What It’s Like in Hungary Right Now

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Even in normal times, I refuse to make sweeping statements about the situation in Hungary. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, I am even less qualified to do so, since I hardly emerge from my room. But here are a few things I have noticed over the past two weeks.

First, the situation is hard on many of my students. They are dealing with uncertainties that no one is prepared for. What does it mean? What will happen with graduation and exams? Will we be at home for months and months? Will people close to us die? I can only respond that we don’t know but that we can stay informed, take care of ourselves, find ways to be in touch with others, allow for the difficulty, and let various joys in too.

I am moved by my students’ commitment to learning, keeping some kind of contact, and living. I have held online audio sessions with each of my classes, and the students are there, ready and eager to talk, and patient with the imperfections of this approach. There is something cheering about hearing each other’s voices and conducting a lesson of some sort, even a limited one.

The general attitude has been humane, reasonable, and flexible. Teachers receive updates and recommendations every day; several of these have reminded us to slow down, take things in measure, and avoid spending all day and night at the computer, for the students’ sake and our own. Overall, it seems that students, parents, and others appreciate not only the teachers’ hard work, but the chance to take a break here and there.

I have been very busy. Like many, I miss the classroom, which was both simpler and more complex at the same time. But I am also enjoying the online teaching–and receiving many writings that will go in the new online student literary journal, Folyosó.

What about synagogue? Well, it is canceled for now, and I miss it, but I have been enjoying davening (praying) at home. Last Saturday I intended to join an online B’nai Jeshurun (NYC) service, but it turned out that Saturday services were cancelled, even online. So I took out my siddur and chanted some beloved parts of the liturgy. One of these was El Adon, with the Modzitz melody (follow the link and the Flash sound player on the upper left).

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On other fronts, this week I completed the purchase of an apartment here in Szolnok! I will move sometime this spring. It’s right near the Tisza river, the airplane museum, and the Marcipán confectionery (shown here below).

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That wraps up my sweeping statement about what is happening in Hungary right now. Below: the first stork I have seen this spring.

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

Kindness as a Staple

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Just about everything has been said about the coronavirus that can be said with knowledge, feeling, or both. One of the biggest challenges is the uncertainty surrounding the virus; that too has been said many times.

But one thing hasn’t been said enough, or I haven’t seen it enough. Part of the stress lies in not knowing whether people around us have it, whether anyone we know is dying of it, whether anyone we know has died. I worry that I will find out months, maybe years, later that someone I know died from it. I worry also that many with the virus are afraid to say anything at all.

The virus carries stigma. Those who admit to having it–or to knowing someone who has it–risk ostracism, blame, and other loss. For their own protection, people keep medical matters to themselves; doctors protect the information too.

So if we want to know what’s going on, we first have to pledge to treat others with staunch kindness, to treat kindness itself as a staple. That requires not just sweetness, but daring too. Those with the virus are not the enemies of the rest; any of us could be one of them one day, and they’re suffering alone.

At this point, as far as I know, no one I know personally has the virus. A friend’s daughter–who lives in London–has it. It’s possible there are others. I am in good health; to my knowledge, my family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and students are well, here, in the U.S., and elsewhere. But I know my knowledge is limited.

I don’t mean in any way that people should start compulsively posting their health status on Facebook, that doctors should start revealing personal information, or that individuals should face pressure to state how they are. No, these would do more harm than good! But maybe it will become possible–or simply necessary–for people to speak without trepidation. Maybe there could be guarantees of job security, housing security, basic services for the ill. Maybe those receiving the news could treat the messengers with honor. That will help us all.

Typing Backwards (Sestina)

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Typing Backwards (Sestina)

Diana Senechal

Now is the time to talk. I don’t mean
dipping my bread into your clipped glyphs
and gobbling like a tramp, or stirring shock
and awe into our first long-distance tea.
I mean the simple conference. The back
and forth that all the world has come to miss.

What I have never known, how can I miss?
Without matter, how can I find a mean?
I too have walked my mind and fingers back
to our first meeting, where your hymnous glyphs
woke me from ancient sleep. Instead of tea,
I drank the beauty of the limpid shock.

Later, I only partly meant to shock
you and others; most of that swing-and-miss
came from my gait. A sitting down for tea
would have made you and me a bit less mean.
Instead I racked my mind over my glyphs,
wishing I could reshape them, roll them back

across the border. Yet the taking back
would be just a mirage. My fingers shock
the keys, and they shock back; the stoic glyphs
have long known these erasures. “You will miss
our mark,” they say. But cuts mark too (I mean
the million times I backspaced on a T).

