A Book in the Making

Almost a year ago, in October 2019, Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I travelled to Dallas to give poetry readings and hold discussions for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s annual Education Forum. I think back on those bright, brisk days: the events, with their lively discussions; the walks all around Dallas, the visit to the Terrell Academy in Fort Worth; and the many conversations and meetings. At a luncheon we met Will Evans, Executive Director and Publisher of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing a book of my translations of Gyula’s poems.

Yesterday the contracts were executed; the book, Always Different: Poems of Memory, by Gyula Jenei, translated by Diana Senechal, will be released sometime in 2021.

I have translated much poetry in my life, but this is the first large project that I have initiated. Others came to me through invitation; this one I sought out, and then later a publisher sought the fruits of it. It stands out in that way and in many others: it also brings together my life in Hungary and my long and rich relationship with the Dallas Institute. Beyond that, the poems are great, and people love them in English as well as in Hungarian. One of my favorites, “Scissors” (“Olló”) will be published in The Massachusetts Review, probably this spring, and most likely before the book comes out.

In retrospect, the timing of all of this seems perfect and improbable. If our trip to Dallas had been scheduled for the spring instead of the fall, the pandemic would have prevented it from happening. It not only worked out, but worked out as perfectly as a human thing can. Not only did nothing go wrong, but an abundance of things went right. And there we were together, talking about poetry, reading and hearing poetry.

The title of the Education Forum was “Poetry as Education.” This was not about pedagogy at all, though pedagogy came up here and there in the discussions. The event–like the Institute’s work in general–was based on the premise that good education requires attention to the essential subjects themselves. Poetry is not an afterthought or an extracurricular activity. It underlies each day.

Finishing the manuscript by the end of 2020 will take intense focus, but that is nothing new for me; I am used to meeting deadlines, and it can be done. I thrive on such focus; it counterbalances the multiplicity. This year is about as full for me as a year can get, but I would not give up any of it. With that in mind, I must run.

Both photos in this post are by James Edward, courtesy of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The full Flickr slideshow can be found here.

“In a problem, the great thing is the challenge….”

In childhood I was given a book on probability, a subject that fascinated me. It had a series of intriguing problems, with humorous illustrations scattered throughout, and detailed solutions at the end. I loved the book, opened it up many times, but did not get far in it. I remember poring over the first few problems and browsing through the others. Then, after a series of moves and life changes, the book got misplaced.

Years later, I remembered it and wanted to find it, but I couldn’t remember the title or author. I asked people, searched in bookstores, searched online, and racked my memory, all to no avail. Then one day I read an interview with a dear friend of the family, George Cobb, who died last spring and whom I had not seen in many years. He mentioned using Frederick Mosteller’s Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability with Solutions (1965) in a probability course that he taught. Something told me that this might be the book; I looked it up, and sure enough, it was. He must have given me a copy as a gift. I ordered a Dover paperback (the original book was hardcover); it arrived the other day.

I opened it up and read the preface, which I probably hadn’t read before, since in childhood I didn’t bother much with prefaces, preferring instead to get right into the matter. It brought back a dim and beloved world. Mosteller writes:

Much of what I have learned, as well as much of my intellectual enjoyment, has come through problem solving. Through the years, I’ve found it more and more difficult to tell when I was working and when playing, for it has so often turned out that what I have learned playing with problems has been useful in my serious work.

In a problem, the great thing is the challenge. A problem can be challenging for many reasons: because the subject matter is intriguing, because the answer defies unsophisticated intuition, because of its difficulty, because of a clever intuition, or even because of the simplicity or beauty of the answer.

I turned to the first problem, which I now remembered clearly.

1. The Sock Drawer

A drawer contains red socks and black socks. When two socks are drawn at random, the probability that both are red is 1/2. (a) How small can the number of socks in the drawer be? (b) How small if the number of black socks is even?

The first part I figured out just by experimenting in my mind. The total number of possibilities for choices of two socks would be (t)(t-1), where t is the total number of socks. I would need r(r-1), the total number of possibilities for choosing two red socks, to be 1/2(t)(t-1). If the total number of socks were 4, and the number of red socks 3, this would work out.

