A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has just been published online in Harper’s. It will also appear in the Letters section of the October issue. I consider the contents both urgent and enduring; I am honored to be one of the signers, along with many people I respect and admire (as well as people I disagree with on many issues and people whose work I don’t know).  Please read it carefully and share it widely.

I rarely sign group letters or petitions, but the letter strongly reflected my thoughts and observations, and I saw a need for a statement of this kind–against the recent climate of intolerance and in favor of “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

It is difficult to single out one part of the letter as more important than the rest. But this deserves close attention: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

The difference here lies between disagreeing with someone–even vociferously–and demanding that the person be fired, shamed, denied publication, etc.

The responses have been telling–an outpouring of support, some thoughtful criticism, and a number of ad hominem attacks. Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris wrote an excellent article about the letter for The New York Times. There are many interesting comments, including this from James in San Diego:

It’s widely recognized that this “intolerant” way of thinking is somehow related to the type of speech that takes place on the internet, but the exact relationship remains mysterious, usually waved away with a passing reference to the dreaded Echo Chambers, which are actually just some lovely caves.

But it’s more related to the dominance of advertising on the internet. Before advertising was ubiquitous on the web, netizens were actually quite tolerant. And it’s also not really about “tolerance,” at least not in any causal way.

It’s more about the order of mental operations that advertising requires. Advertising requires you to set your judgments first, THEN absorb information. So articles’ headlines (basically small ads) need you to find the topic interesting, shocking, appalling, or heartwarming BEFORE you’ve read about it. If you wait until after learning the details of something to start forming a judgment about it, advertising has failed.

And the habit sticks. People now EXPECT to be able to draw conclusions about things before starting to understand them, and so they organize the data in a way that facilitates this, by highlighting and foregrounding “easy discriminator” elements, which might be rhetorical, contextual, or personal.

But ads rarely lead to new heights, and the way of thinking they inspire militates against intellectual growth or ascent to the unknown.

I don’t know whether James is right about the influence of advertising culture–I would say that the trend toward rushed opinions comes from several sources, including a few education trends–but many of his observations ring true. There’s now an expectation that we form opinions before actually learning about an issue. The contexts range from satisfaction surveys to dating to political discussion.

In addition, opinions have become like badges. Display the right ones, and you’re fine, until someone calls you out as fake; display the wrong ones, and you’re an elitist fearfully clinging to a dwindling demesne, or simply a terrible person. Don’t display any at all, and you’re defective at best.

I hope the letter will bring some needed questioning and challenge into the air. It is already beginning to do so.

I added considerably to this piece after posting it.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

Slowing Down and Stepping Back

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The sickening news of George Floyd’s death under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin brings up lessons I have learned from teaching. One of the most difficult things in a charged moment is to slow down, look around, listen, figure out what actually is and isn’t going on, and respond appropriately to the specifics.

I do not know what was going through Mr. Chauvin’s mind: why he kept his knee pressed for eight minutes and forty-six seconds on Mr. Floyd’s neck, even though Mr. Floyd kept gasping that he couldn’t breathe. It’s possible that through a combination of racist reactions, general anxiety, and trained responses, he failed to see that Mr. Floyd posed no danger and that he was going to die. (A racist reaction, in this case, is one that would have been more solicitous and respectful had the man under arrest been white.) This failure to see may have led to Mr. Floyd’s death; that is, if Mr. Chauvin had taken stock of what was happening, he might have shifted course. In any case, how could he not have heard Mr. Floyd? How could he not have heard the bystanders? Whatever else was going on in him, it seems he failed to hear.

For a teacher, one of the greatest challenges of “classroom management” is sheer overload. People who advise teachers don’t always realize this. There are all sorts of books written on managing a classroom, but none of the advice will do a bit of good unless the teacher knows how to take in the details and the whole. When there is too much happening at once, it can become one big blur.

The first challenge is to take apart the blur: to step back, look at the specifics, and respond to them one by one. This can be very difficult when there’s a lot of noise. I have found in Hungary that it is easier to address minor situations that come up, simply because it’s easier to see what they are. The atmosphere can be lively, but it isn’t noisy, and with one look around the room, I can tell what is happening.

But even years ago I knew the importance of stepping back and looking around, even though I found it difficult. There was one day in 2012, at Columbia Secondary School, when I was introducing my students to Locke (see the post “Locke and Beads“), and some students were talking loudly and persistently. I stopped to address what was going on, and we talked about it for a few minutes. Then I heard a clatter. My necklace had broken–a beloved necklace given to me by teachers at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute–and the beads were spilling all over the place. The students immediately started helping me gather them again. The sun was streaming through the window, making some of the beads glitter. We ended the lesson by considering the words of Locke, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.” Everything, or almost everything, had come together: disruption, conversation, necklace, and Locke.

Those particular students graduated from college two years ago (except for a few who took time off for one purpose or another). I often remember them. Standing back now from the difficulty of that class, I see how much was happening in it, and how much more could have happened if I had let myself see more of the particulars.