You think I’m playing with infinity?
Last year, maybe. Not now. No going back
to that old cant. Sometimes I was a mean
mortality protester. I would shock
the rosy wellness-hawkers with my mis-
creant letters, my ever-stretching glyphs.

Now it’s all one. The river thrums my glyphs
into the easelessness. A spill of tea
lifts ink from the old diaries. I miss
missing itself, the feeling, far far back
in the blue past, that words of truth and shock
would become flesh. At least conjure your mien.

Now I see what I missed: your cryptic glyph
speaks its own mean. “To keep your dignity,
hold something back.” So I delete the shock.

 

I wrote this sestina over the past week and completed it this morning.

Old School in Hungary: Part 9

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We finished the novel, and then schools throughout Hungary closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t have a chance to discuss the book as a whole. But at least we completed it and discussed the ending together; we devoted our last lesson to the last half of the last chapter. Afterward, as we quickly adjusted to online classes, students’ written responses started to arrive in my box. The days went by, and I thought about how strange it was that for us, too, school had become a memory–a recent one, yes, but a memory all the same.

The students’ responses to Old School varied in emphasis, idea, emotion, and more. I am quoting a few here–with the authors’ permission–to give a sense of the range. In this one, a student describes a change of perspective over the course of the reading.

At first I didn’t know what to think of the book. It felt dull, like just another book about writers coming to visit a private school. The fact that we don’t know the name of the narrator didn’t help either. It made me feel like it’s not even an individual story, which, now that I think about it, is not even a bad thing. I couldn’t relate to the main character. He had different problems, feelings, and attitudes towards the questions of life. In chapter ”Übermensch,” for example, he read a novel and suddenly realized that he belongs to the next level of humanity. How am I supposed to place myself in that situation?

But as I read more and more, I started to get the picture. The discussions helped me understand the deeper meanings that I wasn’t able to recognize while reading at home. There was one part in particular that I couldn’t stop reading. It was the part when the narrator got expelled. One reason for that is that I can’t put a book down not knowing what happens next. What’s more, the way the narrator heard the same usual sounds of the school brought up some memories of mine, memories of my last day at primary school. Although it wasn’t an expulsion, I felt the same way. Now that was relatable. The way I, once a student, became an outsider.

It is difficult to summarize the whole novel as one single unit. It has parts that seem to be only storytelling, but in reality, have a double meaning. There are also philosophical parts, which require the reader to think about certain questions for themselves. Overall, this book has definitely changed my perspective on life.

Another student, after explaining what he didn’t like about the book–the difficulty of the language, the lack of information about the characters, the lack of clear signals when a dialogue is beginning or ending–went on to discuss what he liked:

The characters were very interesting, especially the “narrator” in the perspective from which we could usually see his thoughts mostly, not his physical acts. Also the way he plagiarized the book, and thought that it really was his.

I really liked (or disliked) the other characters as well. For example my favourite of them all was Mr. Ramsey, who won this place because he was so different in the school than after the narrator was expelled, in the car and at the station. And when he gave the pack of cigarettes to the narrator: that was such a middle-finger to the Honour Code which he did not agree with. And there was Goss, who behaved disgustingly. And this was, I think, some of the biggest magic of the book: you could really associate with the narrator, how he felt in these situations, and what his feelings were about other characters, and it was so well written! And anyone can associate with these feelings, because there is no human being who never felt the stressful pressure while being charged by something, knowing/realising what he did and what the consequences will be, but unable to say a word for his protection. And also, these characters are so real, that you can really associate with them.

One student brought up the loss of innocence in the book–the realization that the school has double standards and that the world isn’t a “pink bubble”:

Old School deals with many moral issues and social problems. It can be read as a parody or satire on the value of art and morals in society (for example, the racial boundaries). But what caught me the most that the novel introduces us to an academic environment with strict standards, but later we can see them as double standards and false standards. Like when the boy is caught copying, he knows he has broken an ethical code (which I think is not so perfect), but what he doesn’t know then, he learns later in the book: All the people who judged him so harshly were liars too, as was the idea of “not lying.”

