Language and Hyperbole

Last night I had a dream in which a Hungarian person spoke to me in English and I gave a passionate litany, in Hungarian, about why I wanted to speak Hungarian instead. I remember the ending words: “és nagyon fontos számomra, hogy beszéljek magyarul amennyire csak lehetséges!” (“And it is very important to me to speak Hungarian as much as possible!”) My Hungarian has come a long way; I sense it when reading news, reading complex emails with no trouble, participating in conversations on an array of topics, handling a doctor’s appointment, being interviewed for my residence permit, and much more. Yet there is still a long way to go. For instance, the litany could have been a bit punchier, with more colloquialisms.

This is true for everyone. Even at advanced levels, people make mistakes or ignore nuances in foreign languages—that is, languages they didn’t grow up with. English is fairly forgiving of inaccuracy, since so many people from around the world speak English at different levels and in different ways. The language itself stretches to accommodate these levels. Hungarian is like the stone in the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “Rozmowa z kamieniem.” To get in–to persuade people to speak Hungarian with you at all–you have to be inside the language already, to some degree. Mistakes tend to jar a Hungarian’s ear; Hungarian spoken by a foreigner is a rarity in the first place, except for a tourist’s köszönöm and jó napot. But I love this about Hungarian perfectionism; once you start taking part in it yourself, it’s like playing music; you want to hit the right note even more than others want to hear it.

With a language, you have to get used to going on and on, learning endlessly more and endlessly less, becoming more accurate and flexible in your expression yet still making mistakes, even basic ones, no matter how far you advance. Oh, this makes me think of Nabokov’s Pnin, which I long to reread.

“Information, please,” said Pnin. “Where stops four-o’clock bus to Cremona?”

“Right across the street,” briskly answered the employee without looking up.

“And where possible to leave baggage?”

“That bag? I’ll take care of it.”

And with the national informality that always nonplused Pnin, the young man shoved the bag into a corner of his nook.

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvitantsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

Fluency does not come quickly; it goes beyond the highest levels at school. You can be advanced according to the tests but still far from fluent. People used to exaggerate my language knowledge, calling me fluent in Russian when I really was not. I never mastered the Russian verbs with their many prefixes, my vocabulary had gaps, and there were many colloquial expressions I never heard. But because few in the U.S. spoke Russian at all, even conversational proficiency came across as fluency. In graduate school, most of our courses were in English. Only one or two professors taught in Russian. We were allowed to write our essays in English (though I wrote some in Russian); our oral exams and dissertations were in English too, except for quotations.

In college, graduate school, and afterward, I had some opportunities to travel to Russia; I just didn’t take them. I had a strong desire to stay put for a while. For years, going abroad for a long time didn’t hold much appeal, since it had already been a big part of my childhood (we lived in the Netherlands for a year when I was ten, and in Moscow for a year when I was fourteen). It was only later that I wanted to live abroad again—here, where I am now.

Three years in, I am happily in the thick of it all, with heapingly much to do, projects galloping through the mind, kind people in my life, and all of this persisting and growing even during Covid. It’s amazing to me that there’s the book of poetry translations, the Orwell project, Folyosó, regular teaching, my synagogue role, and so much more, and the language all around me, taking form in my ears, in silence, in my dreams.

I took these pictures within the past week. The second one, as you may have guessed, is the view from my windows. I love that view and its many changes.

A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well.

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

On Loyalty and Its Dangers

Last night I checked the New York Times and saw that they were livestreaming the Congressional debate over the certification of the Electoral College results. I started watching and then realized that some students, particularly in my eleventh-grade American Civilization classes, might be interested, so I posted a link on Google Classroom. When I returned to the livestream, it was no longer going on; there was uproar in the hall and loud noises coming from outside. Lawmakers were huddling on the floor or hurrying out. Then sounds of crashing and yelling, rioters bursting into the room. It was probably the strangest event that I had watched live on TV or through streaming. A debate and then, suddenly, a broken debate.

There is little to say about it that hasn’t already been said; I watched for a couple more hours on ABC News; nothing seemed to happen but more and more chaos, Republican rebukes, a bizarre video from Trump, people scaling the walls of the Capitol. Finally the police and Secret Services managed to clear the rioters out of the building. In the morning I tuned in again to see that the certification process had resumed. Within an hour or two, it was complete, and Biden’s victory had been officially accepted by Congress. But the tumult isn’t over; for one thing, it has to be dealt with in many different ways, and for another, it could resume.

