My students finished watching Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet today.
My personal decision regarding what to do about the infamous nude scene? I show it. Way back when I was in seventh grade, I had this great language arts teacher named Mr. Schmeisser. We read Romeo and Juliet and watched Zeffirelli’s film. I will never forget one of my peers noting that Romeo was a “hunk” (how dated does that sound now? I believe in today’s parlance, he’d be a “hottie”). In retrospect, despite my admiration and respect for Mr. Schmeisser, I have to say I don’t agree with his decision to teach us Romeo and Juliet in seventh grade. At the risk of drawing the ire of my middle school teacher friends, I have to say I don’t think middle schoolers are ready for it. My students who read it invariably say they didn’t understand it when they read it in middle school, and I don’t remember understanding it much either.
OK, before I went on that tangent, I was discussing the nude scene. Before the scene, Mr. Schmeisser gave us a talk. He said that we would be seeing a nude scene. Likely, it wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before, and he trusted us to be mature; however, if his trust was proven to be misplaced and we giggled, we would not watch the rest of the film, and we would be doing grammar exercises instead. None of us even breathed during the infamous scene.
In all the years I have taught Romeo and Juliet, I have done just what Mr. Schmeisser did. Before we viewed the scene, I always talked frankly with my students about what they would see, why I thought they could handle it, and what I expected. Only once have I had to stop the film. And I stuck to my guns despite the fact that an assistant principal tried to intervene on the students’ behalf and asked that I show the rest of the film. Nothing doing. A deal’s a deal.
I knew we would be watching the scene today. I had heard through the grapevine that this group had watched this scene in middle school and not handled it well. This suspicion was confirmed when during our preliminary discussion, a student noted that her class watched it in middle school, and it was “a disaster.” I told the students they had seen nudity before; furthermore, they had seen nudity in a theater, most likely, and not giggled at all. I shared the interesting fact that though Olivia Hussey was fifteen when she made this film, Zeffirelli had obtained special permission to film her nude, and as a consequence, Hussey was unable to attend the movie’s premiere due to her age — even though the nudity was her own. The A-rating given to the film at the time meant that only people aged 18 and older could see the film.
As I predicted, my students were just fine during the scene.
I have heard stories of teachers lamely trying to hold objects in front of the screen or skipping the scene altogether. I think the need for this kind of behavior could be avoided if you just talk with students and treat them as if you can trust them to be mature. Most of the time, in my experience, they want to keep your trust, and they want to demonstrate their maturity.