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First Person: Lasting Words

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Miss Harrington was a stout woman in her mid-60s who leaned on a cane. We were the sons of impoverished immigrants who respected teachers. Miss Harrington's age and infirmity evoked compassion besides. Her first two initials led naturally to her nickname, "Empty'' Harrington, but we spoke it affectionately.

Unhappily, English came the last period of our day, an hour before school let out at 3 o'clock. We couldn't help rumbling restlessly through Miss Harrington's lessons, especially on Fridays. Miss Harrington was wise enough not to struggle with us on the lip of the weekend. She chose to pacify us instead. One Friday, copies of a small book, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, showed up on our scarred desk tops.

Her voice unusually soft, Miss Harrington told us that every Friday afternoon hereafter she would be reading us a story of the kind called a "play.'' She explained that in plays we had to imagine people called "characters'' speaking and doing things before our eyes on a stage in a darkened theater. Of course, we had already seen performances of plays in our auditorium.

The play she was to read us--here her voice took on a reverent intonation--was the work of a very great writer. Its chief characters were a famous general named Julius Caesar and a highly respected citizen, Marcus Brutus. General Caesar, having just won a war, was very popular. In fact, some people wanted to crown him king. Others, like Brutus, disagreed. They wanted their city, Rome, to remain as free as our own country, with no king to order people around.

Without another word, she turned directly to the play: "Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home....'' Miss Harrington sat facing the class on a high stool and read evenly and unostentatiously. She did not attempt to dramatize or to impersonate characters. The words clearly spoken held our attention.

We were not sure at first who "tribunes'' were, nor why they were so worked up over someone called Pompey. (Mysteries had a way of clearing up as the play moved along.) Meanwhile, we chuckled over the cocky cobbler who described himself as "a mender of bad soles.''

We weren't alert to political implications nor to nuances of characters and relationships that graduate English seminars fuss over. But we gathered that Cassius, who "hath a lean and hungry look,'' was tricky and mean and that Brutus was "noble'' but had his head way above the clouds. We got the point that the ordinary people in the play were a fickle bunch. One moment they yelled, "Caesar is a tyrant!'' Soon afterward, they turned on Brutus and his gang and hollered, "Let not a traitor live!''

Shakespeare entered our lexicon. Overweight Davey Kopelman was taunted with the line, "Let me have men about me that are fat!'' We quipped, "Speak, hands, for me'' and playfully squared off with clenched fists. Jerry Cirker got attention by pompously orating, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.'' We obliged by feverishly trying to twist these appendages from our heads.

Each Friday, a Sabbath atmosphere descended on our classroom. No questions were asked; there was never any discussion. Miss Harrington just read. Despite obscurities of language, we were moved, instructed--and entertained. And though none of us professed it, we responded to the poetry. Lines such as "Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once'' were to remain with some of us forever.

I know that these quiet Friday interludes with Shakespeare made a deep impression on me, or I wouldn't have given up my dream of becoming a steamboat captain on the Hudson River. The summer after my class with Miss Harrington, an uncle of mine asked me if I would like to become a doctor. My answer almost knocked him over. "I want to be a teacher,'' I told him.

Four years later, I entered the City College of New York. I could afford CCNY because it was tuition-free. I taught high school English for 40 years. I hope I sometimes did as well as Miss Harrington.--Yaacov Luria

The author, now retired, lives in San Diego.

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