Greg Williams, Jamaica Plain

To mark the first week of school in Boston, we’re bringing you a story from Greg Williams, 67, about the teacher who introduced him to Shakespeare.

At the time, Greg was stuck in an all-boys vocational school in New York City. The teachers didn’t treat kids of color that well, so he’d already decided: this school isn’t worth it. I don’t even care. He got himself into the lowest-level class, where the kids could barely spell the word “cat.” And that’s where he planned to stay, kicking back, not caring, the smartest kid in the room.

Then along came the first day of school.

We suggest listening to this story (the audio runs roughly five minutes long), because Greg’s voice is a big part of it, and because story ambassador George Powell jumps in towards the end with a request for a performance, which is better heard than read. But we’ve also included a transcription below. Enjoy.

“So it’s the first day of school sophomore year and we’re going in, and my teacher’s a tall, white man, reddish hair. And I’m getting in line, and he’s saying to people, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’

‘Oh, I’m Mark Robinson.’

‘Hi, Mark. Welcome to the class.’

‘Hi, what’s your name?’

‘Oh, I’m George Johnson.’

‘Hi George, welcome to the class.’

‘Hi, what’s your name?’

‘I’m Greg Williams.’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘This is my class.’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘This is my class.’

And his voice is getting sort of very dramatic. I didn’t realize at the time that he was a Broadway actor who decided he wanted to be a teacher, and wanted to teach in one of the toughest schools. Which he got to.

‘What are you doing here?’

And I’m like: ‘Oh my God, he knows!’

So he lets me into the class, we go through the class, and at the end of the day, you end up back in that class. And before the bell rings:

‘Mr. Williams, I need to see you.’

Which meant you were in trouble for something. I mean, it’s the first day of school. I didn’t do anything. Why am I in trouble? Why does he want to see me?

So the bell rings, everyone leaves, and I sit in my seat waiting for him to acknowledge and call me up.

Finally, I say, ‘Mr. LaRoche, you wanted to see me.’

And he says, ‘Yeah, I have something for you.’

Reaches under his desk, pulls out this book with the pages showing, so I don’t know what it says. I’m thinking, ‘That’s the biggest motherf-ing book I’ve seen in my life.’

I mean, it was big. Hardcover, you know. And he handed it to me, and I turned it around: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

I said, ‘We’re not reading that.’

You are.’

And he worked me to death.

There was an oratory contest a couple months later: ‘Mr. Williams, there’s an oratory contest.’

‘But I have to..’

‘Mr. Williams, there’s an oratory contest.’

‘But…’

‘Mr. Williams, there’s an oratory contest.’

So I ended up doing a speech from a Man for All Seasons. And I can probably still repeat about…93 percent of it.”

George: “Let’s hear it.”

Greg: “Okay. So this is Thomas More and he’s on trial. And he’s done everything to stay out of the King’s sight, but the King wants him to say, ‘This is a good marriage.’ Not going to say it. So….

‘My Lords, you have called me here, to the Hall of Westminster, to answer to the charge of high treason. I’ve been called again on the charge, high treason, for which the punishment is not imprisonment, but death comes to us all my Lords—yes, even for kings he comes, to whom amidst all their royalty and brute strength he will neither kneel nor make them any reverence nor pleasantly desire them to come forth, but roughly grasp them by the very breast and rattle them until they be stark dead! So causing their body to be buried in a pit, and sending them to a judgment, where, at their death, their success is uncertain.

As for our own deaths, my Lords, dare we for shame into the kingdom of ease when our Lord himself entered with so much pain? Is it my place to say “good” to the state’s sickness? Can I help my Lord by giving him lies when he asks for truth? Will you help England by populating her with lies?

My Lords, if I were a man who feared not the taking of an oath, you know well I need not be here. Now I will take an oath. What has been..What I’ve said here is true…’

Oh, I lost it.”

George: “Just to get that far, I’m total impressed. Wow. I am impressed, impressed, impressed. Man, I thought I was good saying my boy scout oath. You done took me out of the picture.

Wow. That was nice. Teacher did good. What’s his name?”

Greg: “Mark LaRoche. And he was an actor on Broadway. He brought some folks from Broadway to judge the contest. And that one stuck with me forever.”

George: “He saw a talent.”

Greg: “But he did that—he was a teacher who did that with everybody. He would stay late. And I remember, when it’s June, you know—and there’s no air conditioning in the class, back in those days—and the bell rings, and everybody kind of groans.

Like, ‘Oh, we have to go?!’”

Greg has been a community activist since the 60s, and is currently working to launch a Quaker program, Stone of Hope, focused on community and racial justice. For more info, you can email him.

He was interviewed and photographed by George after volunteering at a “books and breakfast” event at the Mildred C. Hailey apartments on Centre Street. The interview was then transcribed and edited for clarity by Cara Solomon, founder of Everyday Boston, in partnership with George. Cara wrote the intro text.