The Love of the Stage

I love performing on stage. Not just the moment of performance, but everything surrounding it: the rehearsals, the working out of details, the practice at home, the dress rehearsal, the backstage, the different stages of waiting on the day of the performance itself, the performance itself. I love even those times when I think I don’t want to do it, when I can’t wait for it to be over, because that’s just one of the many moods along the way. I love the tension of performance, the relaxation too, the things that come out in the moment. This week I had the great joy of playing cello in the performance of Varga’s drama club (the Varga Diákszínpad) in the gala Ádámok és Évák show, which took place at Szolnok’s big theatre house, the Szigligeti Színház, and featured groups from many schools. This year’s theme was the poet Sándor Petőfi; the performances drew on his poetry and themes. Ours centered around the theme of love. The other musician was the Varga student Brigitta Szabados, who played with me in the Shakespeare festival too.

It was the drama teacher, my colleague Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, who invited me to be part of this. I had seen the Ádámok és Évák performances several times before and was excited to be in one. This meant many rehearsals close to the last minute (since they had put so much into the Shakespeare festival and now had to switch gears rather quickly). Brigi and I figured out the music between us; instead of playing as a duo, as we did in the Shakespeare performance, we traded back and forth. My parts were tiny—a few seconds at a time—but like the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski, they helped tie everything together.

Rehearsals and rehearsals: at the Verseghy Library, in the Drama room at Varga, and then at the Szigligeti Theatre, where the performance was to be. The piece, which told a story of the thrills, bitter disappointments, and ultimate promise of love, wove poetry, movement, and ingenious touches together. Streamers, roses, dances, punctuation of words and feet.

The day came. The final dress rehearsal. Then the waiting backstage, the actors getting ready, putting their makeup on. Announcements coming through the speakers, telling this group, then that group, to get ready. Then our turn came to get ready, then to go down near the stage. Another long wait. Then, at last, the stage. The rows and rows of faces in the audience, down below and up in the balcony.

The whole thing swam by, but it looked lovely out of the corner of my eye. I hit what I thought was a sour note toward the end (not out of tune, but slightly dry and squeaky), and felt bad about it, but it seems no one noticed, and in a recording I later heard, that note actually sounds fittingly fragile. It’s in the background, behind the two lovers who are coming together.

There will always be mistakes in performances—but, while no one wants to mess up, the tiny slips here and there can even give something to the show, if the performer stays focused and goes beyond them. The show was beautiful. Afterwards a student told me that he appreciated how I kept on going despite the mistakes. I thought he was referring to my mistakes, but no, he meant his own—and I hadn’t even noticed them.

After all the performances, there was an intermission, and then we all reassembled to hear the jury’s decisions. István Sasvári (in the red shirt, above and upper left corner below) won the award for male lead, and Varga Milla (who played opposite him) won a special prize. Other performances and schools won prizes as well. The prize for best overall performance was carried off by the Tiszaparti Roman Catholic school—but even at the level of awards, the Varga group held its own. Never mind that that’s just one level.

For a little while, I was still worrying: had I let them down with that sour note? But no, they hadn’t even noticed it; what’s more, it was accompaniment, and brief accompaniment at that. And they were so happy to have the cello and flute in their performance and to have pulled this off so well, with so much spirit and grace.

Today the Drama Club had a farewell celebration for its graduating seniors: gifts, refreshments, games, and a wonderful tradition of leaving handprints on the wall. I will leave off with that. We will be receiving a high-quality video of the performance; if it’s something that I can share here, I will add an update later.

Photo credits: The top photo was originally posted by Ferenc Szalay, the mayor of Szolnok. The other two I took.

That Was the Festival That Was

Looking back on yesterday as a whole, after a thick sleep, I would call it a big success. We had a day of inspired performances, workshops (with themes ranging from Renaissance dance to constructing the balcony of Romeo and Juliet), professional performances, a lecture, comments from the jury, and a closing ceremony with special awards and gifts. In the morning, there were a few technical glitches and glitches of space (in one case the technical setup didn’t succeed, and we didn’t have nearly enough seats for the audience), but we recognized the problems and worked them out as quickly as we could, to the extent possible. Even with that, our morning program fell only twenty minutes behind schedule, which meant we still had a substantial break between the morning and afternoon.

My students in Class 10.C gave a delightful Renaissance dance workshop that began with their performance of a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. For the performance, they were completely on point, and then the workshop part had the whole room dancing, or close.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the day was the way it brought people together: the library and Varga, the various visiting schools and performers (I hadn’t even realized that Gergő Karácsony and his group had come all the way from Szeged), and the audience members (the attendance was large in both parts of the day, and the grandmothers of two of my students were there together). After the festival was over, I enjoyed talking with members of the Híd Színhaz and others.

The Sárospatak group set out at four in the morning to get there on time; they arrived back home close to ten at night. The performance was one of the highlights of the day and was recognized with a special award; the video version, shown here below, won an award in a short film contest and festival held by Miskolc University. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale of a boy and a girl who go to the same high school and both love to go to the library. They discover, in addition, that they both love Shakespeare. But what is it they love in his work? The Fool and many other characters bring this to life. (The video is in English, as was the performance yesterday.)

