Reflect (or, take the time to know “who’s there”)

When I was a teacher, my favorite task was reading Hamlet with high school seniors.

We would read the play together in the spring, just as my students’ high school careers — and childhoods — were coming to an end. The title character and my students were kindred spirits. Hamlet is, like most teenagers, a searcher, occasionally brooding and introspective. He has visions of his future that don’t align with the adults in his life. He is an artist, an actor, and a dreamer — a person more comfortable in the world of words than the world of actions. And he is in love.

But Hamlet is also the future King of Denmark, which means he is bound by custom to avenge his father’s murder — a duty that leads to his untimely death, in no small part because the act itself goes against every essential nature of his being.

No matter your age, then, to read the play is to watch a fellow human being struggle between staying true to his nature or accepting the role society has assigned him. This is part of the reason for the play’s timelessness, and helps explain why Hamlet has attracted more commentary than any other work in English except the Bible. But Hamlet’s struggle also illuminates an essential question of human nature, not coincidentally posed bythe first two words of the play — “Who’s there?”

This is not a question many of us ask of ourselves. Instead, we tend to keep busy with work and other distractions. We ignore the inherent, unarticulated contradictions between our internal passions and our external actions. And then we are left wondering why we feel unfulfilled.

Everything we do is determined by who we think we are. And yet part of Hamlet’s challenge is that throughout his struggle, his only recourse for greater self-understanding is to “unpack [his] heart with words.”

Shakespeare’s exploration of the relationship between thoughts, words and actions has direct relevance to the challenges we face as educators, and as leaders. Before any of us can effectively help young people learn how to be seen and heard in meaningful and responsible ways, we must understand how to help them “suit the action to the word, [and] the word to the action.” And before we can ever hope to become the most effective teacher, parent, or school leader, we must be willing to do the internal, reflective work necessary to answer the question, “Who’s there?”

To download a PDF of the Prologue from the book American Schools, click here.

American Schools is available for purchase from Amazon.

5 Things You Can Do: Reflect