[Editor’s note: American-Chick-Lit is the pseudonym of a second-year teacher in a high school in the Bronx.]
The Crucible was going to be a tough text to teach to 11th graders, and bringing the culture of Puritan New England to the Bronx was going to be a challenge. At least that’s what I thought at first.
How will students born in the ’90s grasp the Puritan ideals of Reverends Hale and Parris? How will we break through the archaic language of “aye” and “Goody” and other unknown daily utterances and get to understand the depths of the themes of this play?
To begin the play, we read Arthur Miller’s Overture, and the students were underwhelmed. Bored. Maybe even disengaged. Because they didn’t get it. That’s my job though, right? To help them understand what the playwright is presenting.
Puritans, according to our readings, shunned dancing, drinking, fancy clothing, and they devoted most of their lives to work and prayer. As one student put it, “Man, Miss! They was against all fun.” I worried about how they’d handle the reading of the play, but we dove in.
My classes of juniors, though reluctant and a little shy at first, managed to make the in-class readings come alive. With students who have their own roots in island nations, Tituba’s voice and Barbados intonations made her character feel real and present. However, parts of the play had to be dissected line-by-line in order to clarify just what was really going on. I was afraid of losing them, and we had only just begun. We needed some drama to spark the readers’ interest.
Enter Abigail Williams, Arthur Miller’s and Salem, Massachusetts’s own 17-year-old harlot and pot stirrer.
In the opening scene, when Abigail says, “There be no blush about my name,” what does she mean? I asked my students. “She mean nobody be talking smack about her in town.” We were getting somewhere…
The students were translating the lines into expressions they understood.
Often times, when teaching Shakespeare, teachers have their students put the Bard’s lines into modern language. But for me and Arthur Miller, why should we have to turn a modern American playwright’s lines to our own everyday language? But Abigail and her character’s actions made me rethink how to allow my students to decipher what was really going on in this play.
Here’s how a discussion went once students were asked to analyze Abigail’s relationship with John Proctor, her antics in the Salem court, and her overall character and motivation in the play:
“She’s a ho!”
“That girl’s mad crazy.”
“She’s whack, but it ain’t her fault. He did it with her.”
“She just want back in the bed with that man, so she sent his baby mama to jail.”
“She be tellin’ those girls to do things just because she want some!”
I had to interrupt at some points: “She want some what?” I asked.
(These conversations occur, mind you, with at least two baby mamas present in my class. These kids do know what they are talking about, after all.)
“You know, Miss… she want some ’cause she got some before. It’s like she wants to be his baby mama and she don’t care how she get there.”
“So are we sure this isn’t about witches?” I needed to clarify.
“No Miss, it’s about baby mamas.”
I started to worry that Arthur Miller’s messages were getting lost in translation. “Really?” I asked at the end of one class. “This is just like a Jerry Springer show and all the baby mamas in Salem?”
Then came the voice of reason, “Well, it’s part that. And it’s about like, having a good reputation. Everybody be really worried about their name.”
Now we were really getting somewhere.