Folyosó, a Concert, and More

The past few months have been full, and I think I have finally met all the pressing deadlines. So now it will be possible, while wrapping up the year, to resume work on some projects and go on a long bike ride or two. The summer will be varied; except for ten days in the U.S., I expect to be here, relaxing, working on projects, riding the bike, and going to the Kolorádó music festival in August.

The spring issue of Folyosó (our first anniversary issue) came out on May 17, and it is beautiful. There’s a section with pieces about walls (of many different kinds), a section of short absurdist scenes, a section of miniature stories, a section of speeches, and some beautiful art by Lilla Kassai. Click on the picture to view the contents. If you feel so moved, please post a comment on the comments page.

This evening I am going to my first concert of 2021, a highly anticipated solo concert of Cz.K. Sebő, who is going to treat us to a double program at the TRIP Terasz, the outdoor part of a ship nightclub on the Danube. In the first part, he will play his own songs, including one or two entirely new ones; in the second part, he will play covers of some of his favorite songs. Because a maximum of 80 people can be admitted, and priority is given in order of arrival, I can’t take any chances. So that means: get there very early (when they open at 4 p.m.) and bring something to read, and I have the perfect thing: Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen, which I ordered after listening and relistening to Sebő’s musical rendering of Kertai’s poem “Balaton,” in which Kertai reads the poem and Sebő’s music paints it underneath.

This little book is not easy for me to understand; there are words I don’t know, expressions to puzzle over, meanings to ponder, but so much the better; the time will whisk by (on a ship on the Danube, with a beer), and then the concert will begin, and there will be time to sink into it, and then I can return to the poems later, on the train ride home, and again and again over time. I will say more about all of this later, after it has happened.

Speaking of songs, I wrote my first song in Hungarian and will try to record it over the weekend (I may need more time). The song is mostly set in my mind; it just needs to be played, in its various parts and instruments. The title is “Időköz,” which means “time interval.” It’s my first serious attempt at a song in a language other than English; at age 14 I composed a round with brief Russian lyrics, but that’s it. I don’t even remember the first part, but the second part went, “Счастлив человек, который каждый день слушает музыку.” (“Happy is the person who listens to music every day.”) Before posting “Időköz,” I will run it by a native speaker, just in case there’s something impossibly wrong with the lyrics. A few quirks I don’t mind.

I have to run, so that is all for now.

Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

The Limits of Education Debate

I haven’t been writing much on education lately, except when talking about literature or things happening at Varga. The reason is not at all a loss of interest. Rather, I see limits to the general debates. There’s no way to determine whether the curriculum should be more or less demanding, or whether there should be more or less group work, etc., except in relation to what already is going on. If you have a vapid or nonexistent curriculum, then there’s good reason to fight for something more substantial. If you have a substantial but overpacked curriculum, then you might instead call for more flexibility. If students do nothing but listen to the teachers all day long, then you might call for some different kinds of activities in the classroom. But if the classroom and school day are already frenetic with social activities, then you wish for more focus, listening, and quiet. Now, not all education views are reactive and relative. Some principles and practices are good more often than not. But many arguments can be resolved through simple attention to the context. What is the current situation? In what ways does it go to extremes? What counterbalances might be needed?

When I first started writing critically about education, I was responding to a particularly dogmatic “philosophy” that had taken over the NYC school system: the notion that students should be working in groups nearly all the time and that “teacher talk” should be kept to a minimum. Even teacher-led class discussions were looked down upon as being too teacher-driven. This is ridiculous; yes, it’s good to bring students to a point where they can lead a class discussion or initiate a group activity, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with teaching them things, posing questions, showing what it means to go farther into the subject. Moreover, there is no reason why students should have to work in groups in every lesson. Some group work is fine. But not all learning takes place in groups, with others talking around you. Sometimes you need room to think on your own, sometimes to listen to an extended presentation.

