Old School in Hungary: Part 1

Old_School_coverWhy would I choose to teach Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to 33 ninth-graders (in two sections) here in Szolnok? The first answer is that I saw a chance to do so, a chance that might not come back any time soon. If I didn’t take this chance, there’s no telling that they would ever read the novel, and I knew it would be worthwhile for them, even though (and especially because) they wouldn’t understand everything right away. It would not be forgotten.

We had our first lesson last week. Before we opened the book, I showed them pictures of Nixon and Kennedy. I asked them, on the basis of the pictures, who they would vote for. They selected Kennedy (unanimously, I think), mostly because he was the more familiar of the two. I asked them which of the two they could more easily imagine at Varga, our school. Again Kennedy. Why? He seemed like one of them, just older and part of the past and a different country and culture. Maybe this, too, had to do with the familiarity, the way his lore had entered their lives.

Then we opened up and read the beginning.

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all.

They were hooked, or at least interested. It wasn’t just that the prelude helped them understand the opening sentence. Rather, they understood what came later: the narrator’s discussion of class, an unmentioned topic at a boys’ elite boarding school that professed to uphold “a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.” They understood how the school could exist at two levels: that of its ideals, and that of its undercurrents.

But would they understand these boys who were vying for the literary award, whose prize was the honor of a private audience with a famous visiting writer, who would select the winning piece? They have known nothing quite like this; they take part in contest upon contest, but the prize is money, an academic award, or some modest fame.

But they realized quickly that they did not have to match the story directly to their lives. It unrolls its own meaning. They grasped a passage that explains (at least partly) why the boys cared so much about that competition: the narrator talks about writers who were welcomed by other writers (p. 7):

My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.

Even if the students reading this had never wished to be anointed themselves (and I imagine a few had), they could imagine these boys battling their hearts out for the prize.

Today, in our second session, we read the part with Hartmut’s tune, Gershon, and Dean Makepeace: the narrator unwittingly learns a Nazi tune at YMCA camp from the chef, Hartmut; whistles it later at school, in the presence of Gershon, a handyman who (unbeknownst to the boy) is a Holocaust survivor; and is summoned by Dean Makepeace for an explanation. Some students picked up on details: they recognized the time period, noticed that Hartmut was Austrian and understood what this might mean; they understood that the narrator hadn’t realized that he was whistling a Nazi melody in Gershon’s presence, but that for Gershon it brought back the sick cruelty and degradation of the concentration camp. They understood, also, what was missing from the narrator’s apology to Gershon: how he held back the fact that his own father was Jewish. (He reveals it to the reader just at the moment that he admits that he didn’t say it to Gershon–or to Dean Makepeace.)

One student thought that if the boy had told Gershon that his father was Jewish, he would have been trying to get Gershon’s sympathy, instead of offering sympathy. He has a point there. But we were all left thinking, along with the narrator in retrospect, that the apology was lacking–not just imperfect, but dishonest. We talked, especially in the first section, about what makes a genuine apology: how it requires opening yourself up to pain, acknowledging the pain that you have caused. (I do not believe in perfect apologies; nor does this book, I think. Apologies don’t have to follow a script or check all the boxes. But they require a basic willingness to see and be seen.)

It so happened that we read the passage about Gershon today, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it brought even more intensity to the discussion, especially in the earlier session. (One of the two sections meets with me on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the other on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.) It was striking that the narrator didn’t portray himself as noble. After imagining a melodramatic story of reconciliation and bonding between himself and Gershon, he rejects the idea (p. 23):

Fat chance. I wanted out of there, and I was confiding nothing. I’d let Gershon think the worst of me before I would claim any connection to him, or implicate myself in the fate that had benched him in this room. Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe? All this came over me as a gathering sense of suffocation. I stammered out a final apology and left, taking the stairs at a run as soon as the door clicked shut behind me.

Forget about “relating.” Who in the world has not done this? Who has not rejected a human connection, simply because it seemed too inconvenient, too unlucky, too miserable?

No wonder the boys in this story throw themselves into the writing contest. The narrator suspects the same: “Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class” (p. 24). It seems to them, ironically, that to be a writer is even to escape yourself. At the end of the first chapter, everything seems to come together, just momentarily.

It is not an easy book. The words, details, references, ideas, emotions, evasions, and bare truths would be a lot for some college students, not to mention ninth graders. But here we are, and such chances do not come every day. They will be able to reread the book in the near and far future. The copies are theirs. But they can’t reread it unless they’ve read it in the first place. That’s why we’re doing this now. Some students will respond to it more than others, or in different ways from others–the “they” is a generalization–but that, too, is part of the point. For a few students, this is already a revelation. They didn’t know that writing could be like this–but what is “this”?

We will find out as we go along. I have read the book four or five times and returned to certain passages repeatedly over the years. I have carried it in my mind. I have written about it on this blog. But I didn’t know what it would be like to read it aloud with my students, to hear the words, to sound them out in time. I will write about this as we go along–not describing every class session, but keeping track of this so that we can look back on it later.

I am grateful to my colleague Marianna, who made this possible. While we read onward, she will continue working through the textbook with them. They are already far along in the textbook, so we have some room. Last week and this week we have been reviewing for a test, but beginning next Monday, they will focus on Old School in all their classes with me, until we finish reading it. I can’t wait to see and hear what comes.

I made some edits to this piece (for clarity) after posting it.

This is the first in a series of posts about teaching Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

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2 Comments

  1. Marvelous. There is a related story here, about a teacher teaching a favorite piece of literature. We want so much for, at minimum, some students to truly discover the magic. And if they don’t, we feel that we let down our beloved author, that it’s our faults as intermediaries.

    Reply
    • Thank you. Yes, this is true, and it is a story of its own. I have been remembering how certain teachers made it possible for me and others to fall in love with a piece of literature. It had a lot to do with spending time with it and hearing it. Asking questions that would get us thinking about it, returning to certain passages, pointing out details of form, language, or history, and then letting the piece do its own work. But also recognizing that it would be different with every individual and class–that some students would take to it right away, while others would need time, and still others might have complex reactions. Letting all of this happen, acknowledging it, while focusing on the text itself. I remind myself that the question of “liking” is not the most important question–but yes, I hope, at the very least, that the reading will be memorable, that something will stand out for them, and that some will reach for the book years later and read it all over again.

      Reply

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