People who tend to get overwhelmed–by noise, distraction, or other stimulus–need to practice slowing down and looking around. In seemingly chaotic situations, this does not come naturally. Kids often want the teacher to respond individually to them. Few things in school are as frustrating or annoying as when a teacher generalizes about the class without noticing distinctions. Also, kids will instinctively play on a teacher’s weaknesses and vice versa; it takes conscious work to build up each other’s strengths.

When race, ethnicity, or another group difference is at stake, it takes all the more work–and practice–to separate actual threat from imagined threat, and to respond to the situation at hand, not to something conjured out of prejudice and fear. In addition, it takes diligence and humility to interpret the situation correctly. Many conflicts arise out of misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

This is true about all sorts of situations, even those without racial conflict or positions of authority. Most of us have known people who at some point reacted to us without taking in the full situation.  Most of us have done so ourselves. In fact, this probably happens most of the time; we are partially blind to others, even those closest to us. But when authority and race are involved, the wounds and consequences go far beyond the individuals involved.

I don’t know if any of this applies to Mr. Chauvin. But those in positions of public responsibility should learn, during their professional training, how to decelerate and take things in, to see the person in front of them, to distinguish the actual situation from an imagined one. There are teachers, police officers, and others who do this extremely well–who save lives and see lives during the course of their work–and who go unrecognized. Their wisdom is badly needed. They should be seen and heard.

 

Update: I made several edits and additions to this piece after the initial posting.

 

 

Don’t Take This Advice

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I see all kinds of advice online about how to handle the coronavirus isolation. Some articles tell you to get in touch with more people, to do more things in Zoom groups, to join more clubs. Others tell you how to say “no” to invitations and claim some space for yourself. What they all have in common is an assumption that people need to be told how to lead their lives.

Why this barrage of advice? Adulthood is full of laws, rules, and limitations, so shouldn’t people be able to make the most of what freedom they have? Why hand it over to those eager advice-givers who don’t know a thing about you?

In particular, isn’t it each person’s prerogative to find the combination of aloneness and company, of solitude and companionship, that suits him or her? Each person is different in this matter. The divisions do not fall along introvert/extravert lines; many self-described introverts may find themselves lonely, whereas many self-described extraverts may need a break from others. It has more to do with your existing obligations and with what you actually want.

An example: If you teach online, you have built-in, daily online contact with others-not only with your students, but also with your colleagues and others. So you may not be eager for Zoom chats in your free time. In addition, if you have things that you need to do on your own, with minimal distractions, then you might also want to limit your online social activity. On top of that, if you actually enjoy doing things alone, or offline, or both, there’s yet another reason not to leap into every virtual club or happy hour.

But there are other considerations too, including where and how you may be needed. If you are part of an organization that is turning toward online events, then you may be expected, and may expect yourself, to contribute something. That means that even more of your time is already allotted online–so the free time is even scarcer and matters even more.

There are different ways, also, of being in touch with others online. Some people prefer video conversation or text chat; others (like myself) prefer audio or email. Some prefer quick, immediate chats; others like to take time between messages. So there are many ways to do these things, not just one–and if there seems to be a trend toward one, well, no one has to be part of the trend, especially not in free time.

So, my advice is, don’t worry about all the advice that the world is giving you, unless you sorely need it! Look at your own obligations and wishes, and make your own choices, where choices are possible.

But then each of us has times when we need advice–and if that is true for you, just disregard this advice against taking advice! Advice, though, has built-in limitations. If it comes from a stranger, it lacks insight into your particular situation. If it comes from someone who knows you, it lacks objectivity. Still, every so often, a gem of advice comes along, objective or not. We know it by its truth. There are pieces of advice that I have carried with me for years.

But I think that good advice comes from wisdom, which in turn comes from learning, listening, and discerning over time. Good advice is not formulaic; it takes into account the many possibilities and uncertainties surrounding another person. But when it needs to be strong, it is.

So the upshot is: Do what you want and need. Take advice, don’t take advice. Have fun with the taking and not taking. When the time comes, give some careful advice of your own, keeping in mind that it might not be right.

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I took these photos yesterday by the Tisza and the Zagyva.

The First Issue of Folyosó

folyoso coverIt is my joy to announce the first issue of Folyosó, an online literary journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary! This first issue is entirely in English (except for a handful of words); this means that the authors are writing not in their native language, but in a language they have been learning at school and on their own. Later this year, Folyosó will become bilingual (English and Hungarian), with a section dedicated to translation. In 2021 it will be open to submissions from high school students around the world.

This inaugural issue features students’ fiction, nonfiction, and art (including Lilla Kassai’s painting “The Lonely Castle,” which is also the cover art), a “high-stakes test,” and an interview with Dániel Lipcsei, a folk dancer currently in the eleventh grade at Varga. One story has a teenager behind the wheel of a tractor on a hot day; another shows a woman spying on her neighbor. One is told by a narrator who has taken up miniature-building; another, by the footman from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” Students grapple with current and ongoing questions, ranging from the future of the coronavirus pandemic to the nature of envy.

We wish you fruitful reading. Please feel free to leave a comment on the comments page. Here’s to the arts, here’s to languages, here’s to good health for all, and here’s to Folyosó!

