HAYWARD — A Hayward teacher is using the timeless work of Shakespeare to inspire his elementary students to dream big.
"I'm not a music teacher; I'm not a theater teacher, but I do have the time to give," Paul Garrison explains.
Garrison coaches students for the biggest performance of their lives.
The 6th grade teacher was looking for a meaningful way to reach his students when he started the Ruus Shakespeareans 12 years ago.
The nonprofit meets every weekday after school at Ruus Elementary in Hayward, where four in 10 students are English learners and two-thirds qualify for free or reduced lunch.
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Students rehearse a Shakespeare play, along with guitar, drums, keyboard and vocals. For some, it's their first time learning an instrument.
They perform for the community at the end of the year, creating a memorable time.
"I always tell the students, 'When you get to that last week, words cannot fully express that amazing feeling, the joy, the happiness, the passion.' I really like that camaraderie," Garrison explained.
Each year, students choose to be - or not to be - part of the new production. From "The Merry Wives of Windsor" to "The Tempest" they connect with Shakespeare's stories.
Students work hard, grow confidence, and expand their vocabulary, as they memorize their parts in unabridged English.
Sixth graders Bradley Cuevas and Melany Perez play leading roles in this year's play, "The Winter's Tale," a story of betrayal, love and forgiveness.
"I've learned self-control, respect, patience," said Cuevas.
"It's a very fun experience, like no other," added Perez. "You get to meet new people, you get to learn life lessons that you can carry on to college."
After 6th grade, middle and high school students can still work with Garrison on Saturday mornings.
He also hosts tutoring and college tours. In addition, he leads an annual trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Oregon or Utah that he funded mostly with his own money for years before his program took donations and grants as a nonprofit.
Eleventh grader Gina Hwang said Garrison has expanded her horizons.
"I don't know what I want to be, but, thanks to this program, I can be almost anything."
That encouragement keeps him going. However, he quotes not Shakespeare, but Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"To paraphrase it, it's essentially just to laugh often, or to make someone smile; even just make a difference in one person's life means you have lived," he said.
The students are preparing for five performances of "The Winter's Tale" in late May in the school library. Garrison said the idea for a Shakespeare program came from a teacher who started the Hobart Shakespeareans in Southern California.
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