“So what do you do when your personal values clash with those of your family, your friends, your loved ones, your society?”
The classroom went silent.
I gave the prerequisite wait time—counting the slow seconds needed for my high school seniors to digest my salient query. Their pensive expressions belied the fact that they were just digesting lunch.
How can anyone teach a class immediately after lunch? They just want to go to sleep. I want to go to sleep.
“Think about it. You have a different worldview, different ethics, different principles. Your particular morality doesn’t align. What do you do?” I reframed the question and paused again. “Anyone?”
“Well, there are only three options,” I reluctantly continued my tiresome monologue. “And Hamlet considers all of them, both philosophically and literally.”
“You could, like . . . move?” a small voice came from the back.
“Hard to move when you are the Prince of Denmark,” I said, smiling. “For you guys? Sure. Move anywhere you wish. Vermont. Texas. You live where you are most happy. For Hamlet? Not so much.”
“You could kill yourself,” a female voice offered, oddly confident in her response.
“True. That is an option,” I conceded. “It’s not a great option, but Hamlet does consider death by suicide in several of his seven soliloquies.”
“You can go insane,” an unconfident voice chimed in.
“Hamlet definitely tries that. Or pretends to. Or he really is,” I add. “Like most things in Hamlet and in life, the line between sanity and madness is paper thin.”
“He should just laugh it all off,” joked a louder voice. “I mean, life sucks.”
“Life does indeed suck,” I agreed. “It definitely sucks at times. And you make a good point. Developing an exquisite sense of humor to cope with the absurdities of life is a viable option. Absurdism is a happier take than nihilism . . . “
The bell rang, effectively ending the discussion just as it got going. I yelled something about homework which the students summarily ignored.
In the empty classroom, I sat at my desk and sighed. I picked up a pile of horrible essays to grade with as much enthusiasm as my students showed discussing Act II of Hamlet.
I heard her weeping before I saw her. Sophie Selander. Probably the smartest student I’d had in years. After my glowing recommendation letter, she was all set for college. Duke, her family’s alma mater, had quickly accepted her early decision application.
“Sophie, is that you?”
She entered, her hands covering her face, her dark hair spilling over her trembling shoulders.
“Can I talk to you?” she whispered.
“Of course,” I said, glad to be rid of grading essays for a while. I handed her a box of tissues. I pulled up two chairs. Sophie collapsed into one of them.
“What’s going on, Sophie?”
A torrent of words burst forth. Not surprisingly, Sophie’s distress involved a boy. And his promises. Broken promises. And a box of Clearblue Digital Pregnancy Tests.
After she said all that she needed to, she openly wept. We were quiet together.
“You’ll have to talk to your parents,” I said calmly.
“You don’t understand—they’ll kill me!”
I’d met the Selanders, as I had taught Sophie’s two older brothers. They were one of the nicest families in town.
“I can’t talk to my parents,” she said in a quivering voice, tears threatening again.
“You’ll have to talk to guidance,” I said softly. “You’re eighteen. They can explain all of your possible options.”
“I want the baby,” she said equally as soft. “We’re Catholic.”
“Then keep the baby,” I smiled. “But you’ll need support.”
“I don’t want to be a d-disappointment,” she said, head bowed.
“Let me tell you about someone else who didn’t want to be a disappointment, but she had a lot to say.”
“Who? Was Jenny Ostenkowski talking about me in class? I hate her.”
“Don’t worry about Jenny Ostenkowski. No one listens to her mouth anyway,” I said, and we both laughed. “I want to tell you about Ophelia.”
“Hamlet’s girlfriend? I don’t really know the play. I haven’t really been listening…” she apologized.
“No one is, Sophie. And that’s fine. I just teach it because I think all of life’s answers are contained in that one little play.”
“Didn’t you say it was Shakespeare’s longest play? It’s really long, Miss.”
“It is kind of long, but it’s great.”
She lifted her head and offered me a small smile.
“So Ophelia is in the same situation as you. But instead of the Lehnhart boy, Hamlet is the jerk in question.”
“Asshole is more like it.”
“Point taken,” I agreed. “Anyway. Because Ophelia is lower class, she cannot speak her mind to Hamlet’s royal parents. So she says what she needs to with flowers.”
“How?” Sophie asked.
“Flowers have meanings,” I said. “Clear, unequivocal meanings.”
“Like red roses for true love,” she said, the quiver back in her voice.
“Exactly. First, Ophelia gives her brother fragrant rosemary and colorful pansies, representing remembrance and faithfulness. She wants her brother to help her figure out who killed their father. That should be his priority. Just like the Lehnhart boy should be making you and his child his priority.”
“Exactly!” she cried. “Jack Lehnhart just ghosted on me.”
“He may not marry you, but he needs to face up to his responsibility.”
“I know, right?”
“Next, Ophelia gives the King fennel and columbines. Fennel represents flattery and columbines symbolize foolish adultery, especially in men. She was incredibly brave, as she basically insulted the King to his face!”
“Using flowers!” Sophie laughed. “What a badass.”
“Ophelia was a badass. Especially when she handed the Queen a bouquet of rue, saying ‘There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me. O, you must wear your rue with a difference.’ She was calling Hamlet’s mother a slut for marrying his uncle as soon as Hamlet’s father died,” I said, in my most gossipy voice. “And rue was used to induce abortions 400 years ago . . . so what does that say about our cheating Queen?”
“What a skank,” Sophie said.
“I know, right?” I replied. “And then, Ophelia holds up some daisies in front of the entire court and says, ‘There’s a daisy.’ She gives them to nobody! Daisies mean innocence. She called everyone out!”
“Shut. up. That is so cool,” she grinned.
“Facts,” I said. “Then finally, with some sweet violets, she approaches the King and Queen and says, ‘I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.’”
“What do sweet violets mean?”
“Integrity. She basically called them dishonest and duplicitous. By using flowers, she said exactly what she wanted to.”
“I love her. Ophelia is amazing.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Ophelia is amazing.”
Sophie looked out the window. She tapped on her iPhone. We were quiet together.
“I better go home,” she said. She looked at her iPhone again. “Is McPherson’s a good florist?”
“They are. I’ve used them before.”
“I need to pick up some purple hyacinth to apologize to my parents,” she said, “and a shit-ton of columbines for Jack Lehnhart!”