Old School in Hungary: Part 6


It has become more difficult, just within the past few days, to talk about these Old School discussions, since something has changed in the classroom. From “The Forked Tongue” onward, they have become more urgent. As if the story were happening around us and with us and by us.

Last week, because I was giving entrance exams Monday through Thursday and because we had a long weekend, one section had one class with me; the other had none. This week we resumed our rhythm, and students had lots to say.

One student asked, “Why is this writing competition destroying friendships and even breaking the school apart?” Another student suggested that the privilege of a private audience with the visiting writer was too extreme; only one person could receive that privilege, but to the boys it meant everything. Maybe, he suggested, the school could have given the honor to a small group of students instead of just one. They would all get to meet with the visiting writer.

Another student found it strange that Mr. Ramsey made the initial selections. (For the Hemingway contest, he chooses three and sends them to Hemingway, who selects the winner.) How many manuscripts might have been ignored just because Mr. Ramsey didn’t happen to like them? Was it right to give students the impression that their work was being read and considered by Hemingway (or whoever it happened to be)?

Some students picked up on the ironies at work: Bill White telling the narrator that it was his (Bill’s) story that he had written, not his own–and the narrator replying that if it had been Bill’s, Bill would have written it. They noticed that George Kellogg knew that the writing didn’t seem like the narrator’s; one student explained how George rationalized this discrepancy.

A student suggested that the narrator, by copying and submitting someone else’s story–a story that seemed to be about his life–has broken an unwritten and unspoken rule at the school: that you don’t actually reveal yourself in your writing. Until now, the boys have not been revealing themselves; now he has. The unfairness goes beyond winning the contest. He has taken a shortcut to something he wouldn’t otherwise have dared to do, and this upsets the other boys for reasons they don’t know how to articulate.

But all those different insights are only part of what has been happening. It isn’t uniform at all; one class is much livelier than the other (though the quieter class comes up with beautiful ideas). Besides all of this, at least two things are happening at once. One is that the students are considering Old School as a story. How, they asked, did everything happen so fast just now–with the narrator winning the contest and then immediately getting caught and expelled? And how can it be that there are still many pages to go? (“I smell a twist,” one student told me.)

The other part is that we see these questions of truth, fairness, and justice coming up in the discussions themselves. A student brought up things he had said months ago that he realized had come across wrong. He felt so bad that it had come across as rude. I saw my own mistake after unfairly giving a student a 4 out of 5 on a multiple-choice quiz–and my even greater mistake in making this known to the class. In Hungary, grades are usually a public matter, but all the same, that doesn’t justify announcing them all the time. His answers, as it turned out, made sense when he explained them; in addition, he had been participating energetically and thoughtfully from the very beginning. I apologized and changed the grade–but it still stings in my mind. Even calling on people, and recognizing when they need some room to be quiet, can be a tricky matter. Some students are reading and thinking ahead, whereas others need a little more time to take in what we read last week.

One of the sections hasn’t gotten to the narrator’s expulsion yet–or at least we will be discussing it tomorrow–but with the other section, we spent a long time with Mr. Ramsey’s goodbye.

Here one says something, he said. It’s not the end of the world, be game, you’ll work things out … but for all I know you won’t work things out. How should I know? He patted his pockets for the Gitanes, put one in his mouth, and offered another to me. When I hesitated he stuck the pack in my shirt pocket and stepped down onto the platform and walked away, two long sweat stains darkening the back of his jacket. I was glad to see him go; several minutes remained before departure time and I’d worried he might stand vigil outside, watching me through the window and giving sad little nods whenever our eyes met.

Why, I asked, did the narrator not want Mr. Ramsey to wait? For some this was a difficult question; they themselves would have preferred to have their former teacher (now more of a friend) stay until the train departed. But then a student pointed out, “He hasn’t had any time alone yet, he hasn’t had time to process any of this.” And then we talked about the last paragraph (where he makes his way to the smoking car with his copy of In Our Time, a gift from his classmate Purcell), and how different it is from the other time that we saw the narrator on the train (with a copy of The Fountainhead). At that time he felt full of himself and sure of himself, at least in the uppermost registers; now nothing is certain, and he has been brought down low.

Now all depends on how we approach the ending. I think we will finish the book in four more lessons and then take an additional lesson to discuss not only the whole book, but the discussions and the whole endeavor. This has been something out of the usual, and the students more than lived up to it. We have been building something together. I will miss it when it is over, but I don’t think it will go away.