The second part is much trickier–and the solution in the book involves setting up an inequality, using it to express the relation of r to b, and then trying out increasing even values of b until one of them works.

Last night I started thinking of a different solution, which I would execute with Perl. My underlying principle was this: if I could have Perl generate two tables, one of which held particular values for the total number of socks (t, t-1, t(t-1), and t’s even/odd value) and the other for the total number of red socks, and if I could write a program that iterated through the tables until it found a match where t(t-1) was twice r(r-1), then I could narrow down the list to those where t and r had the same even/odd value, which would make b even (since b = t-r). I worked on that for quite a while but couldn’t get Perl to do the iterations that I had in mind.

Then, when biking to the supermarket for last-minute groceries for dinner, I had a different idea.

use POSIX;

for ($redtotal = 1; $redtotal <= 1000000; $redtotal++) {
$redsocks[$redtotal][0] = $redtotal;
$redsocks[$redtotal][1] = $redsocks[$redtotal][0] – 1;
$redsocks[$redtotal][2] = $redsocks[$redtotal][0] * $redsocks[$redtotal][1];
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 0;
if ($redsocks[$redtotal-1][3] == 0) {
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 1;
else {
$redsocks[$redtotal][3] = 0
$redsocks[$redtotal][4] = 2 * $redsocks[$redtotal][2];
$product = $redsocks[$redtotal][4];
$square = sqrt($product);
$roundup = ceil($square);
$rounddown = floor($square);
if ($roundup != $rounddown) {
if (($roundup * $rounddown) == ($product)) {
if ((($roundup % 2) + ($redtotal % 2)) != 1) {
print (“$roundup”, ” total socks, “, “$redtotal”, ” red socks\n”);

The POSIX call just brings in some extra functions. The whole program consists of a “for” loop that iterates through values of $redtotal, the total number of red socks. First it established the elements of the array @redsocks. Then it assigns a few more variables.

Basically, we are trying to find out whether, for any particular r, 2r(r-1) can be expressed as the product of two consecutive integers, t(t-1). To find this t and t-1, take the square root of $product, and, if it is not an even integer, identify the integers immediately above and below it ($roundup and $rounddown). Then test them out by multiplying them with each other. If they equal $product, then you have a match. In that case, add the even/odd values of $roundup and $redtotal. If the sum does not equal 1, then they are either both even or both odd, in which case b will be even. Those are the matches that will be printed out.

Now have the program print out all the matches as specified above. For the purposes of the problem, we only need the lowest value (15 red socks, 21 socks in total), but it’s fun to see what happens after that. Here are the results (where $redtotal goes up to one million):

21 total socks, 15 red socks
697 total socks, 493 red socks
23661 total socks, 16731 red socks
803761 total socks, 568345 red socks

You can test them out by multiplying each number of total socks by the number one less than that, doing the same for the red socks, and then verifying that your second result is one-half of your first one. Let’s do this for the highest number here.

803,761 x 803,760 = 646,030,941,360
568,345 x 568,344 = 323,015,470,680

323,015,470,680 x 2 = 646,030,941,360

So, you see, it works!

There are probably ways to make the script more elegant. Instead of nesting the ifs, I could have used a series of ands, but I couldn’t get that to work correctly. I haven’t used Perl in years, so I’m a little rusty with the syntax. I was proud to be able to get this working.

The book was written long before Perl and more sophisticated programming languages came into use, long before it became possible to program from home. But the problems do just what they did before. They incite you to think, play, tinker, and solve. And this book is not only rejoining my collection but opening up to me in a new way after all these years.

If you try out this code, be sure to change the minus sign (in line 5) to a plain hyphen and the quotes near the end to plain quotes.

A Favorite Picture

This picture–which I took this morning at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium–is one of my favorites that I have taken at school so far. This nook next to the first-floor hallway is where students work quietly, talk with each other, or meet with teachers. I have had many meetings and conversations here.

We are living with lots of uncertainty regarding the pandemic, but I am thrilled with the year so far. I have many new students, as well as students whom I have taught continuously since arriving at Varga in November 2017. It is great to be back after last spring’s online stint and the stretch of summer.