My personal favourite part is when the narrator whistles a song what he learned during his summer job. I had no idea why the school’s handyman Gershon was so upset when he heard it. It was a big suprise when it turned out to be a Nazi song. I found it the story’s most shocking part. That was when I felt that the writer pulled us out of the little sweet school life to push us into the true and cold reality. This was a powerful point for the narrator (and for us). At that moment he finally realises that the world isn’t a pink bubble. He experienced bad things before, but lots of people experienced so much worse. And he started to cry when he found out the truth about the song and Gershon’s past. I think it was very a human reaction from the narrator. At that moment I could sympathize with him.

Another student went through some changes of perspective and understanding while reading–at first noticing what the book wasn’t, but later realizing what it was.

Through the last few weeks, I have been a part of a story whose atmosphere was unknown for me in many aspects. At first the book itself sounded great, as though there would be some action and adventure. Yet it wasn’t as I expected it to be. For me the most interesting experience was that when I was reading the chapters I didn’t feel any of this great adventure, but as I am now fully aware of the whole story, I look back and see lots of expressions, conflicts, confrontations, secrets. I think this is why it is unusual for me but these things take the story to a whole other level. Now I think reading a book like this can help us with understanding some real important issues we will be having in our lives, so I think it teaches a lot about how to handle some situations.

What I have realised is that reading a book is one thing, but to talk about it with people of different opinions is the best way of understanding what it may hold hidden between some pages. Through the discussions, I could feel sometimes that some parts of the book are just boring and like the story wasn’t going anywhere, but after all I think these might have been the most essential parts to make a full story. If we think about the fact that throughout the story we have met some famous writers who, in other cases we wouldn’t have met, this is a story full of knowledge. If we think about it, this book really broadens our minds.

I am glad that we had class discussions, as now I can see lot of things more clearly, and I think this built a stronger trust between some classmates.

One student wrote about the book in terms of the questions it raised:

My first question is why Makepeace gave money to his wife, if they didn’t live together. He could have loved her very much.

The other question that makes me think about is Susan and the narrator’s relationship. I can’t stand how could Susan be so kind and friendly with the narrator, after what he did. She could have become a talented writer if he hadn’t stolen her novel. I can’t stand this, but I have to recognize her. When they were at the restaurant, she said “writing is too frivolous; it makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good,” but she knows that the narrator was a writer, and she hurts him with this monologue, maybe just accidentally. I think the narrator liked Susan more than as a friend, before they met, but during the “date” Susan gives clear signals that she doesn’t like him. Why does the narrator accept Susan’s idea for a meeting place, if he knows there’s won’t be anything between them?

One of my favourite citations in the book is: “let sleeping dogs lie….” We discussed the meaning of this sentence, but it started the gears in my brain. Is it a good decision to keep the truth hidden? Maybe, if I were Makepeace, I would have told the truth. He felt guilty, and he could feel much better through making a statement. On the other side, it could make others lose their confidence in him. But he hasn’t got any choice, because that was one of the headmaster’s terms. In my opinion, Makepeace was a totally honest and good person, if he got hurt by this little lie.

Another student focused on the ending:

I think this ending was very messed up and unordinary. As I like to read, I have gotten used to some types of endings, such as in the crime stories, where they find out who the murderer was. But this was absolutely different. We didn’t get to know whether the main character visited his old school or not.We didn’t get to know about his family life, or what his job was alongside writing. Although I would do it differently, this ending was good in his own manner. It was a plot twist, and the readers hadn’t expected that. And the good writer pretends to surprise his or her readers.

Another had a striking comment on the copying of “Summer Dance”:

What made an impression on me? Well, I liked reading this book because it wasn’t a fairy tale. It had some real-life problems, and these things made it better. When I found out that the narrator was Jewish, I didn’t really understand why he didn’t say it to Dean Makepeace. He could just say it, and this way he shouldn’t have apologized. A while later I finally understood that he was afraid. Afraid because he didn’t want to be an outcast in the school. Afraid of what his friends would think of him. And I felt sorry for him, not knowing that he was going to be strong enough to say it.

This is why I was so happy when he copied “Summer Dance.” Even though it wasn’t his, everyone thought that it was. He had the power to announce the truth about himself. The whole school found out that he was Jewish. He was no longer afraid or embarrassed about his true self, and this is what made an impression on me.