This is the sixth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I made a few minor changes (for clarity) to this piece after posting it.

Tradeoffs and Givebacks


The cliché “nothing is free” is not entirely true. Many things come to us, good, bad, and mixed, through no doing of our own; we don’t have to pay for (or pay our way out of) everything that comes our way. Still, more things come at a cost than we may immediately realize. I want a president who understands the cost and value of things–not only the monetary cost and value, but also that which goes beyond money.

It was snowing when I got up this morning; I think this was the second snow of the winter here in Szolnok. Maybe the third. We often talk about how winters aren’t as snowy as they used to be. But to have snowy winters, we have to stop heating the planet so much. Fewer cars, lower heat, less wasteful consumption. The effects aren’t immediate and direct–we might have blizzards next year–but they’re there.

Similar things can be said for healthcare. In the U.S., the contenders for the Democratic presidential candidacy have been debating how to reform or overhaul the health care system. But no matter what policy the next president puts into action, it will have severe costs. People often point to Canada as an example of a large country with universal health care. But the Canadian system is struggling: it has enough resources emergency services, but not nearly enough for chronic conditions. Many patients have to wait months, even years, for their appointments. Moreover, the actual quality of care is often mediocre. Canada’s accomplishment is great, but it does not meet everyone’s needs by a long shot.

If I were naive, I would praise the medical system here in Hungary. Everyone has access to health care; those who are employed pay a monthly fee for a health plan that covers just about everything, and those who are unemployed can get free care. In addition, if you want better care and want an appointment right away, you can pay private doctors at reasonable rates. (A recent doctor’s appointment cost me about $20.) But the catch is that doctors make miserable money. Many are leaving Hungary.

To institute any kind of universal health care in the U.S., one would have to change the medical profession and medical schools: make it easier and less expensive to become a doctor, reduce doctors’ salaries, and more. It would take years to make this shift, and many doctors and patients would resist it. For a long time, there would probably be two or three tiers of doctors and medical services. Something like this would still be worthwhile (in my opinion), but it won’t be great for everyone.

Education: another area where very little is free. I love teaching here in Hungary. The environment is calm (yet lively too). Teachers are regarded as professionals; outside of the classroom, we are mostly in charge of our own time. Faculty meetings are held not weekly, but as needed; smaller meetings occur when we call them. Often we just work things out with our colleagues in spare minutes in the teachers’ room, where most of us have our desks. Many of us stay late after school, but there’s no pressure to stay late, no suggestion that those who do so are better than the others. But the pay is low. My salary (on the higher end, because of my degrees and teaching experience) comes to about $12,000 per year.


In New York City, whenever a pay raise for teachers has been on the table, I have heard talk of “givebacks.” These might include lengthening the school day and school year, increasing the number of mandatory meetings, increasing teachers’ duties outside the classroom (teachers had to monitor hallways and the cafeteria, among other things), increasing the pedagogical mandates (at many schools, lessons have to follow specified formats), mandating the regular refreshing of hallway bulletin boards (a hefty task, especially since they, like the lessons, must follow specified formats), and mandating regular contact with parents. (Here in Hungary, it’s the homeroom teacher who contacts parents if necessary; subject teachers are not expected to do so.)

The result of all this? Teachers’ salaries in New York are quite good (especially when you consider the retirement benefits and pensions, none of which I reaped, incidentally, since I left twice to write two books and was officially part-time for my last five years of teaching there). If you stay in the system a long time, you can not only afford the cost of living in New York City, but even raise a family, buy an apartment, go on nice vacations, and retire comfortably. But the school day (in many cases) is so stressful and pounding from start to finish, that even energetic people in their twenties get worn out. Even at a wonderful school, you feel the pressure of the system.

Speaking of pressure of the system (and a wonderful school), it was painful to read a recent article about my former school, the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering. According to the article, Harlem parents and others have been complaining that the school’s demographics do not reflect those of the neighborhood. While true, this criticism does not take the school’s purpose and nature into account. Columbia Secondary School makes an extraordinary commitment both to high standards and to diversity. Its enrollment is 60% African American and Hispanic; many students come from immigrant families. Moreover, the school makes a point of admitting academically promising students from the neighborhood. But since the neighborhood is historically low-performing, the school faces a dilemma. If it were to relax its admission requirements–for instance, not looking at students attendance records any more–the overall quality would go down and the general stress would go up. If, on the other hand, the school were to rely entirely on test scores for admission (instead of its current combination of interviews, essays, scores, grades, and attendance records), then the student body would represent the neighborhood even less (since the neighborhood’s average test scores are extremely low). I love the school and know that it will hold its own–but I wish it were being honored, not berated.

