Why “Liking” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I saw a wonderful play this evening: Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, performed in Hungarian (Eleven éjszaka) by the Szkéné Színház, who came to Szolnok to perform it. It was funny, sad, somewhat absurd, and strangely relevant. Even though the plot is removed from my life in almost every possible way, it seemed to hit something I am going through right now, some kind of question I am wrestling with. I can say that I liked the play, but that’s really shorthand for something more. “Liking” is beside the point here.

I have written about this subject before: how “liking” isn’t as important as it is made out to be, how the things that affect us the most are not always the things we like, and so forth. Liking implies a smoothness of reaction, a lack of resistance, but some of the most interesting works, people, places we encounter are the ones that strike some kind of rebellion in us, or at least a vigil of sorts. There are unpleasant but profoundly intelligent and moral people; there are works that leave us somewhat uneasy, in the best of ways.

For years I didn’t like the songwriter Mark Eitzel or his erstwhile band, the American Music Club. People were dismayed when I told them this. “How could you not like Mark Eitzel?” they wailed. But I didn’t. The music sounded too glossy to my ear. I didn’t understand what it was about. Only now, years later, do I hear the brilliance of those songs. I will now walk through his repertoire slowly. I might come to love it. And I might still not like it.

Away from music and into personal relations: there are people I have respected, admired, loved, and not necessarily liked—people with serious faults, quirks, disagreeable aspects. I would not wish likeability on them in a million years. They are better as they are. God, they drive me crazy sometimes. But I am glad they exist.

Liking is somewhat lazy. That doesn’t deplete it of value. It’s good to have some people, some food, some things in your life that you just like without resistance. People you feel comfortable around, whose company you enjoy. Art, music, books that give you pleasure. Meals that make you smile after you have finished your chewing and swallowing. But pleasure doesn’t have the final word.

None of this is mutually exclusive. You can struggle with something, come to love it, and then, over time, take a liking to it too. Or in reverse order. But if you don’t like something, that doesn’t render it worthless. Your reckoning with it might be one of the most important battles of your life.

This question has many implications for education. Is it important for students to like what they study? Yes and no.

On the one hand, if they absolutely detest what they are learning, or are bored by it, then something is probably going wrong (in terms of curriculum, instruction, or study practices). On the other hand, if they judge the curriculum according to their liking of it, and if the school and teachers encourage such judging, then everyone is missing the point. School should not be pure torture or pure entertainment. It is a chance to come to know something that you didn’t know before. This can bring both exhilaration and discomfort. Let us honor the not-quite-liking.

I will be presenting on this topic (in particular, how it pertains to education) at the ALSCW Conference in October, in the seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Getting What You Want

In (U.S.) American life, the concept of happiness has been tragically confused with “getting what you want.” No one knows exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant by “pursuit of happiness,” but insofar as he was drawing on John Locke, he understood that happiness is a complex matter, not reducible to the satisfaction of ambitions, wishes, or desires. These might deceive us, after all, and what we want for ourselves at a given moment might not be good for others (or even ourselves, for that matter). So the pursuit of happiness involves restraint and reflection.

Over time, this idea of restraint has ceded to the dogma of “going for it,” “living your dream,” and so forth, so that people often feel ashamed if they are not hell-bent on attaining that fantasy in their head. What’s wrong with you? Do you have fixed mindset or something? Why aren’t you going after your goal with everything you’ve got and more? And I suspect that there’s at least a small element of this in mass shootings. The murderer gets an idea in his head and then starts to believe that he has to carry it out, that not doing so would be a colossal failure, a life not worth living. I don’t mean that this explains the mass shootings, only that it might contribute to a much more complex explanation.

Locke wrote in his 1690 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” “God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer is its approach to infinite perfection and happiness. That in this state of ignorance we short-sighted creatures might not mistake true felicity, we are endowed with a power to suspend any particular desire, and keep it from determining the will, and engaging us in action.” Then, a little later, under the heading “The necessity of pursuing happiness, the foundation of liberty”:  “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.” In other words, pursuing happiness involves suspending our desires until we have examined them closely and determined whether they will bring us to true happiness. This is an ancient concept; it can be found in the Bible, in Plato, in the writings of the Greek and Roman Stoics, and elsewhere. But only after living in Hungary for four and a half years did I see the extent to which it is missing from areas of American life.