Another student expressed ambivalence–relating to certain things, finding the ending and overall style unsatisfactory, but enjoying the experience overall:

Quite frankly, the story was relatable. The protagonist went through some character development, which happens to the most of us at his age. He even cycled through the same outlooks on life as I did, or am currently doing. Having your role-model be the perfect and peak performance of a human, without any faults. Of course he too realized how stupid that is.

The only thing I can nit-pick about is how the end left too many questions open, and how solving them required a lot of post-processing and theorizing by the class. Some people find these things entertaining, and I have to admit it is kind of smart, but since I personally would have missed the hidden meanings, I find it under-handed.

I would never really voluntarily read stories like this one. It was honestly more of a documentary than anything, although it was relatively enjoyable even though it was a mandatory read. The class discussions were fun and I think they were better than simple classes where we learn things I mostly already know.

Many students wrote about the discussions themselves. Here are a few quotes:

Although I really enjoyed the weird storyline at the end, my favorite part was discussing the story, because it was very interesting to hear my classmates’ thoughts about it. I also enjoyed that I could give some useful thoughts to these discussions. I felt that I understood the meaning of the story, so I am really happy about that, especially because I am not a huge fan of reading books. This book encouraged me to start reading more often.

Another:

The class discussions let us get to know each other’s personality more, which was really important for our little community. They also showed how intelligent my classmates are. I noticed it when small arguments came up in class and everyone could keep their chill and talk about the disagreements with respect.

Another comment that brings up the class arguments:

To begin with, the characters of the book had really big effects on me. I could “see with their eyes” and think like them. For example, Ayn Rand’s personality and features were exciting and disgusting at the same time for me. Besides her, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost also impressed me. Also the calm and kindness of the narrator’s grandparents melted my heart. In a nutshell I was able to observe so many people with different lives, habits, and features.

For me the most important part was the class discussion, so I would like to focus on this. Due to the discussions and arguments, I could hear my classmates’ opinions on a given topic. It helped me get to know them a little bit better. I could see how they could argue and what their reasons were. It also showed how wise and mature they are.

Lastly, I stepped out of my comfort zone too. I read something that I thought I would never choose, but as it turned out, it was very good. So in a percentage of the reading I tried something new, and new things are always exciting.

Taking everything into account, I liked this book, but I liked how we elaborated on it even more.

I could go on with the comments, but after all, not one of them is the last word, for the students individually, for the class, for me, or for the book, so I don’t need to turn them into anything conclusive. Instead, they show how some students met the book in time: what it meant, didn’t mean, or came to mean.

I think of how quickly it all went by. Walking into the classroom (sometimes seeing students up at the board drawing diagrams of the plot–they were nervous about the pop quizzes), starting the discussion, hearing students’ comments, looking at passages closely together, raising more questions, and then hearing the bell and realizing that we had run out of time. I also think back on the long conversations with students who didn’t like the book but would linger after class to talk about it. Liking or not liking–that’s secondary to what happened here. For this I am grateful to Old School, to my school, to my colleague Marianna (who helped make this possible), and to my students.

 

This is the last in a series of nine posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. All the students quoted in this post gave permission to have their comments included. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 8

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Somehow we finished Old School just before the Hungarian schools closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t get to have the last discussion I had planned, a discussion of the book as a whole, but the students wrote about it, and I have been taking in their responses all evening.

On Friday, when the second section finished the book, I asked whether Makepeace had the right to kick himself out of the school, whether he could possibly be a fair judge of himself (and whether in general people can judge themselves accurately), and whether it was the right decision for him.

Regarding the question of rights, one student said that no, he didn’t have the right to kick himself out, because he had responsibilities toward others. Another asked whether anyone else besides him was in a position to expel him. That’s a trickier question than may seem, because the headmaster, while technically entitled to fire a teacher, would probably not do so except under extreme circumstances. A matter of conscience like this would probably not have made the cut.

(In the other section, students overwhelmingly agreed that he had the right to kick himself out. But one student pointed out that that didn’t make it a good decision.)

Then the question of whether he could judge himself fairly: a student said that since he was elderly, he was likely to be too hard on himself. Young people up to age 30, he explained, rely on others’ judgments; people in their 30s and 40s (I think) realize that the world doesn’t care about them, and older people tend to judge themselves. This observation helped us see Makepeace in time; his age makes a difference here. We talked a bit about how people can judge themselves too harshly (or, in some cases, too lightly).

We spent some time on Makepeace’s regrets, and what he missed about teaching; and then we made our way to his return, which a student read aloud. Then I asked what this ending was about–they picked up on the Prodigal Son reference right away–and what it had to do with the narrator.