I don’t know whether any of my Civilization students tuned in–we meet just once a week–but if they did, right then, the sight must have been surreal: first democracy in action, then mobs.

Plato was right that democracy runs the risk or encouraging selfishness and self-satisfaction. But that is part of the reason why the Constitution was written so carefully, why so many procedures and checks and balances were set in place. The unwieldy structures and processes of U.S. representative democracy are supposed to prevent and restrain extremism of various kinds. What, then, has gone wrong?

This question has been discussed endlessly–but one word that kept coming up in the news interviews was “loyalty”: the idea that the rioters felt loyalty to Trump and were doing this largely out of loyalty, because he had incited them toward it. As someone mentioned, he himself classifies people terms of loyalty: who is loyal to him–that is, never criticizes him–and who is not.

A certain kind of loyalty can destroy a government, a relationship, an institution. It is the loyalty that usurps integrity and ethics, that goes on reckless attack, that gives up anything just to prove itself again and again. This loyalty comes with a thrill: of imagined belonging, acceptance, revenge. It is horrifying but not far away. Probably each of us has known a speck of it at some point in our lives, either in ourselves or in those close to us. The one who doesn’t dare say anything critical about so-and-so, because that would be unloyal.

No one teaches this in school, except through literature and history. There is a virtuous loyalty that has room for criticism. There’s a kind of patient, rugged loyalty that does not lose its mind. But there’s another kind that tries to rid itself of mind, because thinking seems like treason itself. This can happen on the right and on the left. It can happen outside of politics. It is only a fraction of what was happening yesterday in DC, of what has been happening in the U.S. and around the world. It falls far short of explaining everything. But for what it holds, it is worth bearing in mind. Its ruins have no end. The burdens of the mind are light compared to this.

I took the above photo yesterday afternoon from inside Szolnok’s Holocaust memorial. I did not intend any sort of connection between the Holocaust and what happened yesterday. They are profoundly different and should not be trivialized through comparison. But it occurs to me now that a dangerous kind of loyalty runs through both.

What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.

Do Context, Intent, and Proportion Matter in Journalism?

Dan Levin’s article “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning” seems balanced and well presented but has a profound skew. It presents as normal the situation in which a young woman, Mimi Groves, is expelled from her college cheerleading team, and soon afterward withdraws from the college under pressure, because of a three-second Snapchat video containing the n-word that she sent a friend at age fifteen. According to the article’s framing of the story, Groves has been taught a necessary life lesson. Who was the teacher, in this case? A classmate who shared the video to make a point, and others who reacted in fury. The article treats the outcome as sad but normal (and possibly beneficial, in terms of the lessons learned). In this regard it lacks attention to context, intent, and proportion.

How did this all happen? Snapchat posts are not supposed to stay around long; that’s part of the platform’s point. This one got shared, though; a couple of years later, made its way to her classmate Jimmy Galligan, who saved it for an occasion when he could “get her where she would understand the severity of that word.” After she was admitted to her dream college, the University of Tennessee, and as the country throbbed with protests over the murder of George Floyd, Galligan shared the video online, where it was met with rage. At the university, there were demands to have her admission rescinded; some had even threatened violence. The team officially removed her. An admissions officer urged her to withdraw, and she finally did.

Levin’s article carefully and importantly explains why racial slurs are particularly painful and damaging at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., which Groves and Galligan attended. Leesburg was the site of a battle early in the Civil War, and slave auctions used to take place on the courthouse grounds. Now a wealthy suburb, it retains racist attitudes and habits. Many students of color have spoken of feeling unwelcome at its schools. According to a report, the use of racial slurs there, and of other racially demeaning language and practices, has fostered “a growing sense of despair.”

