By Patrick Schmadeke
What could the ideas of Shakespeare and a 14-year-old in the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) have in common? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Shakespeare, in “Romeo and Juliet,” has the “star-cross’d lovers” illustrate an indispensable feature of love. While not exactly the model of a healthy relationship, their love transcends the warring rivalry of their families (Montagues and Capulets). In other words, their love transcends the boundaries created by sin.
At one point Juliet asks, “What’s Montague?… O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare’s point is clear — Romeo retains that which is essential to his person regardless of his family name. Is Shakespeare right about this?
Last semester my students from Holy Cross College and I mentored the youths at the JJC for two hours every Tuesday evening. Most of the 30-some youths in the JJC are 13 to 15 years old, a few already have children and most don’t have role models (this alone is worth serious prayer). A few of them have role models, but these are the kinds of role models that I would never choose for myself.
We would visit with them about topics like family life, dating, career goals and obstacles to those goals. This was primarily an open sharing of life experiences so that we could learn from each other. As typically happens with volunteer activities, my students and I probably received more from the youths at the JJC than we gave them.
This was certainly the case with one inquisitive 14-year-old, Chad. On our first visit to the JJC we went around the circle to introduce ourselves. In this process I heard the person a few people to my left say “Chad.” Apparently that isn’t what he said. The high ceilings and cinder-block walls made it difficult to hear in the nearly windowless room. But with a smile he said, “I like Chad, let’s go with that,” and to his delight he’s been “Chad” ever since.
Over the past months he would often ask questions about our lives and our goals. He tended to go a bit deeper than most of his peers in conversations. He also was apt to change the subject to topics he was interested in, such as how to form good habits. It didn’t take long for Chad’s genuine sense of curiosity to emerge. Only later did he share why he was in the JJC; he had committed armed robbery.
At the conclusion of our final visit, I thanked Chad for his participation and wished him the best when he “gets out.” He caught me by surprise by sharing that he was going to actually change his name to Chad.
So, “what’s in a name?” For Chad, a new name meant a new affiliation with ideals and values often absent from his past. For Juliet, Romeo’s name Montague suppressed who they wished to become. As it turns out, the ideas of Shakespeare and one particular 14-year-old share something significant.
What can Chad and Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, teach us? First, anything that inhibits genuine relationships should be cast aside. Second, the rejection of a name, or a past, has consequences. For Romeo and Juliet it meant familial rejection and ultimately death. For Chad, I may never know, but if he pursues his new goals and values he will likely meet forms of rejection along his journey.
Despite our respective shortcomings, Chad became something of a friend whom I would like to see “on the outside.” There is no enmity, no fear and no strife among friends. There is only warmth and an elegant mutuality.
This is only possible through the acts of presence and acceptance. These kids are being judged from every corner of their lives, and they know it. Frankly they don’t need anyone else judging them. They need a sense of hope and purpose to be restored. This starts with the rest of us showing up and ends with us becoming the communities God created us to be.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic Tradition and its relevance to the world today.)