The Hungarian system has plenty of problems of its own. But at Varga I have found it possible to strike a combination of instruction, class discussion, and other activities. No one has a problem with that; to the contrary, they support it. I also enjoy a combination of specificity and flexibility in the curriculum: there are things I am required to teach, but I generally find room and time to include works of literature, creative writing, and more.

Many people here, students and teachers alike, believe that the system needs to be modernized. But they would balk at the idea of arranging the desks in pods and requiring small-group work in every lesson. The idea that students should be initiating the activities would likewise strike them as absurd, even though some of this would come welcome. It’s understood that students have things to learn from their teachers, and if these teachers hold discussions in which they hear and welcome different points of view, then that in itself is “modernization.”

It is easy, within a school and culture that values subject-matter knowledge, to have lively lessons, because all you have to do is open up discussion, and the students have lots to say. They speak thoughtfully, with attention to the text and the questions at hand. You can ask them to do this in small groups, and often this will also work well. But in systems where basic knowledge and self-discipline is lacking, then these same activities can go awry. In those cases you have to give a lot of attention to basic knowledge and basic habits. That doesn’t mean that’s all you can do, but you need to do it, and this needs to be understood and supported.

I suspect that good education has to do with a combination of opposing principles: receiving instruction and asking your own questions about it; thinking on your own and working with others; following the curriculum plan and making room for other things. The right combination is not easy to find; once found, it cannot be propagated very far. A school can have it; sometimes even a school district can have it. But educational ideas and methods tend to degrade when spread too zealously; someone takes them to extremes, another person reduces them to something banal, someone else misunderstands them entirely, and someone else insists on them (or resists them) no matter what the context. For the ideas to work well, they need to be taken in proper measure, with an understanding of where they came from and why.

I think back fondly on the schools where I taught in NYC: especially Columbia Secondary School (where I taught and led the high school philosophy program), but also the middle school where I taught for my first three years and the elementary school where I taught for a year (after which I left teaching for two years to write my first book). In all of these places, I found ways to help my students both learn essential material and do interesting work. But the elementary and middle schools were under great pressure from the system; even though the principals liked and supported my work, there were continual mantras (in training sessions and elsewhere) about being a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” To this day I don’t understand why you should have to be just one or the other.

Speaking of sages on stages, I have often marveled at my colleagues’ eloquence here. When they have something to say—for instance, at a faculty meeting or in a presentation—they deliver complete, polished speeches (without referring to any notes). I have noticed this in other contexts too. Why are Hungarians such good orators? (Not all are, but the tendency is striking.) I suspect that part of it comes from heaing so many lectures throughout their lives. They understand what it means to say something substantial and cohesive. This is comparable to people who spend a lot of time listening to classical music and jazz (or other long forms). They develop an ear for the long form.

Now, brevity has its virtues too. There’s no need to speak at length all the time. Nor should all lessons be filled with lecture. But if you don’t hear people speaking beyond a few sentences at a time, then you might not know what it means to do so, or to listen to it. Few consider how the lecture can actually prepare students for the time when they, too, will need to make an argument or give an explanation. The turns of phrase, the rhetorical rhythms, the movement from part to whole or vice versa—all of this can help students in the world.

And yet it’s possible to overdo this, or to do it poorly; lectures are not “the answer.” No single thing is. In fact, there isn’t an ultimate answer to these education conundrums. It’s better that way; if there were an ultimate answer, education itself would go to sleep.