For my own relative tranquility, I might try to simplify my role in the festival in the future; it was a bit frazzling to be in so many roles at once: running the festival along with my colleagues at the library, performing in it, directing a part of it. Or at the very least, if directing a piece, I will try to work with a smaller group of students; my group of 33 had numerous requests and needs during the day, and we didn’t even have room for them in the audience in the morning (or the afternoon, for that matter). But they pulled off the scene and workshop with aplomb.

Next year, I hope we will find a larger venue, with a real auditorium and a built-in sound system and projector. We have some ideas. But this year’s festival brought joy and received a glowing review in I leave off with some pictures.

Disguises upon Disguises

One of the most fascinating and moving aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the employment of disguise. Hamlet suggests to his companions that he is going to affect an “antic disposition”; Juliet, advised by Friar Laurence, fakes her death; theg witches fool Macbeth with their elusive prophesies; Beatrice and Benedick pretend to abhor each other; and so on. Shakespeare understood what Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie would articulate centuries later: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” (But in Shakespeare’s plays, the disguise can work both ways.)

Disguise is filled with irony too; Cordelia’s sincere words frame her as the ungrateful child. Iago’s treachery cloaks itself in the guises of honesty.

The plays may lead us to ask ourselves what disguises we are wearing, what layers of disguises. Even the performances involve disguises: not only masks and costumes, not only the assumption of roles, but other wrappings as well. For example, in the beginning, when we were just starting to prepare the scene from Romeo and Juliet, none of the boys wanted to be Romeo—partly, I think, because of all the lines involved, and partly because of his smittenness. So we broke the part in three: one Romeo notices Juliet at the ball, and then, when the silhouette part begins, a different Romeo says the lines while yet a third takes part in the silhouette. Also, we emphasized the dances in the scene, thus taking some of the pressure off of Romeo and Juliet both. They liked this solution and took to it enthusiastically. Capulet is the one who speaks the most—calling for more fire and light, urging the guests to dance, reminiscing with his cousin, and trying to calm Tybalt down. Although he is not in a mask, as host he wears many disguises, trying to tend to others, while also yearning for a successful party, which not only helps assure his daughter’s future but brings back memories of his youth.

All of this leads me to a beloved song in three versions (and possibly disguises): “Disguise” by Cz.K. Sebő. It has more in common with Shakespearean disguises than may seem on the surface, even though, to my knowledge, it is not directly influenced by Shakespeare’s work. The original version, solo acoustic guitar and voice, was released by Cz.K. Sebő in 2015, when he was in his early twenties; versions by Platon Karataev and capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő’s electronic subproject) followed. The original Cz.K. Sebő song is my favorite of the three; the bareness, simplicity, and vulnerability come together. It comes close to breaking my heart (but doesn’t, because it soars, and also because I’ve been through so much like this). It brings to mind Hamlet’s “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

But the next two versions (disguises?) bring something out of it that might not be obvious in the original. The Platon Karataev version not only gives it a big sound, not only makes the guitar part richer, but also reveals a vastness that was there all along. This song is about all of us; we are all wearing disguises, all waiting and hoping that someone or other will talk to us and see us. The Platon version also makes me wonder: what is the “this” in “this is just a disguise”? Even the statement may be a disguise. We’re made of disguises upon disguises; what may seem our deepest, most honest revelation may actually be a mask or shroud, or someone else’s favorite clothes.

Then comes the capsule boy remix of the Platon Karataev version: a return to the origin, in a way (in that Cz.K. Sebő and capsule boy are the same person), but with changes. This electronic version brings out both the terror of the first part (“so please look at me… so please talk to me”) and the possibilities of the second part, which here become downright sweet and playful.

This song is beloved by many because it speaks to our yearning to show someone who we really are. But it also plays with this “really.” Do we know who the “real” self is? Is there one?

I believe that there is a real self, but (as hackneyed as this may sound), to find it we also have to lose it, and it is not discrete but porous, blurry, unbounded. One of my favorite moments of the song is “I am full of yellowness ’cause i was never enough.” The very word “yellowness” is a disguise, because the stress (on the “o”) is different from what I would expect in English. But I love that pronunciation and stress–it sounds like “lowness” and makes a connection between “yellow” and “low.”

I have felt throughout my life that “this is just a disguise,” not because I put on a front, but rather because attention is in short supply. The exceptions are times like now: in the preparations for the Shakespeare festival, it really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as something else is at stake involving many people. We will all be in disguises of many sorts, but through this, we will play ourselves. The disguises enable the release.

“Disguise” is not the most Shakespearean song in the Platon Karataev/Cz.K. Sebő repertoire, but it evokes Shakespeare for me and has been on my mind and in my ears. Platon songs with a more direct Shakespeare connection include “Lady Macbeth” and “Aphelion” (at times I hear “aphelion” as “Ophelia” in disguise; in any case, the song evokes Hamlet strongly) but there are others with subtle allusions and influences—for instance (I think), “Most magamba,” “Litmus Heart,” “Bitter Steps,” and “Light Trap.”