Yes, many things come at a cost; to set and implement a policy, or even to make life decisions, one has to understand what the cost is and what it means. And why do I have time to write this today? We have no school; it’s a “ski weekend” for those who wish to take off to the mountains. For me, it’s a chance to catch up with some translating, get ready for synagogue tomorrow (practice the leyning in particular), and, yes, write a blog post and maybe more. The cost in this case? Not much on the surface. But if you look closely, each of these things was chosen over something else. I could go on with explanations and examples. But I think the idea is clear.



Simplify (Once or Twice)


In Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.” Emerson is said to have commented, “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed” (or something along those lines). I haven’t been able to verify this yet, but I see his purported point. Then again, it’s possible to simplify once and then simplify all over again.

Like many, I often comment on how much I have to do, but actually I am trying to keep some simplicity. It’s good not to be frazzled. With possessions, I am no ascetic, but I can live contentedly with books, CDs, clothes, a few kitchen supplies, some furniture, a few special items, a laptop with internet connection, a couple of musical instruments, and my bicycle. As far as a home goes, it doesn’t have to be big; if it has room for these things and me, and a cat, and guests now and then, that’s enough.

I am buying an apartment here in Szolnok–a beautiful little place, cozy rather than spacious. This summer I will sort out some belongings. Some things will stay in storage in NYC. Some things will move over here.  Some things will go (to charity if possible).

But back to Thoreau: pooh-pooh him all you like (because his mom supposedly did his laundry while he lived out in the woods and wrote about self-sufficiency); call him out, if you like, on the redundancy of “simplify, simplify”–but admit that he’s right about the “chopping sea of civilized life” and the principle of living by “dead reckoning.” A bit of simplicity is not surrender; it’s a staple. Like rice, it allows for feasts, fasting, and thousands of spices and sauces.

I took the photo this week while biking just past my current apartment.

Old School in Hungary: Part 5


Whenever I go into the classroom to teach Tobias Wolff’s Old School, I am in for surprises. Sometimes the class is so lively, sometimes slow and contemplative, but in both cases it can take unexpected turns. Most of the students disliked Ayn Rand (the character) and readily explained why the narrator changes his view of her writing after hearing her speak. One student, though, resisted this line of thinking. If he had loved her writing before, she argued, shouldn’t he still love it now? Shouldn’t he be able to separate the writing from the person?

These questions brought us back again and again to the passage on pp. 92-93, where the narrator admits to something complex. He acknowledges that he has his own personal reasons for rejecting her writing, reasons that have more to do with his own shame and self-pity than with the writing itself.

The self-pity I felt at this betrayal [by Ayn Rand’s characters Dominique and Roark, who wouldn’t have shown up in the sickroom while he was sick–DS] dressed itself up as fierce affection for Grandjohn and Patty, who had done all this for me. I found myself defending them against Dominique and Roark as if they, not I, had turned up their noses at these loyal, goodhearted bores.

So the narrator admits that at the time of turning away from Rand’s writing, he was blaming her for things he had done himself–for the scorn he had felt toward his grandfather and grandfather’s wife, “these loyal, goodhearted bores.”

In the next paragraph he continues this thought:

I blamed Ayn Rand for disregarding all this [that is, his family’s difficulties and struggles, and human struggles in general–DS]. And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself–because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others, in the present case Ayn Rand.

But is that all there is to his criticism? In the next paragraph, he suggests otherwise. “This part of my reaction was personal and unreasoned,” he says. “But there was more. It had dawned on me that I didn’t really know anyone like Roark and Dominique.”

The student who raised the initial objection stayed staunch in her argument. “If Ayn Rand’s writing made him realize all of this,” she said, “then it must have had something.” This prompted a distinction that might not have come up otherwise. There’s no question that the narrator breaks with Ayn Rand’s writing here–partly for personal reasons, partly because he finds it lacking, and partly because he is now drawn to something else. This complex mixture of reasons cannot be summed up as a judgment against Rand’s attitudes and characters. It is that but also more. Moreover, Rand’s writing deserves some credit: after all, it was able to wake him up.

This week we read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in one lesson, and, in another, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29–all of them to help students understand allusions and references, but also for their own sake. Each of these pieces set off a discussion; “Indian Camp” had the students enthralled. As for the parable and sonnet, we read each of them carefully; then I asked the students what the two had in common. I finally asked them what they had to do with Old School (so far). The responses could fill several blog posts and more. But this is all for now.


