As I am meditating I start to cry. Tears of gratitude flood my eyes.
I look over to my weathered Leaving Certificate Shakespeare text, Julius Caesar. I pick it up and stroke it.
I remember you, dear John. John Horowitz or how you have become known later, Dr John Horowitz, an esteemed heart specialist.
It is 1964, and you are a University student, who just completed your first year of medicine in Adelaide. You are here in Sydney, on your summer holiday, staying in a glorious mansion in Vaucluse, at your grandmother’s place overlooking the tranquil Sydney harbour, with the magnificent Harbour Bridge arching over the brightly glittering sea in the distance.
But you are bored out of your wits. You really do not want to be in Sydney.
You would rather be in Adelaide playing cricket with your younger brother whenever you are not glued to the broadcast of summer cricket. You reluctantly came with your mother to Sydney who wanted to be with her brother and mother here for the summer vacation.
I live in Rose Bay at my Aunt’s place.
She is married to your uncle; that is how destiny brought us together.
I just arrived from Hungary two months ago, on the 17th of September 1964.
I am nearly eighteen, and about to attempt the greatest academic challenge of my life, to gain my Higher School Certificate, in my first year in Australia, so that I can go to University the following year.
There is just one obstacle: I do not speak English. My vocabulary so far is about 200 words!
You John, on the other hand, are an academic prodigy. You are not eighteen yet either, but you already passed your first year in medicine with distinctions.
So I tell you my bold plan for next February: I am going to enrol at the Sydney Technical College to do my Higher School Certificate.
You listen with interest and tell me:
“Well Andris, good luck, but given that you do not speak English and you will have to pass English, the lion share of your marks in English will come from your answers to questions about your compulsory Shakespeare play; this will be the hardest for you.
“I tell you what. Since I have nothing to do over the next three months while I am stuck in Sydney, visit me daily until I will have gone through the entire Shakespeare play with you. You will simultaneously learn English and will know your Shakespearian text, Julius Caesar, inside out.”
I instantly jump on the opportunity. I cannot thank enough my lucky stars, to have met you and for your remarkably generous offer.
In our youthful idealism neither of us is willing to take “no” for an answer when it comes to challenges. Yet if we would know now, what we would find out during the three months to follow when we wrestled with Shakespeare – namely how arduous a task we are taking on – maybe then both of us would have shuddered! Yet, we would have shrugged our shoulders, gritted our teeth, and would have still embarked on this adventure!
But arduous the task surely was going to be.
What a three months!
For a start, how the hell are we going to communicate in plain English, let alone mastering Shakespeare’s medieval English? Nearly after every sentence from you, I have to stop you to explain a word that I do not understand or I have to get my dictionary out to look up the word. And here I am talking about current English, not even Shakespeare’s yet.
For example, you tell me:
“Okay Andris, let’s start with the first chapter.”
Me: “What is ‘chapter?”
You: “Oh, it is the first part of the book.”
Me: “What is ‘part’?”
You: “Oh, it is a ‘portion’ of the whole.”
Me: “What is a ‘portion’?”
And so we go on.
Yet you have the patience of an elephant. You made me a promise, that you will get me through Shakespeare, and you never once become impatient.
I am soaking up your tuition, like thirsty soil the rain.
And very slowly but surely I begin to learn English, largely starting with Shakespeare’s English.
I now understand ‘cobbler’ but it takes years before I begin to say ‘shoemaker’.
I say: “Lend me your ears” but not “listen to me” and so on.
Yet once I begin to understand Julius Caesar, I become absolutely enchanted by Shakespeare’s genius. On your suggestion, we mark critical passages from the play, which I memorise for my exams. I still remember them and am awed by their beauty.
By the end of the summer school holidays, you had taken me through every single line in Julius Caesar. Then you went back to Adelaide and I began the Higher School Certificate.
They put me in the dumbest English class, because of my poor English. In all the other subjects too, I had to simultaneously learn English as well as the subject matter. Yet studying Julius Caesar at the college was a real joy.
As I was well prepared, I became the Shakespeare “expert” in my English class of failures. And when it came to the final exams, I nearly got an A in English, thanks to my answers to the Julius Caesar questions.
I will be eternally grateful to you, John, for you extraordinary kindness in helping me embrace English through Shakespeare as my second language.
Without your help, there is no way I could have understood Shakespeare’s language already in my first year in Australia.