I am moved by my students’ dedication to the project; they have shown openness, excitement, and true attention. One of the challenges, early on, lay in slowing things down: having the opening processional and the later pavane dance be truly slow. Tempo is a disguise in its own right: fast things disguise themselves as slow, present as future, and vice versa. Hamlet says, “There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Speaking of Platon Karataev, Gergely Balla sent us a wonderful message about the festival:

“Shakespeare drámái az eddigi Platon Karataev szövegekre is hatottak és ez valószínűleg így lesz a jövőben is. Fontosnak tartom a szolnoki Varga Katalin Gimnázium, valamint a Verseghy Könyvtár közös kezdeményezését, mert újra és újra vizsgálnunk kell, hogy mit tudunk meríteni ezekből a művekből. Változatosnak és izgalmasnak ígérkezik a program, mely pont egybeesik két új Poket kiadással (Hamlet, Rómeó és Júlia). Szóval jó fesztivált kivánunk!”


“Shakespeare’s plays have influenced Platon Karataev’s lyrics up to this point and probably will continue to do so. I consider the joint initiative of Katalin Varga High School and the Verseghy Library important, because again and again we must consider what we can draw from these works. The program looks varied and exciting, and it coincides with two new Poket releases (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet). We wish you a good festival!

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Shakespeare in the Air

Yesterday Shakespeare was all over the place: in song, dance, acting, reading, planning, and thoughts; in classrooms, the Drama room, the courtyard, Szolnok’s rose garden, the banks of the Tisza. The Shakespeare festival will be on Monday, and not only have we been preparing, but I have tried to expose all my classes to at least some Shakespeare, whether a song, or a scene from Hamlet, or a film. (One of my classes didn’t get any Shakespeare this week, but I’ll make it up to them.)

By no means is this coming from me alone, or anywhere close; the Drama Club has been practicing day after day, the Ferenc Verseghy librarians and staff have been working hard on preparations, and yesterday one of my students had to miss one of my rehearsals because he was also in a Drama Club rehearsal, also for the festival! The students have been dedicated and excited, colleagues have been stopping by to see the rehearsals, and the many flying details seem to have found a common orbital path.

In the video below, some students are skipping in a circle at the end of one outdoor rehearsal; the singing comes from a different group, with me leading. Yet another group sang the same song, and we walked outside to the rose garden and to the river to sing it again. I asked who would like to be in the group photo, and the girls and one of the boys promptly removed themselves, but the other boys proudly stayed. They are holding the lyrics to the song (“It was a lover and his lass,” from As You Like It).

That is all, because as usual, I have to run, and there will be much more to say after the festival on Monday!

The Upcoming Shakespeare Festival

Four years ago, I began discussing the idea for a Shakespeare festival with Katalin Cserfalvi at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library in Szolnok. We had already held two Shakespeare performances, in 2018 and 2019, and wanted to plan an event filled with student performances, workshops, lectures, and more. Twice we had to postpone our plans because of Covid, but the first Shakespeare festival, a joint project of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium and the Verseghy library, took place last year on April 22. It was a delightful day of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, songs, lectures, an art contest, a workshop, and a pogácsa (traditional Hungarian biscuit) for all.

This year, on April 24, student groups are coming from Sárospatak, Tiszafüred, Karcag, and Szolnok; József Rigó, director of Szolnok’s Híd Szinpad, will bring several scenes and lead a workshop; the afternoon workshops will be elective—there will be four to choose from, including my students’ Renaissance Dance workshop; and much more will happen. Amazingly, the festival falls on the heels of the publication of two Poket Shakespeare books: a volume of Romeo and Juliet, in the translation of Dezső Mészőly, and Hamlet, in the translation of János Arany. These will figure in the day somehow (but just how, I can’t reveal yet).

There are so many details to keep in mind and put together. For my students’ performance and workshop, we still need every bit of rehearsal time we can get, but I am confident that they will pull it together. For the rest, I am mostly concerned about giving the student groups dressing rooms, water, a warm welcome—and making sure all their technical needs are met. My school has been very supportive, and the library staff have been working on this event since the fall.

One of the most fun parts of this year’s preparation involves the cello; I am playing in the Varga Diákszínpad (Varga drama club) adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, along with a student flutist. I wrote two of the three melodies that we will be playing; the third is a well-known pavane. My bow gave out just last week, so I had to rush to Budapest to buy a second bow, which I will use while my main one is being rehaired. (I will probably use it at the festival itself; it isn’t quite as good as my main bow, but it works just fine.) The Varga drama club, directed by my colleague Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, was one of the original reasons that I thought I’d like to teach at Varga. It is truly one of the school’s treasures, and it has changed students’ lives over the years. I am honored to be part of their performance this time.

