The Rev. John Becker, S.J., sat at the front of the classroom, paperback in hand, glasses pushed to the end of his nose. As he spoke, he looked intently from one student to another.
“This semester, I am going to teach you how to read 'King Lear,'” he said. “It may be Shakespeare’s most difficult play. But it has a powerful message to tell.”
When we were done reading “Lear,” the priest promised, we would not only understand it, but we would have learned the secret of understanding any thing written in English -- anything, that is, with a meaning to discern.
And we would love Shakespeare.
At the time, I don’t think any of us understood what Father Becker meant. But the things he started teaching us that day made him the greatest English teacher I ever had.
That was in 1974 at Saint Ignatius, the all-boys Jesuit high school in San Francisco.
For several weeks, Father Becker sat patiently with our class as we read “King Lear,” line by line -- out loud. Whenever we came to a word or phrase he suspected we did not understand, he would look with mock ferocity at one student and jovially ask another on the other side of the room to explain what it meant.
When it was clear no one knew, we would look it up in the glossary. Father would then pick someone to read the definition out loud. Then we would read -- again -- the line where the troublesome word had been found.
Reading “King Lear” like this was tedious -- at first.
But as we read deeper into the play -- then moved on to “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” -- we needed to stop and start and visit the glossary less frequently. But we appreciated the need for doing so more. We discovered Father Becker was right. The more we understood Shakespeare’s plays, the more we loved them. Our hard work and attention to detail was rewarded with the ability to detect, understand and appreciate even the subtle nuances of the greatest works of literature ever written.
Then there was the memorization and recitation. At first this, too, we faced with dread.
Father gave us a quota of lines from each play. Each student could choose which ones to memorize and when to recite them. But by the end of the semester, each was responsible for completing his share.
By the time everyone had recited their quota, it was possible Father Becker’s students were as familiar with the most popular lines from that semester’s Shakespeare play as from the latest Grateful Dead or Eagles album.
Then there was the continuous writing and rewriting. Father made us write one essay per week. He gave us some freedom in choosing a topic, but no freedom from the rules of grammar.