Update: SzolnokTV interviewed us about the journal. I added the video here.

In Person

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The coronavirus isolation is not all bad. It’s good for working on projects, sifting through thoughts, going on bike rides. Even on a short bike ride, I find all kinds of things to explore; I turn off onto dirt roads (which are dry, not muddy, right now), discover a bridge or path I didn’t know about before, take detours, cross meadows, peer into the river, and turn back when I think it’s time.

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So that’s isolation, on the one hand. At home, too, there’s a lot of exploring in it. Putting together the online journal Folyosó, which will appear on May 11, I have been editing pieces, experimenting with layouts, fixing this or that feature, and getting so absorbed in the whole thing that I stay up late.

But the pandemic is bringing out, in different ways, the necessity of doing certain things in person. Zoom and other online services are substitutes, and substitutes only. Sometimes a substitute will not do. For instance, we (the drama club, the drama teacher, and I) were going to take Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves) to the festival in Veszprém this June. The festival was cancelled; of course it was. First of all, if the drama troupes cannot rehearse, how can they prepare for a festival? Second, a festival of this kind cannot take place virtually. We were disappointed, but this just brings out how drama requires physical presence–of the actors among each other, of the stage and space, and of the audience along with the actors. The actor and director Joel Grey wrote about this in a memorable and treasurable New York Times piece.

With teaching, too, the best thing is to have classes in person. We work with the substitutes because we have to, and some good things come out of them. But there is nothing like being in the room together, seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, sensing the mood as the lesson progresses, picking up on understanding and uncertainty, and above all, living the lesson–be it grammar, literature, or something else–together. The substitutes–Discord, Zoom, Messenger, Google Classroom, and so on–are functional, but functionality is not everything. I think of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz.

I don’t think anyone is mistaking Zoom, etc., for a palace. But it’s also good to see them for what they are: substitutes. Less than ideal. Not the ideal itself. Granted, they can do some things that in-person gatherings cannot (for instance, bring together people from all around the world). But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

A new video by the rock band Kiscsillag expresses this uproariously (and bawdily). The song itself, “Nem szégyellem,” precedes the pandemic–and appears on the band’s new album, Tompa késekbut the video itself was shot on mobile phones, just a few weeks ago, in the band members’ homes. (See a Music Backstage article on this.) A gem of quarantine rock and home filming–and you don’t need to know Hungarian to appreciate it, though each word raises the appreciation higher.

 

 

There you have the soul of it, ticklish but true. It isn’t just that certain things are best done in person. It’s that when all the things around you–the food in the fridge, the bathtub, the rocking horse, the vacuum cleaner, the chess board–start acting as substitutes for the world, then you know that you, too, have been substituted.

 

Why Spring Break was Cancelled in NYC

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On March 30, New York State issued a directive for schools to continue online instruction throughout the spring break, which includes Passover and Easter. There was a possibility of giving teachers and students two days off–for the first day of Passover and for Good Friday–but that ultimately got nixed. Why no spring break? The primary reason given is this: that if students and teachers are busy with schoolwork, they will be more likely to adhere to social distancing, which in turn will help the city overcome the coronavirus. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a letter, “We are confident that continuing remote learning will help ensure that families adhere to social distancing in the coming weeks, which is imperative to slowing the spread of the virus and keeping ourselves and our neighbors safe.”

This rationale reveals an underlying belief (endemic to American education) that a good part of the purpose of school is to keep people busy and out of trouble. Not only that, but if you are looking to keep people busy and out of trouble, just put them in school.

The assumption that this is a legitimate purpose of education–to keep people from doing other things, to keep them busy–creates plenty of mischief of its own. Leisure, rest, breaks should be part of education, not distrusted. A spring break, far from releasing the masses into the evils of the streets, could actually give families and individuals a chance to catch up with themselves a little, celebrate the holidays, do some housecleaning, relax, and prepare for the coming weeks and months. In contrast, online instruction without a break will contribute to stress, which, beyond a small amount, is bad for the health and for education too.

The idea is not limited to the current crisis. Many U.S. pedagogical models emphasize the importance of keeping students busy at every moment. Granted, most educators will stress that the activities should be purposeful and meaningful, but they still recommend a tight sequence, with swift, well-coordinated transitions. There’s an assumption that if you let up just slightly, havoc will ensue. And so it becomes the truth. Many kids do not learn how to handle pauses, silences, and uncertainties. Why not? Because they are told, from day one, that they must stay “on task.” Teachers are told to keep things swift and purposeful–to remind students of the aim of the lesson, to demand outcomes, and to avoid having students do any one thing (especially listening to the teacher) for very long.

Some of this is fine. But it has turned into a system-wide fear of autonomy, of being left to one’s own devices. This relentless busyness doesn’t help education or those involved in it. Even less does it help those badly in need of rest right now. At the very least, teachers and students could have been given those two days–Thursday and Friday–so that they could celebrate the holidays at home and enjoy a brief respite from online life. Education does not take place in frenzy, nor cures and recovery in exhaustion.

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.”