Why Shakespeare, and why a Shakespeare festival? I think the festival itself answers this question. There is so much to be found in Shakespeare—language, poetry, confluences of the arts, insights into human nature, rich characters, translations—and so many ways of considering and performing his work, that a festival of this sort makes infinite room (even in a finite day) for learning, acting, and fun. I hope this will continue as an annual tradition, but first, let’s pull this off well!

I have to rush now, so here is Szolnok TV’s piece on last year’s festival.

A Mistake in the Making: Hungary’s New Teacher Evaluation System

The Hungarian government has given the teacher evaluation system a drastic overhaul. Beginning in September (and even earlier in some pilot schools), barring a last-minute retraction or modification, high school teachers will be ranked in relation to each other. Within a given school, the top 25 percent (according to an elaborate point system, also new) will receive additional pay, on top of the base salary. Some teachers in the middle 50 percent might also qualify for extra pay (if they are above the 70th percentile). The bottom 25 percent receives no additional pay and must complete certain professional development tasks.

This ranking concept will only sour the atmosphere at schools, from what I can see. Teachers who take on extra duties and projects (such as teaching additional classes, mentoring, leading special projects) will be pitted against each other; they will question each other’s motives and competence. When I started teaching here, I was happily shocked by the lack of resentment I felt from other teachers and by the welcome I received from the drama and music teachers, who even invited me, a couple years later, to join the arts “munkaközösség” (working community). It didn’t occur to them to complain that I was stepping on their turf by involving my students in music and theatre; they rejoiced that this was happening.

With the new system, this would change—not immediately, and not with these colleagues, but subtly, over time. By ending up in the top 25 percent, a teacher is ensuring that someone else won’t. But how do you earn those points?

Just as in the U.S., teachers will be rated on such matters as parental contact (which has normally been primarily the purview of the homeroom teacher, the osztályfőnök, not regular subject matter teachers), professional conduct (including online presence outside the classroom—I could be losing points right here), adoption of “new” pedagogical methods, involvement in extracurricular activities and programs, and a host of other matters, including communication with colleagues and the administration, punctuality and general fulfillment of responsibilities, students’ test results, clariand more. Some of the points will be based on self-evaluation: setting goals and determining to what extent they have been met.

Not all the criteria are objectionable; many are what a teacher would strive for anyway, and some are worth keeping in mind. But many lie open to interpretation, and the burden of documentation will add stress to teachers’ lives. Moreover, for many of the criteria, quantity is considered along with quality. This, too, brings burdens; teachers will be under pressure to do more of everything (more meetings, more activities, more phone calls, more, more, more) to rack up the points. Will something like Folyosó (the online literary journal I founded for the students, which takes many hours of my time a semester) be considered “just” one activity? Will teachers be required to document all their meetings and conversations, just as in the U.S.?

The resemblance to certain U.S. teacher evaluation systems must be more than coincidental; I imagine that there are some consultants in the background making considerable money off of this.

I would rather forget about making the top 25 percent and just continue doing what I am doing. But there’s a risk of falling into the bottom 25, which would be not only humiliating, but overwhelming.

I have treasured the tranquility of my school and daily life, which allows me to do my job well and to pursue my interests (literature, music, languages), which ultimately tie back into the classroom. Within the past five years, I have learned Hungarian (not to perfection, but to the point of being able to converse, communicate, read, listen), translated Hungarian poetry and prose, fallen in love with Hungarian alternative music, initiated a Shakespeare festival in collaboration with the public library, traveled with Hungarians to the U.S. for literary events (in 2019 and 2022), and much more—all thanks in part to the tranquility that I found here. The designers of this new system appear not to value such tranquility—in fact, they seem intent on taking it away.

I can only speculate on the reasons, but two possibilities come to mind: first, perhaps the government sees this as an exchange: a higher salary in return for higher accountability (just as in many districts in the U.S.). Second, perhaps the goverment intends this system mainly for new teachers, who, not knowing anything different, will presumably adapt to it. A large cadre of older teachers is soon to retire; perhaps they will leave sooner if put under enough pressure.

Teacher evaluation is a difficult matter no matter what. No system is completely fair. If teachers are paid only according to seniority and degrees, then the question arises: why should a teacher doing the minimum receive as much as one who goes far beyond the call of duty? Beyond that, how do you assign points to such a wide range of pedagogical strengths and styles? To what extent do you ask teachers to adopt specific techniques and tools, and to what extent do you respect their judgement?

In New York City, for instance, there have been instances where excellent teachers did not receive “highly effective” ratings in the area of pedagogy for the simple reason that they led a class discussion (instead of having students lead it themselves). It should never be wrong for a teacher to lead a class discussion; the teacher has perspective that the students do not. From time to time, it is good to have students lead their own discussion—but when a class is reading a complex literary work, for instance, only the teacher knows what questions to ask to draw students further into it. There have also been cases where teachers lost points for not involving technology in a given lesson. But technology should be a means, not an end.

It is the head of the school (the principal) who can set the tone here, guiding teachers while also trusting their judgement. But an overly bureaucratic system takes the principal’s initiative away.