From Shakespeare to Babits to Kisköre and Back

Over the past months I have been working with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, students, and colleagues to put out a video that shows what we have in mind for next year’s Shakespeare festival. Hours of gathering, editing, subtitling, testing, rebuilding, consulting…. and the video came out yesterday! Eight students contributed home-recorded Shakespeare performances (of two sonnets, the song “Sigh No More” from Much Ado About Nothing, and monologues or scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Othello). There are also a few words from László Molnár, the principal of Varga and from Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, the drama teacher (and teacher of history and Hungarian language and literature). After that, there’s a special contribution by the library: an introduction by Katalin Cserfalvi, a short Shakespeare lecture by ELTE student Györgyi Kovács, and a tour of the library by the library’s director, Katalin Czakóné Gacov. Here it is. Just one important correction: the performer of Bottom’s and Hamlet’s monologues should appear as László Korpás, not Kovács or Korpács. The unfortunate mistake was mine—a result of spending too many hours on the video and not seeing it with fresh eyes. László Kovács is another of my students, and Korpács, though not the same as Korpás, is an actual last name. Well, maybe this is in the spirit of Shakespeare; Györgyi Kovács (yes, Kovács) says of him in her lecture, “His name was spelled in more than eighty ways; even in his own signature, he spelled it differently.”

I was actually pretty tired by the weekend, because in addition to the video, so much has been going on. But I managed to get a new bike on Friday, and made plans to go on a long ride on the birthday itself. On Saturday, after the Shacharit service that I led, Szim Salom honored my birthday in a sweet and heartfelt way; later I also received messages from individuals and from the Szim Salom community as a whole. One person had picked out a Mihály Babits quote for me (from his poem “A második ének“):

Mindenik embernek a lelkében dal van
és a saját lelkét hallja minden dalban.

Everyone has a song in his soul
and hears his own soul in every song.

The verse continues:

És akinek szép a lelkében az ének,
az hallja a mások énekét is szépnek.

And whoever’s soul has beautiful singing,
that one will hear others’ singing as beautiful.

And it actually begins with this:

Megmondom a titkát, édesem a dalnak:
Önmagát hallgatja, aki dalra hallgat.

Sweetheart, I will tell you the secret of song.
Whoever listens to a song hears himself.

So, to put it all together:

Sweetheart, I will tell you the secret of song.
To listen to a song is to hear yourself.
Everyone has a song in his soul
and hears his own soul in every song.
And if your soul has beautiful singing,
you will hear others’ singing as beautiful.

A great birthday gift, if you ask me.

So I took off for Kisköre a little after 10 a.m. on Sunday. I had hoped to go all the way to Tiszafüred but knew it would be tight, since the last train that would get me home before curfew left at 4:15. The day was clear and breezy, perfect for a ride, except that it got quite windy in the middle, and I was slowed down.

Anyway, I saw the Racka sheep near Nagykörű—they’re always there grazing by the side of the bike path. There were some little ones, as I expected there would be.

Nagykörű was in bloom. In a month or so, the cherry trees will be filled with fruit.

I passed by this beautiful little church in Tiszasüly, which I have passed by several times before:

and went on and on. Now it started getting windy, with storm clouds in the distance. But over the whole ride, I only felt a few drops of rain.

The ride was longer than I had remembered before, because of the wind. I thought I might have taken a detour, but then I saw the familiar landmark, which meant I was closer (though not close) to Kisköre.

Then, at long last, arrived in Kisköre! But here the indecision set in. I had hoped to make it at least to Abádszalók and take the train back from there. But there was no way I would make it in time for the last train to arrive back in Szolnok before curfew. In fact, I had missed the last Kisköre train that would get me back before curfew. At a bit of a loss, I biked around a little and came upon the park with a fountain:

I went to the train station, which was closed, and sat on the steps in the back, by the tracks. The next train would get me back to Szolnok, but only at 11:30 p.m., with two transfers along the way (and not really along the way—way out of the way, first in Kál-Kápolna, then in Hatvan). Curfew (part of the Covid regulations) is at 10 p.m., so I wasn’t even sure there would be a train. I thought of ordering a cab, which would be expensive, but maybe worth it. I called one cab company; they said they couldn’t transport a bike. I called another; he thought I wanted him to take me home from the Szolnok train station. When I explained the situation more clearly, he seemed confident that the trains would be running, but welcomed me to call him if I ran into any trouble.

