Every semester at the Seattle World School, Svetlana Mamedova takes teenagers from a multitude of different countries and introduces them to the glories of Shakespeare’s English. There’s not a little groaning on the part of students from Mexico, Somalia, China or Brazil over the task of learning not just English but Elizabethan English. But when it’s all over, the students speak fondly of their memories and the major language challenges they managed to tackle.
Last winter, Mamedova’s students performed “Romeo and Juliet,” set in a gritty, urban environment and emphasizing religious rather than family tensions (Muslims vs. Christians).
Last spring, she worked with her cosmopolitan crowd to create a “Twelfth Night” set in an earlier Vietnam and has also done “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a Chinese setting.
“All our students are aware of world cultures because they see diversity here every day. We want to celebrate that while also celebrating the beauty of spoken English,” Mamedova said.
The work ahead
This semester, Jesus Cabrera-Espinoza, 17, from Mexico, is cast as Benedict in a much-reduced version of “Much Ado about Nothing.” In his backward baseball cap and blue jeans, he seems a far cry from the feisty and sarcastic soldier envisioned by the Bard — especially since he’s a charming and hardworking student.
He admitted in hesitant English that he’s somewhat daunted by the task ahead of him. He carries the several pages of his lines at all times, and since he does everything else with good cheer, he’s trying hard to set these to memory.
Playing opposite Benedict as Beatrice is Shirley Mendez-Argueta, 16, from Guatemala. She, too, enjoys the drama class and the opportunity to be on stage, but she also agonizes over the work ahead.
“I have to memorize so much, and I have to learn to say it all correctly — it’s hard,” she said. A good-natured, conscientious student, she’ll do the job.
Rony Nunez-Alvarez, 15, from Guatemala, plays Dogberry, a perfect part for him, according to Mamedova, since he’s a born performer. Nunez-Alvarez came to Seattle four months ago and exudes personality: always smiling and full of energy. He’s delighted to have the chance to be on stage before an audience, and his hearty attitude is catching.
“This is great! I love the feeling of being someone else. It’s exciting to go inside yourself and find you can be another person,” he said, with the help of an interpreter since his spoken English isn’t quite up to his level of enthusiasm yet.
Once a week, World School actors get help from seven Bush School students who come over to the former Meany Middle School on Capitol Hill to work on English pronunciation, dramatic expression and stage timing. In exchange, World School students go to The Bush School in Madison Valley, where they take part in a world-history class, shadowing their English coaches and attending a few classes with them. Here, they experience a far more homogeneous school — one less polyglot and multiracial than their own.
“This is an opportunity to expose our students to different cultures while also giving them a chance to develop their own leadership skills,” said Susanne Eckert, teacher at Bush. “It gives our kids an understanding of the acculturation process so they learn what it takes for students born overseas to navigate not just language but an Americanization process as well.”
Together, the students are learning about world cultures, focusing on social justice issues.
Nathalie Kent, a 17-year-old senior at The Bush School, said she appreciates this opportunity and loves working with World School students — this is her second year helping the drama class.
She said more American kids should have a chance to learn other languages and cultures. “This is a totally different school experience,” she said, looking around the World School classroom that somewhat resembles a small United Nations gathering.
By 7 p.m. Jan. 30, everything will be ready. The stage will be set in the Meany Middle School auditorium, and the curtains will open.
A second performance will take place the following morning at 9 a.m. The public is welcome to attend.
Another play will be assembled for spring semester. Any dancers, teachers, actors or stage-production individuals interested in volunteering to help out should Svetlana Mamedova through the main office: (206) 252-2200.
A transitional school
The Seattle World School began as the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) more than 30 years ago, when the school district opened classroom doors to the flood of immigrants and refugees fleeing strife in Southeast Asia.
Thousands of newcomer students have been introduced to basic academic skills and have begun their American education under the guidance of teachers like Mamedova.
Initially, students stayed until they achieved a given level of proficiency, then transitioned to a secondary school. Now, they can stay on and eventually graduate from this special and very colorful institution.
DIANE STEEN is a volunteer at the Seattle World School. For more information, visit the Friends of Seattle World School’s website: friendsofseattleworldschool.com. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.