In detailing all of this, Levin shows great attention to context. He gives some context to the video as well, explaining that it was meant for one of Groves’s friends; that she made it when she was fifteen, after receiving her learner’s permit; that she was imitating rap songs; that she felt sorry about it and apologized to a classmate who saw it; and that she later spoke up in support of Black Lives Matter. But he does not acknowledge that this context differs distinctly from that of the other instances of racial slurs mentioned. First, it does not seem that she made the video at school. Second, it was for a friend. Third, she was celebrating an achievement. It was a happy moment in which she made a serious mistake. Levin affirms, through his discussion of the town’s history, that it matters not only which words we use, but how they are received, and how history affects their reception. But he does not apply this same principle to the discussion of Groves herself.

Now, let us look at intent. Levin treats Galligan’s intent as honorable. By giving him the last words in the article, he allows Galligan to emphasize that he was teaching a lesson. But somehow the article does not acknowledge that the video’s intent was likely benign, however misguided or impulsive. It quotes Groves saying that she was young and did not understand the import of the word, and that she was disgusted by her own action now. But how many young people of all races have used the word in what they thought was a harmless way, mimicking rap and slang? While the slangish, informal use of the word is still hurtful to many (particularly because of the casualness involved), it does not have the same intent as the cruel uses. And if intent matters in this article–as it clearly does–then it should matter across the board.

In addition, only recently has the slangy use been treated as a punishable crime. Nearly fourteen years ago, in 2007, there was a Daily Show sketch in which John Oliver and Larry Wilmore lampooned a proposed ban of the word. In my view, they went too far in their humiliation of the New York City councilman who had proposed the ban. But clearly the Daily Show found the idea of banning the word ridiculous, yet played, in the sketch, with the assumption that black people could say it and white people could not. What does this have to do with Mimi Groves’s case? The word was in the air, in music, informal conversation, comedy. People knew it was wrong to say, especially if you were white–but it was also part of the language of the street, hip-hop, and youth. Young people might say it, and often did, with no desire to harm.

Now we come to the principle of proportion, which Levin’s article all but dismisses. He quotes Groves’s mother as saying that her twelve years of college preparation were “vaporized.” The reader immediately senses the hyperbole here. No, we think to ourselves, her hard work has not been “vaporized”; she had a setback, but she’ll find her way. This sets us up to perceive Galligan’s words as the true message of the article.

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

But stop a minute here. Is it right to take a classmate’s video–which was not meant for the public, and, from all appearances, not meant to hurt anyone–and hold onto it, save it for an opportune moment, and then post it precisely when you know it will hurt her? Is this a way to treat anyone? Yet the ultimate damage was not all Galligan’s doing. The article leaves many questions unasked. Who sent him the video in the first place? Who helped it go viral later? Who demanded that Groves’s admission be rescinded? Who threatened violence? And why did any of them think this was in order?

Some might respond: You think this is bad? Do you have any idea what black people have been subjected to for centuries and still endure day after day? Do you realize that black people have been killed for saying things that white people didn’t like, or for doing nothing at all besides being black? What’s a white girl’s change of college plans next to this?

That is true. The rage is real and justified. But from what I can glean, Mimi Groves did not deserve this rage. There have to be distinctions–because if there are not, if context, intent, and proportion don’t matter, then it’s a free-for-all war, where anyone’s life can be ruined at the drop of a syllable. Journalism exists, in part, to help us maintain perspective and sanity, by reporting clearly on the conflicts in our midst.

Levin’s article–like many New York Times articles recently–combines report, investigation, analysis, and (implicitly) opinion. That in itself poses no problem; there is room in journalism for analyses, “think-pieces,” and passionate investigative writing. But in its application of its own principles, it falls short–and in doing so, it normalizes a disproportionate punishment of a teenage girl.

Long ago I gave a fifth-grade student a disproportionate punishment. She had vanished at the start of a school performance in which she had the lead role. We were waiting and waiting, and she was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, she had gone off to help a student who wasn’t feeling well, and had not told anyone. After consultation with my colleagues, I gave the role to the understudy, to whom I also awarded the drama prize at the end of the year. I talked at length with the student who had lost the honor, but would not change my mind.

Over time I realized that my decision was flat-out wrong. Giving the role to the understudy–that was understandable in the moment. But the rest had no justification. I should have given the first girl the prize. If I had thought clearly about the proportions involved, I would have made a different decision. Overpunishment is one of the most awful mistakes a teacher can make. You carry it forever; you hope that the other person is doing well in life, but you know that you caused some pain along the way.