Then it started occurring to me that everything would be fine. I sat and waited for the train. That was actually one of the best parts of the day; the train station was lovely and quiet, except for the breeze in the trees and one worker mulling around. I just listened to the breeze and watched the changing colors. Two dogs came by. The first one tried to pretend to bark at me, but wasn’t convincing; it was more of a half-hearted “grumph” that he kept letting out. The other one, a puppy, came over to say hello.

At last the train came, and the three segments of the ride back home went without a hitch. I might have been the only passenger on two of the three trains, but no one asked me why I was riding so late; the conductors accepted my ticket, and the trains themselves were running just fine, drifting dreamily through towns. Even when I got back to Szolnok, there were no police waiting at the station. I biked home on deserted streets, fed the leaping cats, sat down at the computer for a few minutes to view the streams of birthday wishes, and went to sleep.

And so, to come back to Shakespeare, I end with Sonnet 27:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

The photo at the top is from my students’ June 2019 performance of scenes from Hamlet at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár.

Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

Listening All the Way to the End

For the fourth consecutive year, I was one of three teachers administering the oral entrance exams for our school’s bilingual program. For three days, all day long, we interviewed eighth-graders in English. Their scores on this exam, combined with their scores on the written tests, will determine their admission to Varga and to this particular program. The interviews took place in person, but with masks; that added to the challenge. Throughout the examinations, I could see how excited and nervous each student was, each in a slightly different way. It reminded me of when I was little and we would be driving somewhere, and I would be looking at the other cars on the highway and realizing that they were driving somewhere too, and that inside each of those cars were people who said “I” about themselves and lived out that “I.” I could hardly believe it, but I grasped it: that everyone was an “I,” with a particular way of looking at the world and a privacy of experience.

What is it that allows the insular “I” to affect others–maybe just a few people, maybe hundreds, maybe millions, maybe far more than anyone knows? Part of it is that we’re all trying to figure out the puzzle of living, or some part of it. Some people’s way of grappling will inspire others. This morning, before heading off to school, I re-listened to Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Light as the Breeze,” which I had come upon the previous evening. (Cz.K. Sebő, or Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, is one of the two lead singers and guitarists of Platon Karataev; he has many solo releases too.) The song is so beautiful—with hints of Elliott Smith’s “Angeles” and Nick Drake’s “From the Morning,” but with its own soul and meaning—that it kept coming back to my mind in the brief pauses throughout the day, giving things a lightness and a motion. And I wondered: what songs are playing in other people’s minds? What poems, conversations, questions?

To get even a hint of this, you have to listen all the way to the end, which is impossible in a way, since life requires us to cut each other off at some point, or at least to cut ourselves off. But within the short segments of time that we have, listening to the end is possible. It has to do with keeping the ears and mind open, recognizing that there’s more. With this song, it’s right near the end when everything starts to dance, the song comes together, something quietly glorious happens.

During a test, the surface goal is much more cut and dry. The examiner is trying to see what the examinee knows and can do. Does this person understand the text? The questions? How well can the person express an idea or talk about a subject on the spot? How accurate and expressive is the person’s vocabulary, grammar, syntax, command of idiom? Will this person be able to handle the demands of the bilingual program in particular? But it’s possible to stay within that specificity, yet recognize that the student exists beyond it. A student who gets a top score may end up not coming to the school, because of a conflicting pull in another direction. A student who receives a lower score may have an excellence in another area, such as history or music. Sometimes it’s a question of timing, too; a student may be having a particularly bad or good day. So we score as accurately and fairly as possible, but there’s so much going on beyond the scores.

I am not opposed to testing or competition. Both are necessary; both can illuminate and even stretch a person’s capacities. The problem lies not with either, but with the excessive authority given to them, their way of claiming the last word. No test, no competition has the last word. It just offers a few words or numbers. Those words or numbers (and the challenges behind them) can tell us something useful. Sometimes they affect our future. But our work goes far beyond them.

