“To be or not to be?” I asked my seniors last week. We were finishing Act 3 of Shakespeare’s most widely read play, Hamlet, where he gives his most famous soliloquy.
“To be!” they responded.
“But what,” I said, “if I framed the question this way? To live or to die?”
“To live!” they called in unison. Seniors in high school want nothing more than to live. Many suspect they may only feel fully alive for the first time when they escape the purview of their dear parents.
“What if I suggested to you that he should die?” I asked.
I was walking a tight rope there. If I had students with less intellectual maturity, I’d have worried that they might hear in my question a justification for suicide since, on the surface anyway, that seems the choice Hamlet considers as he soliloquizes.
“He shouldn’t kill himself, though,” one young woman worried aloud. She rarely speaks in class, but her anxiety on this point forced her voice up her throat and into her mouth.
“Perhaps he should,” I pushed.
Listen. I don’t believe in suicide—I’ve had one too many personal experiences with it to ever glamorize it—and I certainly never want any violent end to ever come to any of my students, many of whom I love as though I bore them and all of whom I am sworn by vocation to educate and protect. We had contextualized Hamlet’s speech within existential thought, reading alongside it Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” an essay that offers scorn as the better option over suicide. I try to convince and reassure them that existential scorn and faith are not mutually exclusive, that they may, in fact, rely on one another. I say, “Don’t the students who have a polite disdain for rules and schoolwork have the most faith in their future, in their learning?” They’re skeptical.
Every year, like a bazillion high school teachers from the tiniest towns to the towering metropolises of this country, I teach Hamlet. Teaching the play makes me a cultural cliche, practically compelling me to buy horn-rimmed glasses. But it’s not every year that a student’s response to Hamlet offers me a spiritual balm.
My students spent a few moments quiet, fretting, at my suggestion of suicide. They knew I couldn’t mean it literally. Not me. Then, one girl spoke up, “Well, to be or not to be is binary thinking.”
“What?” I asked.
“What if he has to be and not be? Like, die and live?” she asked.
A few students giggled.
But one other student, a boy who loved The Cather in the Rye so much when he read it as a 9th grader that he read it twice, enlisted for her cause. “There is a part of him that needs to die,” he said. “The childish part. Binary thinking is immature.”
Ay, there’s the rub. (And yes, my students talk like that.)
Isaiah 50:4 reads “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary: he wakens morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.”
Sometimes I’m convinced the voice of God slips into the mouths of my students and wakens my ear. Our roles invert and they, impish and wobbly prophets, teach me.
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we read the Passion of the Christ, and watch what is, in my opinion, Jesus’ most profound miracle—not his resurrection, but his death. The crowd that persecutes him goads him: if you’re God, they say, then perform your miracle already. Call out to your father, and let him save you. Prove it to us.
Instead he calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is supreme surrender, exquisite in its humanity and in its example to us of complete trust. It is painful steadfastness in the midst of violent chaos. His death is not passive; on the contrary, to surrender to a higher love is the most difficult form of action.
Yesterday, I had the honor of attending the funeral of a colleague’s father. I never met him (I attended for her) but the service was a gift to me and made me wish I had known him. Each speaker—an old friend, a daughter, a niece, a brother, even his Jewish doctor—revealed his great dignity in the face of death. Like the Savior he devoutly loved, he too remained steadfast and true through unspeakable pain, and the narrative of his life implanted renewed life in each listener. I too wanted to sit at the rock bottom of the Grand Canyon and witness a lightning storm flash sacred truth through the sky and ricochet sound through the earth’s holes. His funeral spoke to me like a teacher.
And today before church, a priest wandered over to peek at a sleeping Wendell in my arms. She said, “What peace. I always think that infants’ ability to sleep through all our noise must be what Jesus meant about trusting God.”
To die—at the end of our lives and so many times during the course of them–is to trust in the invisible palm held out to cradle our fall.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in turmoil: his beloved father has died, his mother has married the murderous uncle, and he makes a mistake in his child’s grief that costs him Ophelia, the only love of his young life. Faced with the horror of the world for perhaps the first time, he struggles to shed his innocent skin and rise up to live through it. He does not want to die, not really. He wants to live and can’t quite manage the death such life requires.
My students too must die and live. They must leave home, leave me, leave behind a mostly bejeweled youth and rise up to walk the potholed road that begins to appear before them, the “undiscovered country.” They take the news with good humor. You should retitle your class, they tell me. AP Critical Approaches to Literature: Ms. Fleming Invites You to Die.
And yet, me too. Every day I have to learn to die, every time I feel forsaken and that’s more often than I care to admit. Every year as my students lift their brave faces into the darkness just past the bright pomp of graduation, they teach me. I must seek out the concrete signs of that invisible palm in our broken world. Sunlight through tree limbs, Graham’s voice asking Where my tool, Mama? Where it go?, or the gray blanket I fold on my late night bedroom floor so that I might kneel:
My God, my god, my child hit me today and I wanted to hit him back.
Let me die.
My God, my god, wouldn’t Merlot be easier and faster?
Let me die.
My God, my god, chemical warfare.
Let me die.
My God, my god, the law’s delay.
Let me die.
My God, my god, the boulder of dirty laundry rolls so fast on its way back down that fucking hill.
Let me die.
My God, my god, my hungry infant’s cry goes high-pitched and hollow in the night like the howl of a hurt animal.
Let me die.
My God, my god, this sea of troubles. This fear.
Let me die.
That I might live.