A student suggested that it had something to do with the epigraph at the beginning (from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for my Father”).

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

She explained that the narrator, by ending the story with Makepeace, was telling his own truth through a “lie”–that is, through a fiction about someone other than himself. I then passed out a longer excerpt of the poem–I had meant to hand it out on Monday, but now seemed the time–and read the first two parts aloud. The same student commented, “He answers each question in two ways. The first answer is factual, and the second is from the soul.”

Then she continued: “The narrator is doing the opposite of what he did before, when he copied ‘Summer Dance.’ There he copied someone else’s story and submitted it as his own. Here he is telling his own story, but making it into someone else’s.” (Her words were slightly different, but this was her point.)

Students recognized that not only Makepeace but the narrator had come home, and that this ending was about coming home, really coming home, and being welcomed  and forgiven.

But it isn’t pat. A student in the other section, who didn’t like the book, said, “It isn’t a happy ending.” He was right. There is sadness in the ending, and there are those who don’t like the book, even though they argued with it, thought about it, and carried bright insights into it.

The sadness is maybe this: that the homecoming required a great loss. The final image has a heartbreaking aspect: “Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face….” Although the “though” is typically the weaker part of the sentence, the “concession,” here you feel its weight.

I won’t quote students’ written responses here. Later, I might ask permission to quote a few, but only after some time has gone by. Responses are still coming in. So far I admire their genuineness, their fresh language, their differences from one another. There’s nothing generic about them. They are downright beautiful.

I didn’t know that this would be the end of class discussions for a while. But having built something, we can let it stand for a little while. It won’t come apart, and meanwhile we will work on other things. As in the book, though, how suddenly a cherished part of daily life can pause, change, or end.

 

This is the eighth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here. There will probably be one more post in this series.

I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Life During Virustime

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Within a couple of hours, everything changed. On Friday afternoon (a rainy day), in my English class–we were starting a unit on American musical theatre–my tenth-grade students were dancing and singing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” That evening, at 9:15 p.m., it was announced that schools would be closed as of Monday and that instruction would continue online.

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Although the rumors and announcements had been mixed up to that point, the closure did not come as a complete surprise. That morning, we had held the March 15 celebration–the commemoration of the Revolution of 1848–in individual classrooms. Class 10C gave the performance, which came to the classrooms through the speakers. I was upstairs with the ninth grade and my colleague Marianna. Here is a SzolnokTV video of the performance, the classroom broadcast, and the presentation of a special memorial award.

On Saturday morning, one of my ninth-grade students, Lilla Kassai, had an art exhibit at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library, one of my favorite places to go in Szolnok. I would have been in Budapest yesterday, but synagogue has been cancelled along with everything else, so I went to her opening. It was a beautiful, probing collection of pieces; I was especially taken by the eyes in the various portraits. She talked about each of her pieces to a rotating audience. Her mother, a colleague of mine (the school librarian and a teacher as well), welcomed me warmly and introduced me to family members. What I didn’t realize was that this would be the last chance to see Lilla’s art for a while; yesterday evening it was announced that Szolnok’s cultural centers, museums, and libraries would be closed indefinitely as of Monday.

Paradoxically, it’s harder to teach online than in person. This has nothing to do with technological ineptitude or insecurity. It has everything to do with the lack of physical presence. In a regular classroom, everyone is there, except for those who are absent. Any announcement or discussion is heard by all. Questions can be addressed on the spot. You can have dialogues. Online, you have to wait for people to connect and respond. For the most part, we won’t have real-time virtual sessions, though I hope to schedule a few; instead, there will be deadlines. Teachers will be able to work from home or school, but there will be no meetings with students in person.

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The rationale for this national decision (to continue instruction online), or part of it, is that we might be able to keep the school year on schedule so that graduation and final exams can take place. It’s uncertain whether this will work, or what will happen if it doesn’t, but we just have to give this our best.

There’s lots for us to do online: we can read poems, stories, and articles, watch films and newscasts, listen to songs, and more. We can work intensively on writing–and maybe start an online journal. But it’s possible, as always, that the plan will change tomorrow, or next week, or in two weeks. So it’s better not to get too carried away with online plans–but then again, not to be overly tentative either. It would be a shame to hold back, to stick to the dull and changeable, and watch the months go by.

