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Junior High Class Feasts on Arthurian Legend

February 05, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The whole village had come to dinner in hall. There had been boar's head and venison and pork and beef and mutton and capons but no turkey, because this bird had not yet been invented. There had been plum pudding and snap - dragon, with blue fire on the tips of one's fingers, and as much mead as anyone could drink.

From "The Once and Future King," by T. S. White.

Substitute apple juice for mead--eighth- and ninth-graders don't drink mead in Glendale--and you've got a fair rendition of what Toll Junior High School teacher Jane Hancock dished up in her English literature class last week.

An effusive woman who imbues her teaching with theatrical flourishes, Hancock said she believes that "anybody can be taught anything" with the right inspiration.

For a six-week mini-course on the Camelot legend, that meant transforming a lowly classroom into a regal banquet room complete with medieval food, music, dance and dress.

Hancock became "Lady Jane," in a floor-length white gown and matching chartreuse cape, hat and silk scarf tied under her chin. Her students were similarly transformed--into Sir Galahad, Lady Guinevere and assorted mystic and motley characters from King Arthur's time.

"It's a lot of fun because we get to dress up," said 14-year-old Jeff Smith who, as Bedivere, one of the knights of the round table, sported a white tunic embossed with black griffins. Hancock "is the best teacher," Jeff said gleefully.

Near the classroom door, a serving wench in blue velvet greeted visitors bearing a tray with chunks of bread and a mound of salt.

"You're supposed to dip the bread in the salt. It's a medieval custom for good luck," said the wench, alias Ruby Peralta, 13.

From across the room, Hancock's deep voice boomed as she admonished the damsels, knights, sorcerers and mendicants lined up for victuals: "This is the Middle Ages. Do not expect utensils." So everyone dug in with fingers and teeth.

The banquet was the culmination of weeks of study and preparation in the mini-course titled "Castles and Kings."

For the better part of six weeks, Hancock had read aloud to her students from Alfred Lord Tennyson's epic poem, "Idylls of the King." On their own, students digested additional works like John Steinbeck's "The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" and White's "The Once and Future King." Some of the more precocious tackled Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur."

Class members drew lots to determine who would impersonate their favorite literary characters--from Arthur himself to Merlin, his magician. The losers had to settle for playing minstrels and servants.

Next, the students researched their characters' roles in the Arthurian legend. For a final grade, they had to describe those roles in a brief soliloquy before the class. In her only acknowledgement of the 20th Century, Hancock videotaped each performance.

Toll's Lady Jane is no ingenue when it comes to teaching. Hancock's career began in 1949 at an elementary school in Victorville.

Student Teacher

As a student teacher, she watched others deliver dry, uninspired lectures and quickly decided she had picked the wrong profession, she recalled.

But her father, who wanted his daughter to be financially self-sufficient, helped persuade her to try again. When she took the floor in her own classroom a year later she "shoved the desks out of the way and we were immediately writing books in class," Hancock said.

Her philosophy, she said, is to inspire students by plunging them headlong into their subjects. Each class requires a different ruse, Hancock said. In English literature, she has hosted the medieval banquet for the past three years. In a geography class, she sends students on long, imaginary trips around the world during which they write home about their experiences.

"It can be such a creative job," Hancock said. "I get to be an actress, a dancer, a counselor. . . . I learn so much from the kids."

Toll Principal Martin Pilgreen said: "The kids love her. If those kids are inspired, it's because of the incredible verve and vitality of Jane Hancock."

This year is her 25th at Toll Junior High. She and her husband moved to Glendale in 1962 and raised five sons there. Along the way, she picked up a master's degree in education from USC. She also leads workshops at UCLA on how to teach literature and writing in a creative fashion.

In preparation for last week's feast, Hancock stayed up past midnight to cook Cornish game hens and bake apple and cherry tarts. A nearby bakery delivered 50 meat pasties at a cut rate. Students supplied sausage, apple juice, nuts, fruit, cheese and olives.

Seeking Sorcerers' Hats

They also scrounged through the wardrobes of older siblings and rifled through castoff Halloween outfits in search of sorcerers' hats, black capes and animal skins.

Three students wrote a parody of the play "St. George and the Dragon"--on a computer--and set the lyrics to a rap music beat. Others practiced a Celtic two-step and learned to play medieval songs on the recorder.

Then, on Jan. 28, the 11:15 bell rang and 30 junior high school students raced to their lockers, squirmed out of khaki shorts and Levis and became the likes of Lancelot, Mordred and Morgan Le Fey.

As they streamed into Hancock's classroom, she ordered them to take off their wristwatches or risk bringing an anachronism into the Middle Ages. "You should all know what that word means," she scolded.

Does Hancock's English castle world remind some of the popular skill and swords game "Dungeons and Dragons"?

A solemn-looking Merlin, decked out in a magician's cape and pointy hat secured with paper clips, had a ready answer.

"That's more medieval games," said 13-year-old Raymond Valido. "This is more like medieval education."

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