At the end of March, our Upper School girls returned to in-person school, and I was overjoyed to cover a section of ninth-grade English when a member of the department left at spring break for maternity leave. While I have always been a Head of School who teaches, before the pandemic I gave up my class because I had planned extensive travel for our capital campaign. Once it became clear I would not be leaving campus, I was frustrated not to be teaching and eager to get back to it.
This was a spring of new learning. First, of course, was the pandemic, and learning to use the tools for hybrid instruction. Second was a trapezectomy, a surgery on my right hand, which happened during my first week of picking up this ninth-grade section and rendered my right hand useless. My students graciously managed cables, plugging in my laptop, taking over as scribe, and encouraging my occasional forays into left-handed scrawl. I have always corrected by hand, writing in purple or green ink, but now I used Google Docs. The girls wrote each day on a document they shared with me, and I found offering frequent feedback possible, even with limited dexterity. I color-coded their work — fuchsia for punctuation errors, purple for style choices. I loved the comment function, and was tickled when, one night as I edited Mary Abigail’s work, she joined me on the document, responding to my comments.
Third, a knitting craze began at school. Skeins of wool tumbled from the girls’ backpacks; tangles of yarn and needles perched on their laptops.
“Can we knit in class, Ms. Klotz?” they clamored.
“As long as you can refer to the text during our discussion,” I nodded.
While we discussed the conventions of Shakespearean sonnets, the way each word in English has a natural stress, they knit and knit and knit. I hoped they were casting on more than stitches, hoped that they were knitting in an understanding of man’s inhumanity to man, of the tension between reason and passion, of the fearful consequences of being a bystander and allowing jealousy to consume us. This was my hope as they made scarves.
And then there was Othello. After an introduction to the Elizabethan world and the unit on sonnets that involved hilarious attempts at original lines of iambic pentameter, we turned our attention to tragedy. As a student teacher, I used Othello as my text for designing a unit, but it had been many years since I had taught or read the play. One Saturday morning, prepping, I caught my breath. Othello strangles Desdemona. How could I have forgotten? Why hadn’t we chosen a different play? It would be a first to teach a play about a murder to a group of girls whose classmate had been murdered.
In late August, the police chief in our town had called me on a Sunday afternoon.
“Ann, do you have a child named Tobin in the school?”
“Yes, Chief. Natalie. She’s my advisee.”
“She’s gone, Ann. Dead.”
Natalie and my son had sat on the bus traveling to a volleyball game the day before — my son, the unofficial team manager. Natalie was tall and bookish, funny and kind, a bookworm. I’d had a Zoom advisee conference with her a few days earlier.
“A car accident?” I asked.
“No, Ann. The whole family. Looks like the father killed the two kids, his wife, and himself.”
I shuddered, took a deep breath, and did what Heads of School do. I alerted our crisis team. Masked, we convened at school, phoned every family in the ninth grade, told the volleyball team, sent a letter, and alerted the other school leaders in our tight-knit Cleveland community. We gathered the Upper School under a shade canopy the next day, resisting our impulse to wrap our arms around our grieving girls. I wept quietly at home.
The news dribbled out, an email the father had sent asking his father to send the police to the house, the gunshots neighbors thought they might have heard. Later that week, I phoned the Chief again.
“Chief, can I tell the girls she didn’t suffer, that it would have happened fast?”
“I wish you could, Ann.”
“He shot the twin brother and the mother and himself, but he strangled Natalie.”
Then, that horrific detail, too, was reported in an article, and there was no shielding our girls.
Because of space constraints and the pandemic, our Upper School girls learned from home for several months. A group of ninth-graders and I began to plan a celebration of Natalie’s life on Zoom. I corresponded with her aunt, her mother’s sister. Fall and winter ground on. Then, in April, I faced my English class full of Natalie’s friends, with a play in which a man murders his beloved.
“Girls, I need to tell you how this play ends. Spoiler alert. Othello murders Desdemona. He strangles her. I didn’t think it was right to have you find out without being warned. He loves her and he kills her.”
The girls gazed at me, mute. Hannah, Natalie’s best friend, began to cry.
I took a deep breath. “I want us to be able to talk about Natalie, girls.”
“We haven’t,” Sarah offered.
“What?” I was incredulous. Somehow, I thought they would have talked and talked about her. But I realized they had not been with us. Zoom didn’t lend itself easily to conversations about grief. Two seasons had passed.
I don’t remember what I said next. But the girls dug in, grappling with the text, fuming at Iago’s duplicity, thinking hard, asking questions, structuring essays. We discussed Othello’s naive and trusting nature, Iago’s wanton cruelty, Desdemona’s horrific death, and Emilia’s decision to tell the truth — too late to save her gentle mistress. We read aloud. We talked about race and othering, about passion versus reason, about women finding their voices, about how easy it can be to be manipulated, about the perils of gossip. The girls were smart and funny and brave.
At our last class, I asked the girls what conversation they wanted to have — was there something left unsaid before we left for summer?
“Can we talk about Natalie?
“About the happy things, so we don’t just let her life be the way it ended?”
“Of course.” So, we did. For the last part of class, we remembered her, giggling in a Zoom drama class last spring, inviting her into the room with us again.
For one question on their final assessment, I asked them which character from Othello they would choose to be shipwrecked with. Here is a mélange of their answers:
- I’d choose Desdemona because she is nice. Compared to all the rest of them, she seems to be the most loyal and trusting. I would enjoy teaching her that men don’t own you. I would help her find herself. Also I would never pick anyone as evil as Iago or as naive as Othello.
- I would choose Cassio. While he isn’t unproblematic, he is not dangerous. He was also a soldier, so he will have experience. Since he has experience at sea, he’d be very handy on Island, building fishing lines, rafts, and shelters. I think that things would go okay, but then again we are shipwrecked.
- I would choose Othello. He is a leader and already was a captain of a ship, so he would be reliable. He would also not be too bad to look at either. I think he has a lot of leadership qualities. He is strong and would be able to help me build a place to sleep and collect food. He can’t really think for himself, so I think it’ll be easy for me to tell him what to do. Although the fact that he can’t speak for himself or have an original idea might get on my nerves, I still like to be in control, and I think I can easily control Othello.
- Iago would probably gaslight me into believing I crashed the boat. I would get really angry and fed up with him. He would do everything he could to mess things up for me while I was trying to survive.
- I think I would be shipwrecked with Iago, and I am not joking. If it came down to it, I would be okay with eating him if I had no food, and I wouldn’t feel bad about it. He was a really bad guy, and eating him wouldn’t be as bad as eating Cassio or Desdemona. He also might know how to survive. Once we found land, I would run as fast as I could.