school and spends his spare time at abortion clinics -- praying the Rosary.
In one novel, the fictional Wolfe gives a presentation to parents describing how he hopes to help their sons become professional in their reading and writing and speaking through the analyzing of Shakespeares tragedies -- line by line.
A front page of this novel is inscribed: AMDG.
Wow. Wish I had had him. Sounds very good.
If only I could witness a wonderful production of King Lear. I’ve seen Nigel Hawthorne do it and Ian McKellen and one other person who I can’t remember - probably Derek Jacobi. Sam Waterston just bombed in it in NYC. All of them were terrible.
The only time I saw greatness were the scenes from King Lear in the film “The Dresser.” Albert Finney, the brilliant, is devastating in the final scene.
It’s a good thing Shakespeare never studied under Father Becker. But for people who just want to see or read plays and not write them, he’s seems like a regular guy.
I went to Amazon, searched on “Becker”, “John Becker”, and then tried “Luke Wolfe”. Couldn’t find his books.
The thing that bugs me about most of the high-end Shakespeare productions is that you can't understand a damned word they're saying. Most of the actors think it very sophisticated to blow right through the dialogue. When I watch Shakespeare on DVD I always keep the subtitles turned on.
Shakespeare’s works were the fruits of a mind unfettered by convention. Creativity isn’t fostered by pedantry, though perhaps an appreciation of other people’s creativity might be.
Is it the British accent? Whenever I see a production of Shakespeare, I assume I’m going to miss a great deal of it because of the difficulty of the language.
Several years ago I saw an hilarious production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” at the National Theatre. The actors completely raced through the script (which is amazingly dense and difficult) but it really worked!
I think that's part of it. I generally don't have too many problems with Elizabethan English, but the accents certainly get in the way. Of course in Shakespeare's time the accents were probably closer to American than they are now. Still, I think it's the way they just race through the dialogue. One production that was better than the rest was BBC's "Age of Kings" series--in which I can almost make shift without the subtitles.
Not only that, but they always put on the thickest royal accents out of pure pomposity, which is absolutely historically inaccurate.
The correct accent would be no easier to understand, perhaps more difficult, but the royals in Shakespeare’s time would sound like the country bumpkins of Monty Python’s. And, of course, neither Julius Caesar, Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo, Juliet, nor King Lear spoke English, anyway.
So, by all means, speak in Shakespeare’s dialect, so the richness of his language can be learnt, but speak such words simply so they can be heard and learned, and in the clearest of accents.
Yes indeed, and by all means, slow it down a bit!
Guess it just isn’t my day, your link gives me “Document Not Found”.
My high school English teacher who was charged with Shakespeare did the same thing. He’s a professional actor and this was the day job. We got “admonished” several times for reading ahead on our own(the whole class did it at various points). However, this format makes the stories fun, interesting, and readable. It was hard to leave off at a pivotal point in the plays with the whole weekend to go, especially if the class wasn’t to be held on Monday or Friday.
I know and appreciate MacBeth, Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Taming of the Shrew because of this format. Now I wish that we also read King Lear.
I was blessed to have an English teacher just like that in high school. He was, and remains to this day, a hero to his students.
Oh, and our memorization was one of his poems, though, not lines from the plays. Papers and exams were on both. Before starting the play each day, we read and briefly discussed his poetry.
My geatest engish teacher and the greatest HS teacher was father Brendan Comisky. Most of our priests were Irish and young. He was very bright.
Of course we only read one non-English, Irish author. John Steinbeck.
He could see right through you. No lies or BS in his class.
He became a Bishop in Ireland.
One day a few years ago, the Times of London reported he transferred a pedophile priest and did not call the police.
He went to Rome and resigned. They made him a priest in a small parish. Pity.
My best teacher was Madame St. Virgilius. She was remarkable in every way.
I did have a 5th grade teacher who would read books to the class and we loved that.
I sometimes think that the emphasis on creativity in school writing classes is just an excuse for teachers either too lazy or too ignorant to teach grammar and spelling. The truly creative will learn to write even better and the rest of the little squids will at least write their boring prose in a readable format.
That's always been my impression. But it shows, I think, a gross misunderstanding of creativity.