I have four projects this year that require a lot of attention: the online literary journal Folyosó, the Shakespeare festival (a joint project of Varga and the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár), the Orwell project, and (if it takes place) the drama festival in Veszprém. That is on top of teaching 23 lessons a week to 13/14 different groups of students (13 if you consider 12.C English and 12.C Civilization the same group, 14 if you consider them different). So it will be busy, but I look forward to all of it and to the projects outside of work–translating, writing, music, events, and synagogue.

The day and its schedule calls, so that is all for now.

A Double Honor


At today’s opening ceremony for the school year at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, I had one of the greatest honors of my life. I received two prizes: the “pedagógus emlékplakett” (pedagogical memorial plaque) and the Teacher’s Oscar in the language category. The recipients of both awards are determined annually by votes: the first by the faculty, the second by the students. What a great affirmation and encouragement this is. I treasure these awards and everything that they mean. Thank you!


Many others received awards today (teachers, two students who graduated last year, and the president of the parent association)–but if I try to list them, I will probably leave someone out inadvertently. Once the names are published, I will include the link here–and if I can’t find it, I will ask for the full list at school. Congratulations to all.

There is so much to look forward to this year. I think of the projects underway–two drama projects, Folyosó, an Orwell project–and the collaboration with different colleagues. I don’t know how things will play out with the coronavirus this year–we have a protocol in place, but things can change–but no matter what happens, we will find ways to do interesting things and help students accomplish their goals. Even though wearing a mask in the classroom will be uncomfortable, I am glad that we can have classes in person. We can use the masks on our faces the way Demosthenes, according to legend, used stones in his mouth: as a challenge to speak more clearly. Or as a challenge to stay silent–who knows? We will see. At least we don’t have to wear masks over our eyes.


Pedagogical Time Travel


Yesterday I attended two professional development sessions (one online, one in person) hosted by the school district here in Szolnok. The presentations were clear, eloquent, and heartfelt. The content, to my surprise, brought old back memories of professional development sessions in New York City in the years 2005-2009 or so. In particular, there was extensive mention of learning styles, 21st century skills, cooperative learning, and positive feedback. (I did not hear a word about the Danielson Framework, growth mindset, or grit, which came into prominence a little later.)

I have long questioned and criticized the extremes to which the above concepts have been taken in the U.S. (Some of them are questionable from the start.) I don’t see Hungary taking them to extremes any time soon, nor do I see any intention to do so later.  So I am not particularly worried at the moment. But I found the situation interesting and thought-provoking.

Many Hungarian educators and others believe that the current system here is too rigid, stressful, and punitive, and that Hungary needs to prepare students–at many levels and with many different needs–for the demands of the current world and workplace, as well as for democratic participation. I recognize all of this. But it is possible to transform the system without knocking it down entirely. One of the strengths of Hungarian education is the substance of the curriculum. Granted, there’s too much cramming and too little choice–but high school students learn history and literature, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, foreign languages, geography, art, music, drama, ethics, civilization, physical education, and more. In class discussions, I have found that they are able to draw on their knowledge from other subjects when making arguments or analyzing a text. It would be a shame to lose most or all of that. As I have argued many times, you can’t think critically if you don’t have something to think about. You also need patience with challenges–including the discipline of reading carefully, working on a problem until a solution comes through, or listening to an extended presentation.

My own teaching is a combination of the traditional and the “progressive” (for lack of a better word). I believe strongly in subject matter but also believe in taking time with texts and ideas, hearing different perspectives, pursuing a greater understanding. I bring literature, music, and drama into my language teaching–because language is nothing without them. I am also continually criticizing my own work, adjusting it, thinking about ways to do it better, and learning from colleagues.

This is possible at Varga because students do have a basis (and ample focus and patience), and the school is supportive. When the basis or support is lacking, the cohesion breaks down. You might have a class of 25-35 students, 10 of whom are eager to take on any challenge, another 10 of whom are happy to do what is required to pass, and another 5-15 of whom are so far behind, or so unused to sustained concentration, that they disrupt class unless given something basic to do. So you are told to differentiate. But differentiate what? In the U.S., the curriculum writing is often left to the teachers themselves–so that there is no unified understanding of what students are supposed to be learning. Only those schools and districts that set out to develop a curriculum, or that adopt one from elsewhere, actually have one. This is especially true in English; while many schools have book lists in common, there is not one literary work that you can assume students will have read by the end of high school. I have managed in such situations–for years–but much of my energy went into preparing materials, managing the classroom, calling parents, and getting through the day. And even with that, I taught students language, literature, drama, and philosophy, directed plays, and more. (Columbia Secondary School was and is different–it does have curricula, and the students have a foundation.)

