So What Do YOU Do About That, Um, Scene?

Censored Romeo and JulietMy 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.

[tags]Romeo and Juliet, Olivia Hussey, Franco Zeffirelli, education, teaching[/tags]

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13 thoughts on “So What Do YOU Do About That, Um, Scene?

  1. I agree with your philosophy. However, those of us in public schools don't always get to make such decisions for our classrooms. When I first began teaching in the late '80s, I always showed the scene. Like you, I had no problems. However, when I taught R & J again a few years ago, the climate in my school and district had changed. No nudity of any kind is permitted in a film shown at school. Period. So I had no choice but to cover the screen for those few seconds, or else keep the students from seeing the film altogether. I chose the former. Of course, what's ridiculous is that there are more provocative scenes now on prime time television. It's too bad we can't be trusted as professionals to make appropriate decisions for our students.

  2. "Um scene" ha! I've got the 10th graders, so they've already seen it or not. I remember when I was in 9th, Mrs. Rogers-Warrick just fastforwarded it. Me, I checked with the big man about showing The Gods Must Be Crazy with the Bushman attire–or lack thereof. He said as long as the media center folk decided it was kosher, he gave it his approval and he'd take any heat after that. As I recall, those classes did all right.

  3. If I might follow one of your tangents. I've recently been inspired by Rafe Esquith's new book. He's been leading a group of fifth graders to not only read and understand a Shakespeare play but perform it for almost 20 years.

    You can see a quick clip at:
    http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/hobart/
    I've viewed the whole documentary. In it a fifth grader accurately use a metaphor from Hamlet to talk about Huck Finn. It is astounding. He doesn't do so because he learned to by rote but because he understands both works.

    And here a long and inspirational interview at:
    http://thestory.org/archive/the_story_175_The_Mad

  4. I hadn't thought of that, Traci, but then, I haven't always taught at private schools. In fact, most of my career has been in public schools, and I always showed the movie when I taught 9th grade in public schools — I did that for four years.

  5. Laura, they usually do, in my experience, if they are prepared. I know I probably would have giggled at Leonard Whiting's butt, too, if I didn't realize it was going to appear on screen.

    Pat, I think that's interesting, and I'll have to check it out, but my students said over and over "We didn't really do the play in-depth like we are now" referring to when they read it in middle school. I am irritated at the middle school teacher — she knows what is in our curriculum and I feel is deliberately teaching those works. The kids seemed to have a very good experience with the play, and I feel they know it. I am not so sure they could have said that before. Given time, I'm sure Shakespeare could be done with younger kids, but the teacher has to be willing to dedicate that time.

  6. I use the fils with ninth graders and we all siply agree that they are too mature to be uset by anything like a single flash of abare rear end. (R's — J's flash is so quick most of them miss it). One of my colleagues 'just happens' to stroll in front of the TV to explain what is significant about what they are about to see in the parting scene.

  7. I have used this film with both 8th and 9th graders (two different states, two different curriculums). With my 8th graders, I found that I was always able to stop the film right at the beginning of that scene at the end of the period to be continued the next day. When they came back, we were "miraculously" past that scene without any of them noticing that they had lost about 2 minutes of the film.

    This year, I warned my 9th grade classes about it and only had a problem with one class! Similar to your own experience, they will not be finishing the film.

  8. Not surprised at all that some schools would have problems with this movie. It's sad that people don't think that teachers can help put such works of art into perspective. But I also wonder if this scene could even be done today without a lot of controversy, given the age of the actress.

    Great series of posts on Romeo and Juliet, by the way.

  9. I know I am in the majority here, but I believe that teachers do not have the right to determine whether or not their students are mature enough to see nudity. Although I am a teacher and although I agree that they see more in primetime TV, I would not want my son to see a nude scene in school or elsewhere. The only time I don't mind my son seeing a breast is when it is used for its intended purpose – nursing – but that's another argument altogether. Yes, students can manage to not giggle as they watch the scene, I agree. But should they be shown it because they can do so? In my opinion, they should not, without parental consent.

    On another note, I just stumbled upon this blog, and like it very much. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  10. Dana: I am in awe that you can show the movie in all its glory in a Jewish school. I'm just starting the play and the kids are asking if they're going to be able to to watch the movie/s (they are referring, of course, to the DiCaprio version) and I've been telling them that we'll be watching select scenes from both films to watch how the interpretation has changed– or not– over the years, and how the scenes are essentially the same. I want them to concentrate on the language, the scenery, the interaction– things that are so hard to "see" when you're just reading it in class.

    I will not, though, be able to show the "um" scene, especially not in an Orthodox school. I know they watch things with nudity on their own time, but I would lose my job.

    When I taught public school, I did the lame, cover-the-screen thing or skipping of scenes. The kids complained a little bit and I just told them, "I know you've watched these sorts of things on your own, but here in school I have a responsibility and I'm not going to show you that scene." Usually they were cool after that.

    • Well, I am not in an Orthodox school; in fact, we are transdenominational, and Orthodox students are probably out smallest population. I'm fairly sure if I were in a Christian school (but perhaps not a Catholic school), I wouldn't show it. Funny thing this year: a lot of my students have already read the play and already seen the film. All of it. I've never had a problem showing the film anywhere I've taught, but I think Kristi does have a point, too.

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