Speaking of work, when I arrived this morning, around 7:30, one of the school’s cleaning staff had just finished mopping the floor in the room where we have been holding the exams. When I arrived, she told me that she had just finished in there, and then asked if I would like to keep the window open. She then proceeded on to the next rooms. I don’t have any moral to draw from that, except that she brought something to our day, maybe without realizing it herself, maybe without our knowledge.

The Winter 2020–2021 Issue of Folyosó

It is here! Peruse it with abandon, and leave a comment if you wish! I have copied my Letter from the Editor below.


Folyosó began in the spring of 2020, when school in Hungary had gone online in response to COVID-19. After a brief interlude of in-person classes in the fall, we have been back online since mid-November, with ongoing hopes of returning to school. During this time, students have written essays, stories, short scenes, contest entries, and more; this issue features some of these winter fruits, along with Lilla Kassai’s art.

We proudly present our first international contest, for which students wrote pieces about imaginary inventions. The jury (Judit Kéri, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, Edit Göröcs, and I) had a difficult time ranking the ten finalists; while we eventually chose winners, we are delighted to publish all ten pieces here. It was an honor to receive entries from the Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie in Istanbul, as well as from many Varga students; we hope to bring the two schools and others together for an online Folyosó event this spring.

For the scenes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students were supposed to start with something in the play and take it in a surprising direction. The scenes published here—Áron Antal’s “Something Even Stranger,” Gréta Tóth’s “A Midsummer Night’s Gestalt,” Gergely Sülye’s “As from a Voyage,” Dorottya Turza’s “The Surprise of the Century,” Dávid Csáki’s “Let Him Roar Again,” Bertalan Szegi’s “Act 1, Scene 1,” and Zsófia Szabina Gávris’s “A Nice Article”—abound with wit, emotion, and surprise.

This is also the first time that we feature writers from Class 9.B (which I teach once a week); I have been impressed with this class’s imagination and look forward to publishing more of their work.

The winter issue does not include any writings from the Orwell project, but we may publish a few of them in the spring. For this project, Varga students joined with a class of tenth-graders at Columbia Secondary School to read and discuss Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a great experience; you can read much more about it on the project website.

Some of the pieces in this issue grapple with difficult problems: isolation, introspection, death and grief, political vanity, and disillusionment; others delight in books, friendship, everyday mishaps and mistakes, and visions of the future. The issue’s overall spirit brings to mind William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“: not just the famous lines

It is right it should be so 
Man was made for Joy & Woe 
And when this we rightly know 
Thro the World we safely go 

but much more. In this issue you will find a procession of experience, thoughts, questions: from Szabina Tamara Da Cunha Carvalho’s essay “The Problem with BLM Movements in Hungary” to Hunor Gangel’s “From Late to Early”; from Gergely Sülye’s “Transformation” to Lili Forgács’s “The Truth”; from Sándor Tor’s “Is This the Future?” to Zsófia Vona’s “A Dream Come True”; from Sándor Szakács’s “Challenging Times” to Adél Mihályi’s “Personalities”; from Bettina Czékus’s “Arbya” to Eszter Aletta Hevesi’s “The Story of Gen E”; from Tamás Takács’s “Michael the Caterpillar” to Botond Vass’s “The Shelter.”

We wish you good health, happy winter reading, and many returns! As ever, we welcome your submissions and comments.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal
English and Civilization Teacher
Editor of Folyosó

Getting Up and Settling Down

It really snowed last night, so as soon as I got up, I went on a walk: westwards toward the old railroad buildings and then back again. The cats were in a state of excitement too: everything out the window was moving, moving! It snowed all morning.

I taught my British Civilization class–today’s lesson was about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare, so we didn’t have nearly enough time for everything. But I am glad that the students, now in twelfth grade, have read two Shakespeare plays while at Varga.