The current teacher evaluation system (under which I was evaluated last year) has its weaknesses too. My evaluation consisted of a long self-evaluation, parent and student surveys, feedback from the principal and colleagues, two observations, and a few other pieces. It all went well—but I can understand the criticism that such an evaluation is weak on evidence. I might give myself a high rating on collaboration with colleagues, for instance, but what if I actually meet with them only once in a while?

Going to the other extreme, though, and requiring so many different activities (and evidence of them) will not lead to better teaching; it will just make our lives busier.

There are those in the U.S. (and here) who would stress that a teacher is an employee, not a thinker. A teacher’s job, according to them, consists of fulfilling duties, not exercising judgement and intellect. But the very same people talk about how students need to be encouraged to think critically, analytically, and creatively. How will they do that, if teachers don’t have room to do the same?

Continuity and Its Conundrums

A great joy came to me yesterday: copies of Volume 7 of Contrariwise arrived in the mail! That this philosophy journal, which I founded with my students at Columbia Secondary School in 2013, still thrives almost a decade later, would be astounding in itself; but even more wondrous is the Contrariwise spirit coursing through it, a combination of probing, humor, beauty, challenge, and whimsy.

I left Columbia Secondary School in June 2016 to write my second book; at the time I had no idea that I would be coming to Hungary a little over a year later. Leaving did not mean breaking all ties; I have stayed in contact regarding Contrariwise, the Orwell project, and more, and have kept in touch (more or less) with certain individuals. What I didn’t know was that going away would actually make for a new connection with the school. Nine of my students at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have pieces in this issue; the Orwell project, for its part, brought students from both schools together for joint online classes. In other words, a break can allow for an unexpected continuity.

Continuity, on the whole, seems more responsible, more honorable than breaks, but a person needs both (and maybe the situations do too). I have been wondering lately why I feel busier than in past years, even though the past five years have been intensely busy. The reason is that responsibilities and projects accumulate. There’s teaching, and along with it, Folyosó and the Shakespeare festival; there are the synagogue responsibilities; there’s a large translation project; there’s my writing and music; there are associations such as the ALSCW; and then there’s life itself, which deserves a bit more than an afterthought. All of these have been with me for a while, but not necessarily all at once. Last year at this time, I was focused on putting the Pilinszky event together, and after that, on preparing all the details for the trip to the U.S. in October for the conference on “Setting Poetry to Music.” I was so focused on these that the daily preparations seemed like nothing. But they also took over for a while; once they were over, I had some catching up to do in other areas.

Once in a while a person has to drop something: not abruptly, if that can be avoided, but with advance notice and planning. This might disappoint, but there’s no point in living to please others. There is honor in bringing joy to others, fulfilling responsibilities toward others, or best of all, making it possible for them to do something they couldn’t otherwise have done. But pleasing others can lead to the opposite of honor; you become merely an instrument of something others want.

Behind every project, there is a person with thoughts, hopes, health, sickness, dreams, disappointments, meals, travels, sleep. No one knows what lies beneath a seemingly ordinary life; no one knows, either, when this same life will rear up. Everyone has muffled rhythms, ineffable proportions; no one can know another’s, let alone judge them.

A Quietly Extraordinary Year (2022)

I don’t think I’ll do any of those countdowns or “Top 10” lists. In a future post I’ll talk about some favorite concerts, recordings, readings from this year. But in terms of projects alone, this has been one of the most exciting years of my life, even though it all seems so quiet now.

There was the online Pilinszky event in March. Months of planning and preparation went into it, and then it was just so beautiful. The audience (from the U.S., Hungary, and elsewhere) took interest, and the conversation and performances came together in a magical way.

A few weeks later, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más was published by Deep Vellum. I am very proud of these translations and love the original poems. The collection went largely ignored, unfortunately, aside from some wonderful Amazon reviews—but the one official review it received was a review to dream of. Also, one of the poems, “Scissors,” won honorable mention in the 2022 Jules Chametzky Prize. (This particular translation was first published in The Massachusetts Review.)

A couple of weeks later, we had the Shakespeare festival, the first of its kind, a joint event hosted by the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library on Kossuth Square in Szolnok) and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. The day was filled with performances (of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs), as well as workshops, games, and lectures. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this and helped to bring it about. We will hold the second Shakespeare Festival in April 2023.

After that, I was concentrating almost exclusively (outside of teaching) on the upcoming trip to the U.S. in October, for the ALSCW Conference at Yale. The three featured guests from the Pilinszky event—Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, and Gergely Balla—were all to take part, along with three other Hungarians and twelve panelists from the U.S., in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” The planning was intense, continuous, and detailed, with several bumps along the way that added to the suspense but that all got worked out. I am still amazed at how it all came together and how joyous and interesting it was. One of my favorite parts was the visit to Dwight Chapel, where Gergő and Sebő played a few songs on guitars they had borrowed from friends of mine in New Haven.

There was also Folyosó (the spring and fall 2022 issues), a mini-concert I organized at Varga, and lots of translating. Eight of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems were published (two apiece) in Literary Imagination, Literary Matters, Asymptote, and Modern Poetry in Translation; two more will be published soon in the online version of the Continental Literary Magazine.