In the U.S., if you want to do or accomplish something, you throw yourself into it with full spirit and often a certain recklessness. You believe that your dreams will come true if you let nothing stand in the way of them. Some people go about this more prudently than others, but almost everyone believes in the pursuit of goals (more than they believe in reflection upon these goals and upon the means of pursuit). In my case, this often meant that I threw money into a project, just to make it possible. I didn’t worry about whether money was coming back to me (and it usually wasn’t). That was the primary reason why my literary journal, Sí Señor, folded (and why so many other literary journals do the same): my desire to see it in existence overrode my practicality. After four issues, each of which cost a couple thousand dollars to produce, I couldn’t afford it any more. I don’t regret the journal, or even the money I spent on it; if I had been more cautious, it might not have happened at all. Still, it reflected a belief that if you want something, you go for it, no holds barred. You do whatever it takes.

In Hungary, people are markedly more cautious and hesitant—especially with money, but with other matters too. They will generally wait before making a big purchase or investment; they want to make sure they have the best deal possible and are really going to make use of it. They are likewise circumspect with dreams and plans, unsure whether they will really pan out and whether they will be worth the effort. There are exceptions and complications to this, but the tendency comes through strongly. At the extremes, it is no better than the American goal-pursuit. If you don’t take risks, you miss all kinds of opportunities; you don’t let yourself even think of projects that seem beyond your reach. Still, I have learned from Hungarian caution.

There are many questions to consider, with respect to any plan or dream: how practical and attainable it is, whether it benefits us and others, whether it can be sustained, whether something lasting will come out of it, whether there are any risks or dangers involved, and so forth. Some of this is unknowable, but at least it’s worth asking. That doesn’t mean that a plan should be abandoned if it fails to satisfy the criteria. Sometimes the riskier projects and endeavors bring great rewards, not necessarily material ones. But the questions can help us avoid needless failure and waste. Not only that, but this kind of reflective mediation will help with the steps along the way.

This applies even to areas like friendship. When do you ask your friend for something, and when not? When do you disclose something, and when not? There isn’t just one right answer. It’s a fallacy that true friends are “always there for you” or privy to “your deepest secrets.” It isn’t true that if you hold back from revealing or asking for something, you are shortchanging yourself. Friendship can have depth even without constant presence or absolute openness. People are allowed to have their own preoccupations, their own privacies.

In general, there’s good reason to relieve oneself of crushing ultimatums: “Either I accomplish X, or I’m a total failure”; “either you accept everything about me and are there when I need you, or you aren’t a friend at all.” There’s no happiness, or even pursuit of it, in these choices. The world does not and should not bend to any one person’s will.

A kind of exuberant, dreamy ambition, combined with practicality, industry, moral sense, and regard for others, would be, if not “the best way,” at least a rich disposition. How do you cultivate this? Through daily life, introspection, projects, education—and often through not getting what you want.

Art credit: Goshawk by Alan M. Hunt.

Update: A comment from Michelle Sowey: Hi Diana, thanks for continuing your ever-thoughtful blog. Your third-last paragraph reminded me of another Kundera passage, from Testaments Betrayed, which expresses an even stronger and more uncompromising version of the idea: “…since childhood I had heard it said that a friend is the person with whom you share your secrets and who even has the right, in the name of friendship, to insist on knowing them. For my Icelander, friendship is something else: it is standing guard at the door behind which your friend keeps his private life hidden; it is being the person who never opens that door; who allows no one else to open it.”

Thoughts on Cancelling Russia

Not too long ago, during a train ride, someone asked me what I thought about cancelling Russia. I said I considered absolute cancellation a mistake. She looked disappointed, so I listened to what she had to say. She considered cancellation—by which she meant refusal to engage with Russian people, things, and culture—absolutely necessary for the time being. She emphasized that it should be temporary but strong.