I have been on the other end too–for instance, being cut off permanently by someone on account of what seemed to me a misunderstanding. You can go for years asking yourself why, why, why? It takes a long time to realize that the action may have been disproportionate; that whatever its reasons, it was not entirely deserved; that reasons and deserts are two different things.

We now live in an era where crowd zeal stands in for discernment and justice. Where will the clarity come from? What role will journalists play?

Looking Ahead

During this delightfully restful and productive holiday break–in which I have been finishing the translation manuscript, writing stories, rereading Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind, reading Samuel Beckett’s trilogy for the first time, watching some films, working on the 1984 project and Folyosó, and going running–I have still had time to think ahead a little. As many of you know, I am in the process of applying for permanent residency here in Hungary. At present I must renew my residency permit every year; a permanent residency permit is up for renewal every five years (a simple procedure, once you have it). A lot went into the application; I am just waiting for a couple of documents from the U.S. If permanent residency is granted, then my plan will be to teach for ten more years and then retire. That’s neither early nor late; it’s normal retirement age, and it seems just right to me. Retirement won’t be the end of my work, just a shift in priorities. I will write, teach individual courses, translate, give readings, and more. And before then, I look forward to a full decade of teaching (and projects too).

Upon retirement, I will be eligible for U.S. social security, which I can receive here. In the U.S., the monthly checks would cover only a fraction of my living costs, but here they should be enough to live on. So then I can spend my time on projects, and tutor, if I wish, for extra income. Travel to the U.S. and elsewhere won’t be difficult, assuming normal travel has resumed by then.

Nothing can be known with precision in advance; all sorts of things can come up unexpectedly, situations can mutate, and plans can fall through. But this overall plan appeals to me and makes lots of sense. It’s also fair to everyone involved; I am not taking anything unfairly from either the U.S. or Hungary, but instead reaping earned benefits and continuing to give what I can. I won’t be eligible for a Hungarian pension here, but I won’t need it. My health care, on the other hand, will be covered.

Three years here went by in an instant. Ten years is just three of those instants and a little more. If I were to become a homeroom teacher (osztályfőnök) in a year or two, I would have time to see two cohorts through from ninth grade to graduation. That is a dream of mine, and well within reach. The osztályfőnök not only sees the students all the way through, but participates in all their ceremonies, helps them with difficulties, oversees their grades, holds meetings with the parents at the beginning and end of each year, and more. For the second consecutive year now, I am a “pótosztályfőnök” (“vice homeroom teacher”), which allows me to see how it works. I am almost ready to take something like this on; I just need a bit more familiarity with the procedural language, so that I can communicate all necessary information to parents. So, another year or two, and it will be time, if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, we had a concert in the Református Templom here in Szolnok; a group of teachers, directed by music teacher Andrea Barnané Bende, sang “Hymne à la nuit“; I was given the solo, which I loved singing, though I had a slight cold. It was a beautiful welcome into the life of the school; little did I know how much more would be coming, and how much after that would still stretch ahead.

A Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and peaceful, healthy winter!

The Teachers’ Room and Its Assumptions

Yesterday I stopped by school to take care of a few things and was able to take a nice picture of the teachers’ room. This is about one-quarter or one-fifth of it; it adjoins a coffee room, where people take breaks or eat lunch, and a computer room with six stations. For the most part, teachers do not have rooms like this in the U.S.; instead, they have teachers’ lounges. I propose that they consider having a teachers’ room instead, especially in high schools.

From what I have read (here’s an interesting article on the subject), the “teachers’ lounge” is intended as a “restorative space” where teachers can rest, eat, chat, and possibly meet or work. Teachers do not have any personal desks or other space within it; the room is shared. Many union contracts require a lounge in every school. Where, then, are they supposed to do most of their work? In the classroom. In elementary schools, teachers often (though not always) have their own classroom where they stay all or most of the day. The students come to them (and spend most of the day in the same room). In high schools, teachers often move around, but they may have a desk in one of the classrooms. Many classrooms have two desks, one at the front and one at the back. While one teacher is giving a lesson, another may be in the back, preparing.