All this on top of “regular” teaching and daily life (and another big translation project that is complete but in limbo). And here I was thinking I had been lazy this year!

And yet it all returns to quiet. It all becomes part of something else. In the larger world, with a war and other serious crises on the one hand, and, on the other, heaps of commotion over things that don’t matter much, there are probably few who care that any of this happened. There are those who do. There are those who were part of it, who experienced it along with me, who attended it. Who know that this wasn’t just some quaint pastime.

But mattering and attracting crowds are not the same thing. Deserved recognition comes to some, but most of the time, you have to be willing to accept the quiet, because the alternative is ugly: scrambling and fighting for attention, making it all about you. Or, if you’re rich, paying people to pull strings for you.

The quiet has its hidden scrolls and sounds. Those who come upon them will know what they have found. Those who pass on by them will not know what they have missed. That is how the world’s clamor deceives, again and again: it proclaims its own importance and offers its loudness as proof. Quiet, on the whole, can be trusted more. But loudness and quiet can contain each other, and there the matter gets complicated, as most things do.

On Nonconformity

Nonconformity for its own sake means nothing. The only nonconformity worthy of respect is nonconformity over something specific: a refusal, out of principle or character, to follow certain rules. Is this true? Not entirely. I will return to the first sentence a little bit later.

American (U.S.) culture has an old strain of nonconformity that I love: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Frost, O’Connor, Baldwin, Dylan, and on and on. But it also has traditions of extreme conformity: not only in small towns, but in urban enclaves. Being “cool” really means that you belong to some refined and rarified group, real or imagined. You stand out, but in a way that is fully accepted by the others in your group.

Hungary seems more conformist, on the whole, than, say, New York City, Boston, San Francisco. But compare Hungary (excluding Budapest) with a rural section of the inner U.S., and you might find similar levels. By “conformity” in this case I mean a strong belief in—and desire to follow—a set of codes regarding marriage, childrearing, gender roles, home life, and national traditions, in addition to clothes, activities, and so forth. Overall, with exceptions, people take pride in doing things the proper way.

So do they in many sectors of the U.S. Every religion, to some degree, opines on the right way to do things. So do social classes, ethnic groups, local traditions. Small towns and sophisticated political in-groups can both be stifling in their ways. Even groups of nonconformists can be stifling.

But when is nonconformity needed and respectable? The most obvious case is where the social rules are patently unjust (as in the case of segregation), hypocritical (as in the case of “religious” people who engage regularly in nasty gossip), or terribly dated.

Beyond that, few rules work well for everyone. An example: In the classroom, I might give my students a writing task, and a student might tell me, “I’m writing it in my head.” I often accept this, because I would have been the one saying it as a teenager. I was able to compose pieces very well in my head and resented being told to write them down when I didn’t need to. Most of the time, when a student says, “I’m writing it in my head,” this is true. (Later I ask to hear it out loud.)

Now, some will say “I’m writing it in my head” to get out of doing it at all. Then the question arises: does the student find the task dull or inane? Does the problem lie partly with what the student is being asked to do?

A few years ago I had a student with particularly strong opinions who also seemed angry a lot of the time. He resented the textbook tasks because he found them superficial. I spoke with him individually and welcomed him to write about something else if the particular task didn’t interest him. He started turning in exceptionally interesting and thoughtful essays.

Granted, we often have to complete tasks that we don’t particularly like, or that aren’t quite what we would do or say if given a choice. It’s important to learn how to do this, but not all the time. The act of not following the instructions just might be the secret combination in the lock on the door that opens up to the constellations.

What about a larger, longer nonconformity, such as being unmarried, single, childless? Hungarians have a disparaging loanword for single women—”szinglik”—that conveys some sort of narcissistic languishing. These “szinglik” have presumably chosen not to marry or have kids because they thought they could have more freedom on their own. But instead of freedom they have misery (according to assumptions).

But singleness—its reasons, origins, nature—has many more dimensions than that. There are all sorts of reasons why a woman might end up alone; the condition is neither pitiable nor permanent. Nor is a single woman necessarily cold and unloving (or unattractive, for that matter). It’s possible, living alone, to do good, take part in your surroundings, enjoy life, make something new, sustain friendships, and deepen your own understanding. It’s also possible, even later in life, to find a partner who is right for you.

What about people who don’t like small talk? They may seem “socially awkward” to some, but is that such a horrible thing? Maybe they have more to say than others, if you strike up a conversation on an actual subject.

What about artistic nonconformity, where you break with a given form or convention, subtly or strongly? Every good artist breaks in some way with what has come before, while also honoring it in some way. The breaking and the honoring are different for each. I am moved by the full-length album by Dávid Korándi (Cappuccino Projekt) that just came out. It’s spoken and sung, dreamy and driven, but it does more than encompass those oppositions: it goes on a voyage, with friends, through a destroyed world. Its directions surprise me. I will write more about it soon.