I thought about it over the following weeks and came to agree with her more than before. Still, I see many dangers in cancellation overall. My views are less about Ukraine in particular and more about cancellation itself.

First, “cancellation” is difficult to define; there are so many different kinds, ranging from economic boycotts to actual cancellation of events to a cutting of ties with individuals. So-called “cancel culture” can even take the form of brutal online attacks, destruction of people’s careers and personal lives, etc. So it’s important to be precise about what kind is at stake and why.

In a war like this one, economic boycotts are justifiable and may convey strong messages. Their effects aren’t always fair—they can hurt people who have nothing to do with the war and don’t support it in any way—but then, no powerful response is fair. During World War II, many German bakeries in NYC went out of business because people stopped buying from them. This was unfair on the bakeries themselves (in many cases humble businesses with no ties to Nazis), but understandable in context.

I also see reason at times to cancel (or simply stay out of) high-profile cultural events, especially those that celebrate an aggressor country and its achievements. I was sad for the pianist himself when Alexander Malofeev’s concerts with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were cancelled, but at least the orchestra made clear that this was not directed at him personally.

There are thorny questions aroud “Russian-ness” itself. The Yale Russian Chorus, as far as I know, is still considering a Russia tour in August. They have stated that they will include more Ukrainian songs in their repertoire. However, that hardly makes things better; according to Oleksii Antoniuk, if they sing Ukrainian songs, they should change their name from the Yale Russian Chorus to something else. If they do not, they are implying that Ukrainians are just “small” Russians. I see the point there and believe that this all needs to be sorted out.

But boycotts and large cultural events aside, what kinds of cancellation are appropriate? I don’t have an answer; the answer will vary from person to person, situation to situation. But I see dangers in knee-jerk cancellation.

If those doing the “cancelling” know what they are cancelling and why, then there might be some principle involved. But if they don’t, their actions will come out of ignorance and generate more of the same. If, say, people were to refuse to read Russian literature because it’s Russian, they would only be limiting their own education and that of others. If this kind of action spread, anyone could refuse to learn about anything at all. Not only that, but the refusal would come with a self-righteous attitude.

Where would it stop? No country, no entity is exempt from blame. For instance, what if people in the U.S. started cancelling all things Hungarian because of Orbán’s illiberal populism? This would just spread illiberalism. If you write off an entire country just because you disagree with its leader, you give the leader more power and credence than he already has. Anyone can do the same back to you and yours.

What about personal cancelling—the targeting or absolute cutting off of someone you know? I would reserve that for the most extreme circumstances, where you have really tried and failed to hear the person out, or where your safety is at risk. Yet personal cancellation remains in vogue: “freeing yourself of toxic people.” People who cut others off may pride themselves on their social justice or sense of personal liberation. But there is no social justice or liberation involved here, no willingness to find out what the person really thinks, or at least offer the benefit of the doubt. I realize that I am wandering into somewhat different territory here, yet it all falls within the larger concept of cancelling.

In short, I understand that certain kinds of cancelling have their place, especially during this war. But when it comes to the larger question of cancellation, I would say: define what you are doing and why, keep it to a minimum, keep it as humane as possible, remember that you do not know everything about another person or place, and follow your own conscience and knowledge. Because in wartime (or any time, really) these are among the few things you can keep.

Image: Anton Chekhov, by Osip Braz (1898).

Folyosó, Contrariwise, and Whimsy

In the Second Anniversary Issue of Folyosó, which came out yesterday, there is a section of short pieces inspired by Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (an excerpt of which the students read in class). That is, the pieces use the phrase “trout fishing in America” in any way they please: to refer to an object, an action, a place, a person, a concept, or something indeterminate. It’s one of the most peculiar assignments I have given, but the results are delightful. The students understood the possibilities and took them in all sorts of directions.