I can’t help thinking of “Life During Wartime”; hence the title of this post. It’s a world war against an invisible bug. It’s human to want to live normally–to get back to regular life as soon as possible–but “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

 

Old School in Hungary: Part 7

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“In this book, two things happen,” one student said. “The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” That was that. But I wanted to hear more. How did he understand these actions? What made them stand out? Did he see a relation between them?

Arch Makepeace, the dean of the school, resigns from his position when the boy (the narrator’s character) is expelled for submitting someone else’s story as his own. Makepeace argues that if the boy is being punished for laying “false claim to a story,” he himself has “laid false claim to much more–to a kind of importance, to a life not his own.” All this time, he has lived, taught, and served as dean in the midst of rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I–and while he has not confirmed this outright, he has not dispelled the rumors either.

In class on Wednesday, one student pointed out that Makepeace is partly responsible for the very contests he hates: not only has he failed to speak up against them, but his own reputation has fueled them.

Then a student suggested that Makepeace actually comes to believe the rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I. There’s more to that than may appear; I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another student pointed out that he actually does know Hemingway, since he knows his work. Thus the lie is true in a way. This brings up a lot that might have passed by us otherwise: the way he drops A Farewell to Arms from his honors seminar but keeps something by Hemingway on the reading list. (That in itself shows an intimacy with Hemingway’s writing.) He behaves toward Hemingway’s writing the way one would toward an old friend who gets annoying at times.

Back to the other student’s point: although nothing suggests that Makepeace really believes that he knew Hemingway personally, he does seem to have fallen for the sense of being special. This, in fact, allows him to resign; he somehow believes that he has the wherewithal to live without the school and without teaching. There’s a submerged hubris at work here. Later he finds out how wrong he was (191):

In former times Arch had supposed that his sense of being a distinctive and valuable man proceeded from his own qualities, and that they would sustain him in that confidence wherever he happened to be. He’d never imagine that this surety was conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him. But so it was. Unrecognized, he had become a ghost, even to himself.

And just a couple of pages earlier (189-190):

Up to the moment he resigned he must have imagined that teaching was a distraction from some greater destiny still his for the taking. Of course he hadn’t said this to himself, but he’d surely felt it, he later decided, because how else could he not have known how useless he would be thereafter? For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and thought in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.

If the Hemingway rumor has fed his own notion that he is destined for something greater, then through believing this notion, he has come to believe the rumor. But the rumor is also true to an extent; not only does he know Hemingway’s work, but Hemingway the person rises up again and again in it: “Who could not think of Hemingway when reading about Colonel Cantwell pissing on the Italian battleground where he’d been wounded, or Santiago pursuing his big fish?” Arch keeps trying to muffle his Hemingway but has doubts about doing so; he “distrusted his growing aversion to both the man and the work. It might well be a dishonest form of chagrin at his own false position, or simply resentment at looking so small beside the giant to whom he’d let himself be linked” (184-185). Even as he thinks he looks small beside Hemingway, he unknowingly imagines himself a giant of sorts. He is too reticent to show this off or even accept it in himself, but it becomes part of his thought and action.

And there–we concluded yesterday in class–lies a parallel between him and the narrator. Both take on a story that is theirs and not theirs. Both pay for this truth-lie by leaving the school: the one through being kicked out, the other through resigning.

I’ll stop here for now, since the second section finishes the book tomorrow (the first finished it yesterday). I think back on the words: “In this book, two things happen. The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” We will take this up on Monday, our last day with the book.

 

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

Elmarad (“Cancelled”)

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Everywhere I go, the event posters say “Elmarad” (“[It Is] Cancelled”). In response to the coronavirus, the Hungarian government has banned indoor public events with 100 or more people, as well as outdoor public events with 500 or more. Our school’s beloved Suligála has been cancelled. Films, concerts, exhibitions, readings–cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. Schools and universities are still open, but school trips abroad have been called off, and more restrictions may be coming. Hungary has 13 known cases of the virus at this point, but if it spreads fast, the medical facilities will be overwhelmed. So it makes sense to take these measures. It’s just sad and strange.

What can we do? Take care of ourselves, stay informed and sane, support the events we would have attended, look for ways to help, visit the local fruit and vegetable store as long as it stays open, stay in touch with others, and hope that this passes soon.