Still, so far, it seems that there’s nothing to be said for being different just to be different. But maybe there is. At the ALSCW conferenee, a participant who has listened to a lot of my music advised me, “Try changing keys once in a while.” (I do change keys at times. But I think she meant more than that: experimenting with different keys and key changes.) Sometimes, if you break your own patterns just to see what happens, something surprising will emerge.

It’s fun to start a story in a new way, or give a slightly different inflection to a monologue, sometimes whimsically, to see what will happen. It’s fun, on a bike trip, to take a detour just to see where it goes.

To learn a language well, you have to break rules of language-learning.Yesterday I went over to my friends’ place for (lunch) dinner and a long, wonderful conversation (all in Hungarian, of course), which went longer than seven hours. At moments during that conversation, I thought about what I needed to do to bring my Hungarian closer to fluency. I can express myself on complex topics, but I don’t necessarily use the verbs correctly. The forms: yes, most of the time. The prefixes: not always. The subtle differences between synonyms: not always. But more than that, sometimes my tongue gets stuck even when I know what to say and how.

A language has infinite angles: just about anything you do in the language helps you speak it better. If I listened to Hungarian songs all day, every day, my Hungarian would grow better. If I read all the eighteenth-century Hungarian literature I could, my Hungarian would grow better. But for these weaknesses in particular, I think I need a combination of radio shows and drama, to get the needed verbs and phrases in my ear, to practice speaking them. Something of an Eliza Doolitle approach, without Henry Higgins and without the goal of being taken for royalty.

In addition, I need to get hold of the Hungarian language textbooks that are used by Hungarians in Hungarian language and grammar class. Those books are gems.

That’s not particularly nonconformist, but it isn’t standard procedure either. That’s often how it is with nonconformity. It doesn’t have to blast itself from the rooftops or highrises or whatever your standard type of edifice might be.

(What does the photo at the top have to do with nonconformity? I stopped to take it last night as I headed over the Zagyva river. There might be a kind of nonconformity in stopping to notice anything at all. Not because people don’t do it—they do, again and again—but because what you see, hear, or read will always be singular.)

A Dream School (Varga)

I have been teaching at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium for more than five years now. By now I realize that things aren’t perfect (I realized this long ago), but in an imperfect world, this school glows.

Let’s take yesterday as an example. We had our annual pályaorientációs nap (Career Day), where people from different professions spoke to students about their work. Teachers not giving a presentation were supposed to be present at a session, help the speaker with any technical matters, and take attendance; we could choose which sessions to monitor. I chose those of my colleague Gyula Jenei, who spoke (to three consecutive groups) about the literary journal Eső, now more than twenty years old, of which he is the founder and editor-in-chief. So in other words I got to spend the entire morning in a discussion of literary journals, poetry, editorship, and more. The students seemed quite interested and asked many questions.

Since it was the last day before the break, the teachers then went to a meeting with the principal, László Molnár, who presented gifts to teachers who had achieved a specific milestone (such as a degree or a master’s qualification). He began by speaking about the difficulties with which we live today: not only the poor teaching conditions, but the lack of recourse for teachers—and the war in Ukraine, and how all of this can give us a sense of limited freedom. He went on to speak about freedom, quoting someone (Miklós Jancsó?) who said that every artistic work was about freedom or the lack of it. While this was perhaps an oversimplification, he said, there was still something to it—and so the gifts he had chosen for the teachers were all works of literature, by authors from around Europe and Russia, that had to do with freedom or its lack. He then proceeded to present each one, explaining why he had chosen that particular one for the particular teacher. The presentation was punctuated by three videos: Omega performing their “Ballada a fegyverkovács fiáról” (“Ballad of the Gunsmith Boy”), János Kulka performing Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” (in a stunning Hungarian translation) at the Dohány Street Synagogue, and a Christmas song performed by an a cappella group.

I don’t know how many schools in the world have a principal who can speak with such dignity and sincerity—who can bring together philosophy, literature, education, and the world we live in, who neither minces words nor descends into dogma, and who conveys true respect for teachers, students, and the subjects being taught. I think we are very fortunate.

From there, after a toast (the students had long gone home), we proceeded to the cafeteria for a delicious feast.

On my way home, I ran into a former student who graduated in 2020. I don’t want to repeat all of what she said, because it was so moving and sincere. But she thanked me for what I had brought to the English and Civilization classes—both the spirit and the literature. She brought up Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which I had introduced to her class and which has been on my mind recently too). I was left with a sense of wonder: that this had all happened in the first place, that it had stayed with her, and that five years had gone by since my first few months at the school (and with her class, which was in the tenth grade then).

There has been disillusionment of a sort. The national situation is distressing: the teachers’ low pay and lack of curricular freedom (does curricular freedom exist in public school systems overall?), the various short strikes that have taken place to no avail, the government’s firing of certain teachers who took part in civil disobedience. For a combination of reasons, I did not join the strikes: I am vulnerable as a non-citizen (if I inadvertently did something illegal, I could get kicked out of the country); it would feel false to strike over a job I love, even though I agree with the strikers on certain points; and I am uncomfortable with slogans and political movements overall, since they don’t fully represent my views. Yet I respect the strikers for acting on their convictions. I think about half of our faculty has taken part in the strikes in some way. I see integrity on both sides (which doesn’t make things easy; it would be easier to believe that one side or the other was totally misguided or fake).