Here is Hédi Szabó’s “A Good Feeling” in full:

The sunshine was lighting up the whole coffee shop. Delightful weather like this brings an awesome mood to everyone. This morning, our coffee shop was completely full of people who just wanted to enjoy what a lovely time we were having. Everyone was sitting outside the cafe bar. We had a busy morning. Just brew and brew the dark caffeine-full drink, we haven’t got a calm three minutes. But of course this is what we love the most. For a minute I just thought about how I’m living the life that I’ve always imagined for myself. I was deep in my thoughts when suddenly I realized somebody had come up to the counter. For a moment I felt a bit embarrassed, because I didn’t know how long she had been waiting for me. With a smile, I asked what she wanted to drink. She told me she wanted to order a drink which was suitable for “trout fishing in America.” At first, I thought I had heard it incorrectly. But she repeated it. I started to panic a little because I started to overthink it. Is this a phrase that I don’t know? Is she kidding me? Is she just bad at English? Everyone could have easily said about me that I was really confused. So fortunately, she quickly explained it to me. Trout fishing in America is a feeling you get when you are happy for no reason. Nothing special has happened to you, you just have the feeling your life is good the way it is. You can literally smile because you are satisfied with things around you at the moment you are in. After that guest, my life changed, to put it bluntly. Every time I feel unreasonably happy, I say I’m feeling “trout fishing in America.” I wish for everyone to feel “trout fishing in America” more often.

I think back on Contrariwise and its beginnings. Eight years ago we celebrated the first issue with a whimsical event at Word Up Community Books in Washington Heights, NYC; the celebration included readings, “empirical Shakespearean experiments,” spontaneous jokes, surprises, moments of solemnity, a song, and even a cake with the image of the journal on its surface.

Perhaps there’s a common thread here. I think most people would call me a serious person, but I never saw a contradiction between seriousness and playfulness. Or rather, I think they need each other. One of the reasons that I didn’t go into academia was that in academic settings, playfulness, when it did occur, was so contained, cautious, and tame (with just a few exceptions). People weren’t willing to risk their professional image by being wholeheartedly silly. But silliness requires full spirit. It loses life when reduced to a limp chuckle. Now, I am not silly most of the time, nor is Folyosó. But Folyosó makes room for silliness, and I hope it always will. The same goes for Contrariwise.

Silliness of a certain kind can make room for a greater seriousness. Letting yourself play with possibilities, you sometimes hit upon something nontrivial.

There is so much unstated pressure, not only in academia but elsewhere, to be one thing or another: silly or serious, academic or non-academic, happy or sad, progressive or conservative, etc. I have never fit, or wanted to fit, such limiting classifications, and I challenge them without even thinking about it. It’s important to know that you don’t have to be or do just one thing.

As so often happens in the morning, I suddenly have to hurry, so that will be all.

Three Upcoming Events for “Always Different”

What better place to start than at the school where the translator and poet are colleagues, and where the director, librarian, and others have eagerly offered to support the event? On Tuesday, May 24, the school library will host the first launch event for Always Different, Gyula’s poetry collection Mindig más in my English translation, published by Deep Vellum in April 2022. This has special meaning for me, because if it hadn’t been for the school, I might not have met Gyula in the first place or embarked on the translation of his poems. Also, early in my second year at Varga, before I had even started the translations, one of my students brought up Gyula’s literary events. “He brings writers to talk to us; it’s really great,” he said. “Sándor Jászberényi came to talk to us. Do you know him? You should read him; he’s really interesting.” I started coming to those events, which opened up into others. So in several ways, this is where it started.

The second event will be on June 8, during Book Week, at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library here in Szolnok that hosts and supports so many projects, including the Shakespeare festival that we held for the first time this year). Marianna Fekete will be our beszélgetőtárs (“talking partner”—that is, the person who interviews us). This, too, is a great honor for me; I have attended and participated in many Verseghy Library events, but this one stands out in all sorts of ways.

The third will be on June 25, at the evocative and cozy Nyitott Műhely in Buda. I first went there in February for an event featuring Csenger Kertai and the pianist Loránt Péch. I loved the event and the place. I started dreaming about having an event there one day. Now it is happening, and Csenger will be our beszélgetőtárs.

There will be still more events for the book over the coming months—online events, U.S. events, and others—but this is an exciting beginning. Details for the second two events are forthcoming, but in short: the one at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár will begin at 5 p.m., and the one at the Nyitott Műhely at 6.