That sounds nuts. Why would anyone want to prepare a lesson in a room where another lesson is going on? The rationale is that this saves space and fosters “collaboration”–but in reality it leads to a lot of waste. I have often enjoyed seeing my colleagues’ lessons, but my real preparation would have to wait until the evening hours.

In addition, teachers in the U.S. are lucky if they have a “prep” period in the first place. Suppose there are eight periods in a day. Typically five of these go toward lessons (twenty-five lessons per week), another goes to a non-classroom duty (such as monitoring the cafeteria or hallway), and the one remaining period goes to “prep” or a team meeting. There is a widespread belief that lesson planning should be collaborative–that teachers don’t need any quiet time, in other words. Under those circumstances, the “lounge” comes as a welcome respite from all the hecticness–except that it brings hecticness of its own: gossip, complaining, badmouthing (not at all schools, but at some).

So the type of room available to teachers reflects the very assumptions about what teaching is.

Suppose, now, that instead of a lounge, you have a teachers’ room, where every full-time teacher has a desk, and part-time teachers may share a desk. You may keep your things there, do your work there, eat there, use computers there. You go into the classrooms just to teach your lessons; while you are teaching, there is no other teacher in the room, unless someone is visiting your lesson.

And suppose there are eight periods in a day, and you teach, say, twenty-two lessons per week. In your free periods, you may decide what to do: prepare your lessons, meet with other teachers, or take a break. The teachers’ room, with its adjoining room, allows for all of these things.

It is clear that I prefer the teachers’ room to the lounge–not just the room, but the principles and assumptions underlying it: the assumption that teachers need time to prepare their lessons, that preparation is both solitary and collaborative, that not every moment of the day should be filled with required activity, even if in practice the teachers are working from start to finish.

Sometimes the teachers’ room gets noisy, especially in the breaks between lessons. But it also has long stretches of quiet. And you have everything you need. It is still impossible to get everything done during school hours; especially when I assign writing, I have a lot of reading and grading to do in the evening. But the day itself is more productive and not exhausting.

What about teachers’ availability to meet with students or answer their questions? Students are free to knock on the door of the teachers’ room; in addition, many teachers, myself included, schedule individual or small-group conferences with students.

What about space? Take that extra teacher’s desk out of each classroom, make the classrooms a little smaller, and you have more than enough room for a spacious teachers’ room. It’s just a question of how you apportion the space.

What about cafeteria and hallway duty? Those should not be a teacher’s job. In the U.S., duties have been added to teachers’ schedules, over time, partly as “givebacks” for higher salaries. But this means that teachers are running from one thing to the next (often with five-minute breaks, at most, between lessons). The hecticness affects everyone. Calm things down a little, and people calm down in response.

The teachers’ room also presumes that while the faculty will have plenary meetings now and then (in a different room), teachers do not have to meet with each other all the time. We meet informally when we need to; we can be trusted to figure this out. Sometimes meetings take only a few minutes. But because the teachers’ room exists, it’s easy for us to find each other.

One day, Hungary might start imitating the U.S. (by raising salaries, adding official duties to teachers’ schedules, and maybe even eliminating the teacher’s room). Higher salaries are long overdue; many teachers make the equivalant of $10,000 per year–which goes a lot farther here than it would in the U.S., but is still low. Yet teachers and administrators would do well to beware of “givebacks” that outweigh the raises; once the calm of the day is taken away, it cannot be restored easily. By “calm” I don’t mean inactivity. I mean the kind of quiet that allows the mind to work. As I mentioned before, the teachers’ room can become lively too–not only at certain times of day, but on special occasions, such as when the eleventh-graders enter the teachers’ room to treat us to caroling.

The first teachers’ room I saw was in Istanbul, at the Lycéé Sainte-Pulchérie, which as a guest teacher for two weeks in May 2017. I was amazed by it. I thought it was a feature of a private school. But the one here at Varga, a Hungarian public school, reminds me a lot of the one in Istanbul. Why shouldn’t U.S. schools, especially high schools, have them too?

Announcing the Autumn 2020 Issue of Folyosó

The Autumn 2020 issue of Folyosó–an online journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnazium–has arrived, filled with witty, spooky, thoughtful pieces! Browse through it and let us know what you particularly enjoy.

For starters, here are just a few excerpts.