It is interesting to see education from several sides and through time. You can do all sorts of interesting things in class–and with homework assignments and projects–when you have a foundation and good working material, and when you put thought into your approach and respond to what is happening. So I see good in what Hungarian schools are trying to do right now. I also see good in what they already have. Is there a way to bring together the best of both–to make the curriculum and pedagogical approaches more flexible, without losing the substance or falling for a fad? Yes, it is possible; good schools over the centuries have done this. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, nor does it ever reach stable perfection. It will go sharp and flat, we will flub a note or two, and we must retune, practice, and play it, again and again.


Image courtesy of NBC News.


With Fondness and Respect


Yesterday we had an outdoor faculty meeting in preparation for the school year, which begins on September 1. The principal began by welcoming us back “with fondness and respect” (“szeretettel és tisztelettel”). This common Hungarian phrase has no equivalent in English; it set a nice tone for the morning. The head of the school district said a few words, a number of teachers were recognized for excellent work in the previous year, we discussed some aspects of the school year (more meetings are ahead), and we went over fire and other emergency procedures.

Today I went in for a meeting with the arts faculty. Since I include drama and music in my teaching and have two big drama projects lined up for this year, I was welcomed into the “munkaközösség,” a faculty working group. It was great to be part of the discussion and hear about plans, concerns, needs, and so on. The arts at Varga are rich, and now the school’s second building, Building B, will be devoted to the arts. The drama room will have a stage; it will become a little auditorium!

IMG_3123I am essentially entering my fourth year at Varga (and my fourteenth full year of teaching), hard as that is to believe. I say “essentially” because I started at the beginning of November 2017–so it has been three years minus two months. But still, given that I jumped right in, it’s fair to say that this is my fourth year. So my students who were in ninth grade when I arrived will be graduating this year.

We will have classes in person but will take certain precautions and prepare to adjust plans if necessary. The country will respond locally to the situation–so if one part of the country is harder hit, it will have stricter regulations than areas with few coronavirus cases. It will be a while before life in Budapest returns to normal, it seems, though small events are happening again, and university students are returning for hybrid instruction. Here in Szolnok, in contrast, the situation seems stable and safe right now.

I have missed Varga, classes, students, and colleagues. It is a wonderful place to teach–a dream school, as far as I am concerned–and I have been thinking about why. I will say more about that another time. This afternoon I am about to take the train out to Mátészalka for one of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concerts. I wasn’t able to attend any last fall, because they were all too far away; the last of their synagogue concerts that I attended was in Gyula, in September 2018. This one’s a bit far too, but feasible, if I head out in the next few minutes.

The Phrase “Growth Mindset” and Its Problems


I have brought up growth mindset, skeptically, many times on this blog; in addition, I dedicated a chapter to it in my second book, Mind over Memes. My basic argument is that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets; while it can be damaging to believe that your abilities are absolutely fixed, there is no evidence that an unfettered belief in growth would benefit anyone. Beyond this, something bothers me about “growth mindset” as a term. Conceptual problems aside, the phrase itself rings false.

My criticisms take nothing away from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research; they aren’t about the research. Nor do they disparage those who have been helped by the concept of growth mindset. Rather, they take up the matter from a linguistic and philosophical standpoint. Today I will focus on the linguistic.

I have already brought up the problem with each of the two words. Limitless growth is not always desirable; moreover, our attitudes about improvement may not constitute a “mindset.” Together, the two words ring with an importance that has not been earned. “Growth mindset” sounds like a life solution, an attitude that, once adopted, will open you up to happiness and success. As a result, anyone who questions “growth mindset” gets accused of negativity, even unhappiness. Unless you are a terrible, mean, frustrated person, how could you possibly criticize something that liberates people, that allows them to reach their true potential? If you oppose growth mindset in any way, aren’t you wishing stultification upon the world?