On Reading a Lot or a Little

I read a lot on the one hand and very little on the other. That is, I am always immersed in a text, be it a Torah portion, a poem I am translating, a poem I am not translating, a literary work I am teaching, a song I am listening to again and again, or something I am rereading. But I am not one of those people who devour books. I am woefully behind with books I have been wanting to read, books given to me, books I have been planning to reread. Some of them I get to more quickly than others, but some have been sitting on my shelf for years. It would be great to read more of them, but I don’t read fast. That said, I am glad that they are there; it is important to me to have books to reach for. As a result of moving to Hungary, I have pared my book collection way down, but even so, there’s enough here for a lifetime.

An interesting thing I noticed when deciding which books to keep: the poetry, fiction, and drama have endured far longer than most of the nonfiction. Unfortunately, a lot of nonfiction books (for instance, books about education) fizzle out; after one time through, there’s really no reason to return to them again, except for reference. There are exceptions—books with exceptionally compelling writing or interesting topics—but very few people treat nonfiction writing as an art. Not so with good fiction, poetry, drama; they keep opening into more, and a person can come to them in seemingly infinite ways. I say “seemingly infinite” because there’s no telling whether they’re infinite or not.

There’s plenty of ephemeral fiction too, and poetry, and drama, and everything else. But in terms of what’s on my bookshelf, imaginative literature lasts longer than the rest. And there are levels of lasting.

In a tribute to János Pilinszky, just published by Agenda Poetry, Nicole Waldner writes:

In an interview about his wartime experiences, Pilinszky described the journey on the train into Germany in 1944, to the fringes of civilisation’s collapse: “I took a large pile of books with me to war. And I kept throwing them out of the railway carriage one after the other. Every book became anachronistic. But the Gospels underwent a miraculous metamorphosis.” The metamorphosis of which Pilinszky spoke was a “stripping away of lesser realities” and this stripping away, along with his determination to never look away, became his life’s mission.

I just started reading the essay but have to run out the door for the class trip. I will have more to say about it when I return and read it closely. But this passage caught my eye and mind right away. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or foolish as to compare myself to Pilinszky, but that “stripping away of lesser realities” is important to me too. Not an excuse for my reading so little, but maybe a way of thinking about reading.

Photo by Diána Komróczki.

As in a Dream

Do you know the kind of dream where you realize that you know exactly how things will unfold, because you have already lived them? The poems of Always Different (my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más) have this kind of dream-insight, but they are not dreams. Or rather, the memory they play with resembles certain dreams. We go back in time to look forward again and see things happen just as we know they will, except that nothing is certain, some key facts get lost along the way, and even verb tenses and moods start to wobble. The poems are surreal and real at once: familiar, reminding me of things, but shifting under my gaze and thoughts. I am proud beyond thoughts that this book has come out and that I can now hold it in my hands.

The project began in the fall of 2018. I had figured out that my colleague Gyula Jenei was a poet and his wife, Marianna Fekete, a literary critic (as well as a teacher of English and biology). My first conversation with Gyula wasn’t a conversation at all. I walked up to him out of the blue and recited one of his poems from memory. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting anything like this, but he took it in good cheer.

Soon after that, I found Marianna Fekete’s essay on Béla Markó’s haiku poems. I thought that it would be great to translate that essay and the many haiku poems within it. I began translating Gyula’s work and hers, and we began talking about them. At first, my spoken Hungarian (as well as my Hungarian overall) was very tentative, but over time it grew and relaxed.

Then Literary Matters published five of Gyula’s poems (in the original and in my translation) as well as my translation of Marianna’s essay. (The Massachusetts Review later published a translation as well.) Then the extraordinary happened: the Cowan Center at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture invited us to be the featured guests at their 2019 Education Forum. Little did we know that Covid was a few months around the corner; we went to Dallas in October 2019 and had a glorious autumn week filled with events, conversations, and long walks around the city. Thank you, Claudia MacMillan, Larry Allums, the I.M. Terrell Academy (which we visited), the Dallas Institute, and everyone who was part of this.