Then I taught my American Civilization classes. We have been reading and listening to American speeches, and the students are about to write their own. For an exercise, I asked them to write a short speech welcoming new students to Varga. Their speeches were delightful; I chose ten to be read aloud in class. A particularly funny and sophisticated speech was written by a student whose microphone wasn’t working today, so he nominated another student to read it. Somewhere in the middle, the doorbell rang, and I had a feeling I knew what it was. I asked them to wait just a second, and I went to the door. It was the postman with an official letter. To receive it, I had to show my ID, which I did. I felt the envelope; it had a card inside it. I was opening it on my way back to the computer. So the reading resumed; at the end, I commented on the speech and then told the students what had happened: I had just received my permanent residence permit. Then we went on to hear seven more students’ speeches, and then, with five minutes of class left, I read them Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snow Storm,” which I quote in full here, because how could I not?

The Snow Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

After that, I headed off to the school, with hopes of finding the financial officer, who would want to photocopy the permit for the school’s records. On the way there and back, I took photos right and left. The sun had come out, and unfortunately the snow was melting–but there was still quite a bit.

The financial officer had left, but I found some colleagues, including Csilla Vágóné, who kindly took a photo of me. (The photo below is a different one, though, which I took at home. Csilla took a lovely photo, but the fluorescent light made me look a little pasty-faced. This one, with the warm lighting, suits the occasion better.)

The permanent residence permit means many things. First of all, there’s a symbolic significance. It means that I live here; I’m not just visiting. In that regard it reflects my reality and wishes. Second, I have to renew it only every five years; to renew it, I just pay a fee–there’s nothing elaborate involved. This in turn simplifies all my other paperwork; for instance, my health insurance card can have a longer validity term as well. Third, it means that I can get an address card, which is an essential item here but which temporary residents do not receive (instead, they receive a temporary document). Fourth, it simplifies travel; I have essentially the same travel rights as Hungarian citizens. Especially now, during Covid, this helps; if it turns out that I can go to the U.S. this summer, I won’t risk a situation where I can’t come back here. Permanent residents have other rights similar to those of citizens: they can travel freely within the EU, work anywhere in the EU, etc. So a time could come in the future when I wanted to spend a summer in France or the Netherlands, for instance, and this would be possible.

But there’s something more than all these things I’ve listed, even the first. I consider Szolnok home. I teach at a wonderful school, with great students and colleagues and all sorts of possibilities; outside of work, I can bike and walk around, attend literary and other events (once Covid is behind us), take part in my synagogue and serve as its cantor, and enjoy my sweet apartment. The Hungarian word for a permanent residence permit is “letelepedési engedély.” “Engedély” means “permit” or “permission”; “letelepedés” means “settling, settlement, establishing (oneself somewhere), establishment, homemaking.” The prefix “le-” means “down,” so essentially this is a settling down.

A Colorful February

The days have been muddy and rainy, not as in the photo above (which I took a week ago), but still beautiful in an indoor way. The Orwell project—in which my students in Class 10.C joined Professor Attridge’s tenth-grade class at Columbia Secondary School for a series of joint online discussions of 1984—went so well that we decided to have an online gathering, which took place yesterday evening and was great fun.

Then this morning I had the honor of announcing the results of Folyosó’s first international contest. The decision was extremely difficult, because the ten finalists were so good. There were five of us on the jury: my colleagues Judit Kéri, Edit Göröcs, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, and myself. The winners are as follows:

  • Grand Prize: Bernadett Sági (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Virtual or Reality
  • First Place: Deniz Pala (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Stronger Links
  • Second Place: Gergely Sülye (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), In an Arm’s Reach, and Kázmér Kaposvári (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Salvation or the End
  • Third Place: Defne Lal Koçer (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Life Consists of Choices, and Lilla Kassai (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Bringing Dragons to Life
  • Honorable Mention: Lili Forgács (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Language-Capsule; Ahmet Yavuz Kaya (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Muter3000; Eszter Aletta Hevesi (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Portal; and Alexandra Klaudia Süveges (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Camping with a Little Bit of Magic.

All of these pieces, along with many others, will be published in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Folyosó, which appears on Monday.

That has to be all for now; much more is coming soon. I’ll just add that even in the rain, things can be colorful, outside as well as in.

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.

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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