Zsolt Bajnai points out in blogSzolnok that cultural institutions and artists holding events online will suffer financially, since they won’t be able to charge for tickets, merchandise, or refreshments. Those funded by the government will survive, but those who depend on the market will quickly go broke. (I think it makes sense to donate to them here and there, when possible.)

It’s unclear how long we will have to go without public events. It’s sort of like watching a cartoon character eat a two-dimensional meal; you can imagine the real thing, but you don’t get filled. One day there will be a song, story, poem, or play called “Elmarad.” It will speak of these days, and we will get to hear and see it in a three-dimensional physical place with coat hooks, creaky chairs, other people, and all.

In the meantime, I hope we deal well with what is happening now, without forgetting the things that matter over the longer stretch.

 

Old School in Hungary: Part 6

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It has become more difficult, just within the past few days, to talk about these Old School discussions, since something has changed in the classroom. From “The Forked Tongue” onward, they have become more urgent. As if the story were happening around us and with us and by us.

Last week, because I was giving entrance exams Monday through Thursday and because we had a long weekend, one section had one class with me; the other had none. This week we resumed our rhythm, and students had lots to say.

One student asked, “Why is this writing competition destroying friendships and even breaking the school apart?” Another student suggested that the privilege of a private audience with the visiting writer was too extreme; only one person could receive that privilege, but to the boys it meant everything. Maybe, he suggested, the school could have given the honor to a small group of students instead of just one. They would all get to meet with the visiting writer.

Another student found it strange that Mr. Ramsey made the initial selections. (For the Hemingway contest, he chooses three and sends them to Hemingway, who selects the winner.) How many manuscripts might have been ignored just because Mr. Ramsey didn’t happen to like them? Was it right to give students the impression that their work was being read and considered by Hemingway (or whoever it happened to be)?

Some students picked up on the ironies at work: Bill White telling the narrator that it was his (Bill’s) story that he had written, not his own–and the narrator replying that if it had been Bill’s, Bill would have written it. They noticed that George Kellogg knew that the writing didn’t seem like the narrator’s; one student explained how George rationalized this discrepancy.

A student suggested that the narrator, by copying and submitting someone else’s story–a story that seemed to be about his life–has broken an unwritten and unspoken rule at the school: that you don’t actually reveal yourself in your writing. Until now, the boys have not been revealing themselves; now he has. The unfairness goes beyond winning the contest. He has taken a shortcut to something he wouldn’t otherwise have dared to do, and this upsets the other boys for reasons they don’t know how to articulate.

But all those different insights are only part of what has been happening. It isn’t uniform at all; one class is much livelier than the other (though the quieter class comes up with beautiful ideas). Besides all of this, at least two things are happening at once. One is that the students are considering Old School as a story. How, they asked, did everything happen so fast just now–with the narrator winning the contest and then immediately getting caught and expelled? And how can it be that there are still many pages to go? (“I smell a twist,” one student told me.)

The other part is that we see these questions of truth, fairness, and justice coming up in the discussions themselves. A student brought up things he had said months ago that he realized had come across wrong. He felt so bad that it had come across as rude. I saw my own mistake after unfairly giving a student a 4 out of 5 on a multiple-choice quiz–and my even greater mistake in making this known to the class. In Hungary, grades are usually a public matter, but all the same, that doesn’t justify announcing them all the time. His answers, as it turned out, made sense when he explained them; in addition, he had been participating energetically and thoughtfully from the very beginning. I apologized and changed the grade–but it still stings in my mind. Even calling on people, and recognizing when they need some room to be quiet, can be a tricky matter. Some students are reading and thinking ahead, whereas others need a little more time to take in what we read last week.

One of the sections hasn’t gotten to the narrator’s expulsion yet–or at least we will be discussing it tomorrow–but with the other section, we spent a long time with Mr. Ramsey’s goodbye.

Here one says something, he said. It’s not the end of the world, be game, you’ll work things out … but for all I know you won’t work things out. How should I know? He patted his pockets for the Gitanes, put one in his mouth, and offered another to me. When I hesitated he stuck the pack in my shirt pocket and stepped down onto the platform and walked away, two long sweat stains darkening the back of his jacket. I was glad to see him go; several minutes remained before departure time and I’d worried he might stand vigil outside, watching me through the window and giving sad little nods whenever our eyes met.