One of the Dallas Institute events that week was a private luncheon with guests, including Will Evans, the founder and owner of Deep Vellum Publishing. He was excited about Gyula’s poetry and suggested publishing a book. This book came out in April 2022 and reached me (60 copies) in a big box today.

In the interim between October 2019 and today, there were stretches of industry: completion of the translations, preparation of the manuscript, reponses to the poetry editor’s many comments and queries, review of the proofs, and so forth. There were slight delays because of Covid—but only very slight. The Deep Vellum editors and other staff were committed and helpful all along the way.

All of this sounds spectacular but basic too. The book would not exist, were it not for these people and events. The joy, goodwill, and sheer surprise of the week in Dallas comes back again and again, as do the long conversations with Marianna and Gyula. But for me the best part of all was the translating itself: the long, quiet stretches at home or in a deserted café, with hours ahead and behind, the poems in front of me, and coffee and big dictionaries nearby. I remember translating a poem during a long break in the school day and thinking, how do I return to the world after this? The poems are not removed from the world, but they differ from the hecticness that we wrap ourselves in. Hecticness is only one way of considering time. The book offers something else, something different from anything I have read or lived before.

The Shakespeare Festival

It was a great success. Above, you can see the group that came all the way from the Kossuth Lajos Gimnázium in Tiszafüred. There were groups from Karcag and Törökszentmiklós as well, and several groups from Varga, as well as the wonderful Híd Színház in Szolnok and students of József Rigó (who was there as well). The day was filled with performances (of scenes, sonnets, songs), lectures, a workshop, a few introductory remarks, remarks from the jury, and gift bags for the participants.

I was so eager to get to school early (I wanted to be there by 7:00, but arrived at 7:15) that I rushed out the door and forgot my glasses. Once I realized this, there was no time to go back for them, since I had gone to school on foot, with cello. I printed out my introductory remarks (that I had written in Hungarian) in very large font, but even so, I stumbled over a few words. However, that didn’t affect things; once the performances began, everything flew.

The Hamlet scene (which I had helped my students prepare, along with sonnets and songs—but which they prepared entirely by themselves in the end) was intense and beautiful from start to finish.

The pieces were traditional, experimental, or both, in Hungarian or English; they contrasted enough with each other to keep the whole day interesting. The feeling in the room (both rooms, both parts of the day) was warm and lively; we had a substantial audience, including former Varga students (Zalán and Petra, thank you for coming!), and the performers and their teachers seemed to enjoy the whole event.

There will be more pictures, videos, interviews, and thoughts—so I will leave off here with just a few more photos. Thanks to everyone who helped bring this into being and who helped out in any way. Thanks especially to the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár and to my colleagues at Varga, who carried this from an idea into an actual occasion.

Update: Here is the SzolnokTV report on the festival!

Non-backpack day

Today was the day before our short spring break, and the overall spirit in the school was exceptional. It went in two directions, silly and solemn. I will take up the silly here. The solemn part will be in the next blog post.

The student government had declared this day a non-backpack day. That is, students were to bring their books and supplies to school in anything but a backpack. This was the most joyously outrageous and bizarre event I have witnessed at Varga so far. As far as containers go, I saw a birdcage, a fishing net, a shopping cart (above), a trash bag, cat carriers, a cooler, baskets, a desktop PC case, a chest of drawers, hangers with clothespins, various outlandish bags, a front-pack, a cardboard file cabinet, a toolbox, a hanging organizer, and all sorts of other things.

I hope we do this (or something comparable) next year. Thanks to all the students for their inspiration and sense of fun.

I participated too, though by accident! I left my backpack at home today because I was bringing my cello in for our Shakespeare rehearsal. So I was carrying the big cello case around for a good part of the day and getting some good-hearted laughs. But the cello was actually inside it. I arrived at the school before 7 a.m. and went to the drama room to warm up and practice. That was a beautiful half hour or so, followed by an even more beautiful day. More about the day in the next post.