From “Finding Yourself” by Gréta Tóth:

The Milky Way is made up of many different things. Stars, planets, together with other celestial bodies, dust and naturally other strange, almost unknown particles like black holes, wormholes and dark matter. They are usually in balance with each other, but sometimes they cross each other’s path. Collisions happen between solar systems, stars and planets meet, or black holes absorb anything that comes near them, even time.

This story is about a common world, actually really similar to ours. But whenever a baby is born, a celestial body is born too. They are not independent of each other. They are the same, waiting for the moment to finally find each other and become one. They affect each other’s life and path. Let us start at the most important part of the Milky Way and humanity:  Finn Love, also known as the Supermassive Black Hole, the center of our galaxy. Love is probably the most important cementing force in humanity. His mission is to keep the balance in our Milky Way.

From “All Should Be in Order” by Gergely Sülye:

All should be in order. Of course we never think about that because it is a given in our lives, for most of us. I say most of us because there are people out there, in less-developed places, who live without order. They live per se, but not for long, not without order. Thus their chances of seeing this letter are really thin, making it appropriate to assume that the person this reaches lives in a civilization with successful guidelines. After all, a civilization is fully dependent on an orderly structure with its rules and regulations.

This is what the me of yesteryear would have said.

From “Grandpa’s Stories” by Áron Antal:

– Ya know, you always remind me of the times when I was young, I looked much like you back then. Me and my friends went to Moscow when we were in fourth grade in secondary school. We went there by train and it took almost a week to go there and back. I enjoyed it so much. The underground metros, they were so huge; the ceiling was like fifteen meters high, you could fit a town into there, and those majestic statues… But the place where we stayed… That was a bit nasty.

– I know, grandpa, you told me these stories like a hundred times and….

– You see, the apartment was full of roaches, literally full. They were everywhere. One night we stayed up and slapped them with our slippers. We killed a few hundred, but the next day they were back, hehe…

– I came for meat, grandpa….

From “Danse Macabre” by Lilla Kassai:

Mrs. Mars walked out to the garden. It was her favourite place: the grass was dark green, and every morning it was glistening with water drops. Behind the house was an enormous rose arbor filled with black roses. She smiled every time she peeked at the big, fragrant flowers. She breathed in the air filled with the smell of the roses and sat herself down on the bank under the arbor. The bank was guarded by two gargoyles, which had been sculpted by her husband. Ivory stroked their heads, knowing that her beloved had worked on them from morning to night, to surprise her on her birthday. She wanted to be with him, feel his strong arms around her, while cuddling, listening to his heartbeat, and kissing him passionately.

These were her everyday thoughts, even on the thirty-first of October. The black roses and the deep purple petunias were no longer  blooming. It was autumn; nature was preparing for winter, The leaves of the trees turned brown, red and yellow, and started to fall from the branches. In the window of multiple houses, Jack-O-Lanterns appeared. It was Halloween, Mr. and Mrs. Mars’ favourite holiday. They loved to carve pumpkins together, and always awaited the kids with plenty of sweets and candies, but they never went trick-or-treating.

This is just a small sample; there is much more to be found.

The next issue will feature an international contest, open to secondary school students anywhere in the world. Hajrá!

The Week in Pictures

Yesterday the winners of the first Folyosó contest received their certificates (in the hallway, the “folyosó,” outside the teachers’ room, in the long break after the second lesson of the day). Their pieces will appear in the autumn issue of Folyosó, to be published on November 2. For this contest, I had invited four colleagues to be on the jury with me, and they happily agreed. It was exciting to read and reread the pieces and make our final choices. Congratulations to all!

The week had lots of rain, which meant that there were lots of umbrellas at school, which meant photos of umbrellas. At one point, when stopping to take a photo (in a rush on my way to class), I dropped everything, including a piece of chalk, which broke into many bits. A student kindly stopped and helped me pick everything up again–and I took that picture. The one below was taken a little later.

It’s hard to go out on weeknights, especially this year, when I am working on the translations and have so much to do from day to day. But on Tuesday there was no way that I could resist. I first went to an art opening by Gábor Homolya at the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which has ongoing exhibits, concerts, and more, in addition to films). My friend Éva from Budapest had told me about it. She took me and a few others on a detailed tour of the pieces. It was the third time I had seen his work up close; these ones were filled with allusions to literature, music, and film. Here is “1984.”