Why, I asked, did the narrator not want Mr. Ramsey to wait? For some this was a difficult question; they themselves would have preferred to have their former teacher (now more of a friend) stay until the train departed. But then a student pointed out, “He hasn’t had any time alone yet, he hasn’t had time to process any of this.” And then we talked about the last paragraph (where he makes his way to the smoking car with his copy of In Our Time, a gift from his classmate Purcell), and how different it is from the other time that we saw the narrator on the train (with a copy of The Fountainhead). At that time he felt full of himself and sure of himself, at least in the uppermost registers; now nothing is certain, and he has been brought down low.

Now all depends on how we approach the ending. I think we will finish the book in four more lessons and then take an additional lesson to discuss not only the whole book, but the discussions and the whole endeavor. This has been something out of the usual, and the students more than lived up to it. We have been building something together. I will miss it when it is over, but I don’t think it will go away.

 

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

I made a few minor changes (for clarity) to this piece after posting it.

Song Series #8: Different Exiles

 

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Exile: by its usual definition, the state of being banned from your own country. But exile can be internal too. Or even a fact of life, a condition of the things you need to do. Music demands a kind of exile; while it brings people together (intensely), it also demands truth, and truth gets you in trouble, whether obviously or not.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Musical truth is different from what we know as “telling the truth.” The stories in music don’t have to match point for point with the facts of your own life, but the shape will be true, the rhythm will be true, and the words will speak to you even if you don’t know what they mean. When this happens, you’re already cast out–in the best of ways, since exile can be joyous too–and you can’t take it back. You go about your life like everyone else, but as soon as a certain song starts playing in your head, you suddenly unbelong to your surroundings. The world will not bend to the music or vice versa.

Every good song, in that sense, is a song of exile. But a few stand out for me in this way. I’ll leave out the obvious exile ballads, such as Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” or Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” They are among my favorite songs, but their place in the “exile canon” is already clear. Instead, I’ll include Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime,” Dávid Szesztay’s “2120,” Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” and Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” (I had included “The Diamond Sea” in my previous post in this series, but I switched it over here.)

Nick Drake’s songs come back to me over the years; they are bare and raw and so perfectly formed and played. “River Man” seems to have to do with a world that has come to be too much, and a “river man” who knows a different way, but a way that may not be open.  The music creates a picture of it: the lingering vocals, the synthesizer against the acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, you sense the river more and more.

In the 1980s I listened to Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime” endlessly (and heard her play it once in concert); I loved and love its syncopations, the lovely raspy vocals, the guitar sound, and the connecting stories, all leading up to the last verse:

And now a tired conductor passes by
He takes my ticket with a sigh
I don’t think he meant to catch my eye
But he doesn’t turn away.
He says “I have a daughter as old as you
And there’s really nothing anyone else can do
Do you play guitar…well good for you
Me I play the violin”
I imagine him with his hair jet black
Does he hide his fiddle in the back?
He gauged his words as the train went slack:
The New York train stops here

But I don’t forget the factory
I don’t expect this ride to always be
Can I give them what they want to see
Let me do it twice —
The second time for me.

‘Cause these windows make a perfect frame
For New York buildings like upright trains
They hold me as I hold the rain
Fleeting shadows on a dime.

It is a song of exile because the narrator, the musician, is always on the road, as are others, like the train conductor who maybe “hides his fiddle in the back.”

Now for Dávid Szesztay‘s “2120,” one of my favorite songs on his album Dalok bentre. (I heard him play on Saturday night in Szeged; you can read my review here.) The video, directed by Pater Sparrow and starring Szesztay and his family, is brilliant, eerie, beautiful and sad, but I recommend listening to the song on its own first, since there are so many ways to hear and understand it. The refrain does so much and rhythmically with the simple words “Kinn meg fagy, kinn hagytak” (“Outside and freezing, they left you outside.”) And then, at the end, the repeated “mozogjál” (“get a move on,” “hurry up”) contains its opposite; it stays instead of moving on, or it does both at the same time; the word turns into something else, something beyond leaving and staying. I have been listening to this song and the whole album over and over.

I have included Joni Mitchell in this song series before–“Coyote,” from the same album as this–but it’s impossible to leave out “Hejira” here.

I know, no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Now for Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build. As for its exile, it’s the passage of time and the sight of the diamond sea that make you unable to come back. “Time takes its crazy toll.” The two go together; not only will you eventually see the diamond sea, over the course of time, but over time it will also have its effect on you. The music takes you through this.

And that concludes the eighth installment of the song series.

I took the photo on Saturday night in Szeged.