Walking Calmly to Class

In my first few years in Hungary, I didn’t have any kind of culture shock. When cultural differences appeared, they didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t have much trouble adjusting to them. I plunged right into life here and just took things as they came. Then, after three years or so, little bits of culture shock started hitting me from different directions.

For instance, it took me a few years to realize that teachers start heading to their classrooms when (or slightly after) the bell rings, not before. In New York City, teachers were expected to be in the classrooms, ready to go, before the ringing of the bell.

This tiny difference of a minute or so reflects much vaster differences of assumptions. In NYC (and in much of the U.S.), teachers are not supposed to leave students unsupervised for one second. Therefore, they are supposed to be in the classroom before the students enter. (Because what if there were an accident in the classroom in the teacher’s absence, and someone sued the school?) Also, getting there first is one of the precepts of “classroom management”: you have everything set up, so that when students walk in the room they immediately have something to do. Not one second is left to chance. In addition, there’s a belief that every second of instruction matters; if you arrive after the bell rings, you are “negatively impacting” the students’ achievement. (On the other hand, it’s common for lessons to be interrupted multiple times by loudspeaker announcements, people popping in, etc.)

In Hungary, or at least at my school, it’s entirely different. Unless the room is locked, students are supposed to enter before the teacher does. Then, when the teacher enters, they stand up; the teacher greets them, and the lesson calmly begins. There’s no “Do Now,” no “lesson aim” written on the board; the teacher typically takes attendance, checks homework, and introduces the lesson of the day. Students are expected to pay attention even without having something to do at every second. (And, by and large, they do.) Here, too, instructional time is taken seriously, but not down to the minute—and there are rarely any interruptions. Loudspeaker announcements are typically made before the first lesson in the morning. Once in a great while an announcement will be made during the day, but not often. And no one pops into the room.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? To an extent it is. Not in all ways. But that isn’t my point. My point is that I didn’t even realize this for a few years. I thought I was late to class because I was leaving the teacher’s room at the time of the bell. I would dash up the stairs and down the corridors, slightly panicked about “getting in trouble” (though that, too, is a rarity at my school—teachers don’t get in trouble unless there’s a big problem). Then it dawned on me that other teachers were heading off after the bell too. Not only that, but they weren’t running. Just calmly walking down the hall.

There is something wondrous in going about your day without panic. Panic is ingrained in the school cultures I have known in NYC, even the best ones—the fear of being late, of failing to manage the students, of doing something wrong—that even if you have a supportive principal, you keep receiving reminders from up above that you had better be doing such-and-such. Keeping an eye on the students at all times. Writing the right things on the board. Conducting the lesson in the approved way (with group work, no matter what the lesson content). Keeping the bulletin boards regularly refreshed. Keeping paperwork on every single incident that arises. Documenting, documenting, documenting. Getting everywhere a little bit early (with five-minute breaks between classes, which take place all over the building.) Teachers do learn, over time, how to go about their day without panic, but it isn’t easy, and it takes a while.

Overall, the calm suits me better and allows me to do what I do well. But sometimes I miss the boisterousness that I found in U.S. schools. The intensity, the rush, the urgency. These are not great in themselves, but sometimes they can bring good out of people. There’s a belief, fabricated as it may be, that every second matters and that you have to be on the ball at all times.

Here, teachers’ authority and purpose are expressed differently: through a quiet entry into the room, a respectful greeting, and then the lesson itself. Teachers are not under pressure to be “dynamic.” They often sit down during the lesson (a no-no in U.S. schools, where teachers are expected not only to remain standing, but to circulate continually around the room).

To my surprise, I found myself incorporating group work into many of my lessons here (though not always by any means), whereas I resisted it in the U.S. Why? Because the students already have many lessons where they are expected to listen to the teacher the entire time. They already have a strong foundation of knowledge. For language lessons especially, it’s good for them to practice with each other and to create skits, mock radio broadcasts, etc. The liveliness is good for them too. In the U.S., there was so much emphasis on group work and group talk, and so little on listening and whole-class discussion, that I needed to emphasize the latter.

Those differences I saw early on. But now, almost five years in, I also see that it’s possible to walk calmly to class.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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