Photos from Telegraph-Journal

Former Saint John teacher brings Bard to South Pacific

by Grant Kerr - Thursday, April 21, 2005

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

Living in the middle of the South Pacific, the people of the Marshall Islands know about extreme heat and humidity, poverty, suicide and nuclear testing.

But they knew nothing of Shakespeare until recent years when a former Saint John High School teacher brought the bard to the tropical islands.

Andrew Garrod, 67, started out his teaching career in 1962 at Saint John High, where he remained for the next 16 years. After taking his masters and doctorate degree in Human Development at Harvard University, Mr. Garrod worked at two Canadian universities before taking a teaching position at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school located in Hanover, N.H.

During his time in Saint John, Mr. Garrod brought his love of Shakespeare to his students, directing 12 of the bard's plays, as well as musicals, during his years here. Those works proved hugely popular and won the students plaudits and awards at a drama festival in Newfoundland where the teenagers were up against community theatre groups and actors much older and experienced than they.

Peter Fleming, a retired teacher who worked in the Saint John education system for more than three decades, became friends with Andrew Garrod when they were both starting their teaching careers.

"He has always had a tremendous enthusiasm for Shakespeare," Mr. Fleming said.

But on the Marshall Islands, located about half way between Australia and Hawaii, Mr. Garrod had to overcome cultural and language barriers alike. English is the second language of the islanders, coming after their native Marshallese. Adding to the challenge is the islanders' deep-seated modesty that made it difficult for the young students to role-play.

But Mr. Garrod mounted a student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream last year on Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, following it up with Twelfth Night just last month. Since 2000 he had been bringing undergraduate students to the islands for 11 week stints in order for them to get teaching and international experience alike. Graduate students also work on the islands.

From 2001-03, Mr. Fleming, who lives in Rothesay, helped out on the Marshall Islands. He worked with the young undergrads, acting as their teaching mentor.

"The Marshall islanders are wonderful people but they are not really good at being on time," Mr. Fleming said.

It's a cultural thing where time is immaterial, so Mr. Garrod's task was ensuring his students were not only prepared for Shakespeare but that they would actually show up for rehearsal.

The young island students benefited from the experience. Shakespeare was something that Mr. Garrod thought would provide a challenge, some fun and a great learning experience for teachers and students alike.

"If you offer anything: chess club, choir, rugby, the kids turn out in droves. They love getting to know their teacher outside school and they have all sorts of talent they want to develop. The play would develop their language skills and bring the kids together. They had never been in a play and never seen one. I wanted to do Shakespeare because I wanted it to be meaty, worthwhile," Dr. Garrod said.

While the plays were in keeping with Shakespeare's vision, costumes, characters and choreography were altered to fit into the culture of the Marshall Islands. This is a place where coconut and banana trees are in abundance but also has the spectre of nuclear testing hanging over it. During the 1950s, the United States did extensive nuclear testing over the islands and atolls, poisoning the land and its people. Bikini atoll is still uninhabitable after a hydrogen bomb, the largest ever detonated by the U.S., exploded there in 1954. A result of that grim legacy is that a large amount of the islands' economy is guilt money coming from the United States.

But despite this bleak recent history, the students were enthusiastic, despite their troubles. In recent years there had been a rash of teen suicides, a result of few prospects on the islands and no industry to speak of.

Mr. Garrod has been planning to do Romeo and Juliet this year but was asked by the minister of education not to, given that suicide figures prominently in that tale of the star-crossed teenaged lovers.

"In a way I regretted (not doing) it because that could have been a very good teaching tool," Mr. Garrod said.