With the art opening, the 2020 Alexandre Trauner Art/Film Festival began. After a an introductory speech about Mr. Homolya, and after people had some time to look at the works, we all headed together across the courtyard to the synagogue (gallery) to hear the Bartók Béla Kamarakórus, one of Szolnok’s musical treasures and the only professional women’s choir in Hungary. After that, there were words of welcome, followed by the presentation of the Szignál-film awards.

We then walked back to the Tisza Mozi to see the film of the evening: Éden, directed by Ágnes Kocsis. It was an eerie, moving work that cannot (or should not) be described in terms of its plot. Afterwards Zsolt Bajnai conducted a discussion with the director and two others.

Between that, Folyosó, and regular classes and things, it was a fantastic week, topped off by bike rides along the Tisza.

Show Your Work—Or Not?

It has been a long time since I last dealt with sums of probabilities, so, when puzzling through the solution to the fourth problem in Frederick Mosteller’s Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability, I got temporarily stumped by this equation:

p + pq + pq2 + … = p(1 + q + pq2 + …)
= p / (1 – q) = p / p = 1.

I understood all the steps except for the middle one: how is it that
p(1+ q + pq2 + …) = p / (1 – q)?

Then this morning it came to me: (1 – q)(1+ q + pq2 + …) = 1, since it is equal to (1+ q + pq2 + …) – (q + pq2 + …). So (1+ q + pq2 + …) = 1 / (1-q).

If all these intermediary steps had been laid out, this book would have been much thicker and less fun. Part of the intrigue (and insight) lies in figuring out how you get from one step to the next.

This week, in Civilization class, a student mentioned the American penchant for “showing your work” in mathematics. He related it to the overall overtness of American culture and said it worked against those who were good at doing in their heads. I found it rather tedious to “show my work” in high school, but since then the demands have only increased–no intermediary step is to be omitted. I can see the reason to do this once in a while, as an exercise, or as a way of uncovering an error, but as a general practice, it beats the elegance and succinctness out of mathematics. It also leaves you nothing to puzzle over.

Anyway, the fourth problem in the book is this: On the average, how many times must a die be thrown until one gets a 6? The answer is 6, but along the way I found out something interesting: A little over half of the time (about 51.7% of the time), one will get a 6 in 4 tries or less. One could confuse 4 with the average, but it is not the same thing. Since there is no limit to the potential number of trials, there might be a time when you toss the die 25 times before getting a 6.

I took this into Perl:

use strict;
use warnings;
use 5.010;
my $number = 0;
my @sequence;
my @tries;
my @half;
my $toss = 0;
my $total = 1000000;
my $average;
my $sum = 0;
my $totalunderfive;
for (my $i = 0; $i < $total; $i++) {
until ($toss == “6”) {
$toss = 1 + int rand(6);
push @sequence, “$toss”;
if ($number < 5) {
push @half, $number;
push @tries, $number;
$number = 0;
$toss = 0;
foreach (@tries){
$sum += $_;
print “$average is the average number of tosses that it took to get a 6.\n”;
my $percentunderfive=($totalunderfive/$total)*100;
print “$percentunderfive percent of the time, a 6 was obtained in 4 tries or less.\n”;

“Tossing the die” a million times in the Perl Online Editor, I got this result just now:

6.006929 is the average number of tosses that it took to get a 6.
51.7173 percent of the time, a 6 was obtained in 4 tries or less.

Algebraically, the chance of getting a 6 in 4 tries or less is (where p is the probability of getting a 6 on a given toss, and q is (1 – p), or the probability of not getting a 6 on a given toss):

p + pq + pq2 + pq3 = approximately .517744.

Generally, the greater the number of trials, the closer the result will come to this figure, but there will be some visible variation.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have bothered with any of this if the book had showed its work. The solutions themselves require a little bit of puzzling through, especially for someone out of practice with these things, but that’s part of why I remember this book from childhood and recently tracked down a copy. The book is 88 pages long, and there’s enough in there to keep me occupied (in the spare minutes around the edges of the day, and in its momentary breaks) for years and years.