That, and I often wish I were a literature teacher, not a language teacher, so that the literature I brought in would be the essence of the course, not something extra that I add on, time and resources permitting. But maybe there’s something to be said for this quiet insertion. It’s a shame that literature is not a core part of the language courses, but if it were, it would probably be botched by the textbooks. The language textbooks (most of them published by Oxford University Press) are not all bad; they have useful grammar and vocabulary and the occasional interesting text. But the topics are often so condescendingly presented (“Let’s hear what five teenagers have to say about friendship!”) that it’s better that they don’t lay their hands on literature at all.

It is also a strange time for writing. I love working on Folyosó but have yet to reach the point where many students are submitting work on their own initiative. A few do this—and I am grateful—but for the most part I select work from assignments that I give. There lies the problem: I can never be sure that the students wrote the piece themselves. That is, I can tell when it is their own work (a certain character and vivacity comes through, along with non-native use of English), but when I think something isn’t theirs, I have no way of proving it, since the cheating has become so sophisticated, with AI programs and such. Students would have no reason to submit a piece they didn’t write, since submissions to Folyosó are entirely voluntary, but many will cheat on homework. A few students have actually come forward on their own and admitted that they didn’t write a particular piece, but usually I am left to struggle with doubt (especially when a piece is suspiciously polished, without much of a personal element).

But a great thing about being a teacher is that you can open up a different way of looking at the world. The students are paying attention, even when it doesn’t seem so. Or rather, all of us pay attention even when we don’t realize it. I remember explaining to students (a few years ago) why writing was important and not just a dull duty. I mustn’t forget the importance of such explanations. Also, we are all contradictory human beings. I have a student who claims to be interested in nothing but technology and sports, but who makes exceptionally insightful comments about the stories we read. A subject can become interesting at any instant.

I often think back on my years at Columbia Secondary School and the times when the principal, Miriam Nightengale (a wonderful leader and person) would remind me to keep a sense of humor about it all. “Trick them into taking interest,” she would say with a twinkle. In the beginning there, I took the class disruptions too much to heart. There were students with very low patience thresholds, who would shout or chatter continuously. Over time, the students started to trust that the philosophy classes were important and interesting—and showed this in class, philosophy roundtables, Contrariwise, and hallway conversations—but I see now how I might have won them over earlier. I had little sympathy for the disruptors; it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would chatter or call out rudely during a lesson (or talk while someone else is speaking, period), since it’s so jarring. But even they would agree with me; they too wanted calm, focused classes. Once again, we are full of contradictions. The one who shouts may be longing for quiet. The one who interrupts with off-topic comments may take interest when you least expect it.

One of my favorite moments, with one of my most difficult classes at CSS, was when a student gave a speech that was full of rhetorical pathos but absolutely illogical (and he knew perfectly well what he was doing). It was patently an argument that we should be kinder to the homeless, but it made very little sense. The students listened first with curiosity, then with expressions of befuddlement. Then they burst out laughing. Then, in the discussion, they pointed out every fallacy. (This was the ninth-grade Rhetoric and Logic course, for which every student had to write and deliver a speech.)

Another favorite memory from the difficult times was the “Locke and Beads” incident.

But to return to yesterday: after the feast, I went home for a couple hours and then headed to the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which also hosts plays, concerts, and other events) for the Híd Szinház performance of Zsolt Bajnai’s play A hagyaték (The Bequest), which I had seen twice before at a different venue. This, too, had connections to Varga; Kata and Marcell Bajnai both graduated from Varga, and Kata was there at the play, visiting from Spain, where she now lives. The director, József Rigó, is the father of Eszter Rigó, who attended Varga as well. It’s a remarkable one-act play, which I understood slightly differently each time.

Earlier in the week, on Monday night, I went to the Tisza Mozi for an inspiring book presentation by my colleague István P. Nagy, who just published a poetry collection. Gyula Jenei interviewed him and the publisher, and István’s wife and colleague, Judit Méri, read aloud from the book. (And last week I went there for an Eső event.)

Let me not forget to mention the annual tradition of caroling, which the eleventh-grade bilingual students perform each year. They travel from classroom to classroom throughout the day, so that by the end of the day, every student in the school has seen the show (which involves a short skit as well as songs). This year’s show was absolutely joyous, with one student leading on guitar and everyone singing with full voice. Here is just one minute from one of the performances.

Several colleagues wished me a happy Hanukkah this week. (I am comfortable with “Merry Christmas” wishes too—I grew up with Christmas and am fond of it—but was touched by my colleagues’ thoughtfulness.)

So yes, Varga is a dream school for me, and for many students too. It’s not hard to see why.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    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.


    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.


    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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