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would have had a field day with this. But even a happy person, a person who does believe in certain kinds of improvement, can have serious qualms about “growth mindset” as a concept, without being mean or wishing anyone ill. Unfortunately, the very phrase “growth mindset” is constructed to imply otherwise. It’s like “cooperative learning” in that way. If you question or criticize anything about “cooperative learning,” you get written off as uncooperative.

A week ago, in a New York Times article, Alina Tugend wrote about making a mistake, long ago, in a New York Times column. After that mistake, she found herself wondering why people berate themselves so much for mistakes; later she wrote a book on the subject. One of her major sources of insight and inspiration was Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the accompanying research, which she summarized in the present article. The next part of the article described an interview with Dweck during the pandemic. Could growth mindset help people through the Covid crisis? Dweck replied with laudable caution, but Tugend offered reasons for optimism. She concluded the article by reflecting on the process of writing it. It had not been easy:

This article, the one you are reading, proved to be a mini-Mount Everest for me. Somehow I couldn’t get it right. My editor offered some helpful comments, but a second try also fell flat. My first thought was “Oh forget it — this just won’t work.” The second thought was an internal wry smile and an acknowledgment that I wasn’t demonstrating much of a growth mind-set. Back to the computer.

Now, scrapping a piece isn’t necessarily a sign of “fixed mindset,” but I’ll leave that aside for now. The point is that this article was more of a personal reflection than anything else. The comments varied widely–some enthusiastic, some critical or skeptical, but I didn’t see anything nasty. No putdowns, no ad hominem remarks. All in all, they were remarkably civil and thoughtful. Then I saw this:

Thank you for the article and persevering through the challenges of putting it together. No quick and easy answers in psychology, and mindset only gives us a small part of the big picture, but a useful part. Try not to give these comments too much time, lots of stone throwing unhappy people reading the Times these days. Stay in the light.

I see the commenter’s point about not giving the comments too much time. But what was with those “stone throwing unhappy people”? If people had been hurling insults at her, or even at the article, that remark would have made sense. But if objecting to some aspect of “growth mindset” is tantamount to “stone throwing” or “unhappiness,” then there’s something manipulative about the phrase itself. It automatically casts aspersions on those who sidestep its temple.

Many fads and cults depend on phrases like this, phrases that sound so good on the surface that only a cruel, miserable person could question them. This does not mean that the researchers themselves have sought to create any kind of cult or fad–in fact, they have resisted this, from what I can tell–but the phrase lends itself to that kind of thinking. There are the Good and Enlightened who believe in Growth Mindset, even if their own growth mindset isn’t perfect. Then there are the Bad and Deluded who have reservations of one kind or another. The one group walks in the light, the other in confusion and brambles.

The Underground Man’s words (I decided to quote him after all) hit the mark. This is from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Part I, Chapter 10:

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

Exactly! The problem with “growth mindset” as a phrase is that “one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly.” That, and it is more of a hen-house than a palace. It can help with certain things, up to a point, but it is not the answer to all of life, nor is anyone obligated to pursue its perfect, complete manifestation. In fact, there’s reason to think that that would be hell.

The organization MindsetWorks continues to promote the notion that everyone should be on a “journey” to more growth mindset.

Our mindsets exist on a continuum from fixed to growth, and although we’d like to always have a growth mindset, the reality is that we can only be on a journey to a growth mindset. The goal is to recognize fixed mindset elements in ourselves and then reflect on feedback and strategies for how to improve.

This is the “crystal palace” through and through; MindsetWorks not only puts it forth as an ideal but also leaves no room for the possibility that someone might “be on a journey” to a different destination. No, we are all supposed to examine ourselves for any remaining elements of “fixed mindset” and remove them, one by one, until we all radiate perfect growth and eat each other up.

What would I offer instead of “growth mindset”? Well, I see no need for a catchy phrase at all. Instead, adopt a working principle that humans are capable of improvement and learning. Bring that principle into teaching, employment, and other areas of life–show it through your own attitudes and practices–and remember that it does not encompass the truth about a person, a subject, or the world.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

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


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.)


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.)


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


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.)


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.)


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.)


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.


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.)


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.


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

Slowing Down and Stepping Back


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.