This is the fifth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

The Fallacy of Growth Mindset


Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that your intelligence is malleable: that, through practice and strategic problem-solving, you can become not only more skilled, but smarter. According to Dweck, the opposite of growth mindset is fixed mindset (the belief that your abilities are fixed). Criticism of growth mindset has generally focused on the research. If students are exposed to the concept of growth mindset, do they perform better? Take on more challenges? Persist through failure? The jury is out–but all of this evades a basic philosophical problem: growth mindset has no ultimate superiority or autonomy. People not only have both mindsets, but need both. A world of pure growth mindset would be frenetic and absurd.

I devoted the ninth chapter of Mind over Memes to this topic; I discussed it many times on this blog. Here I will make my points briefly. Each of us has both potential and limitation; the one helps the other. To do one thing well, you have to let yourself not do certain other things. Even young people, capable of doing many things at once, need to set some limits. It should not be shameful, at some point, to say “I can’t.”

Ability itself has outer limits. Most of us can get a little better at just about anything. If I wanted to get a little better at tennis (to the point where I could hit the ball), I probably could. But it’s safe to say that I would never–and I really mean never–make it to Wimbledon, except as an audience member. The same is true even for things that I do well, such as languages. I am getting better at Hungarian by the week. I will get much better within the next few years. Yet I may never reach complete fluency: being able to say anything, accurately and expressively, on any topic within my knowledge.

But even if we could do anything and everything, we would not necessarily want to. There’s something to be said for rest. It is not necessarily lazy to lie down and sleep. It is not necessarily shameful to stop working and take a walk.

It is not a copout to work a job and consider it a job–to leave it at the end of the day. As  a teacher, I take my work home, but there’s a good argument for the contained work week. It allows you to do other things, whatever those may be.

It is not shameful to spend time with others and alone, to go through the many ups and downs of life, and to choose your attentions. But that requires letting yourself be “fixed” in some ways: admitting that you want something other than constant improvement, as important as this may be.

Growth mindset advocates have already admitted that people have a mixture of mindsets. (Are they even mindsets, I wonder?) But they have not acknowledged the possible virtues of the mixture. They have not yet acknowledged that growth mindset is anything but The Answer.

It is good to believe that one can improve, and to know how to do so. But it is also good to to allow for some focus, to acknowledge that we can’t all be everything, and (at some point) to call it a day.

Old School in Hungary: Part 4


“If they go to Kamchatka, I will be happy,” one student told me after class. “But they will never go.” He was referring to Robert Frost (the character)’s advice to George Kellogg, who won the audience with him: “Go to Kamchatka.” He was also complaining that nothing seems to be happening in the novel. “I’ve been waiting for some action,” another said. “But it is all in vain.”

This provided the opening for a discussion of action itself. What is action? I asked the class. A student defined it as something that has consequences. Does action have to be physical? I asked. No, several replied; thoughts and words can be actions. (Another time we will consider to what extent actions must be intentional, and to what extent thoughts can be considered actions, or part of actions.)

So the novel does have action, I explained, but it also has inaction, and this is important to notice. What has not happened yet that is waiting to happen?

A student who had made one of the original comments answered, “He hasn’t won a writing contest yet. Is he going to win the third one?” I wouldn’t answer that question, but I asked what else hadn’t happened yet, in relation to that. We talked about how the narrator’s character’s writing hasn’t taken off yet; he puts so much pressure on himself that he can’t write, he doesn’t like his own ideas, he’s holding something back.

Then we could look at his reaction to The Fountainhead, which he reads four times; the students were disturbed that he likes it so much, that he gets so caught up in the idea of selfishness that he even sees his grandfather and grandfather’s wife as pathetic bores who are trying to keep him down.

I began to feel their kindness as a form of aggression. Patty was pitilessly solicitous. I couldn’t touch a book without getting grilled about the sufficiency of light and the comfort of the chair. Was I warm enough? Did I need a pillow for my back? How about one of the five thousand Cokes they’d stored up in anticipation of my visit? Grandjohn kept telling me how lucky I was to have my mother’s eyes, and how proud of me she would have been. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom and scream silently, rocking from side to side like a gorilla, my head thrown back, my teeth bared.

Everyone could recognize this kind of situation. But his attitude? In many students eyes, reprehensible. How could he not see his grandfather’s wife’s kindness and good intentions?–but I asked them if they could see any hints that this was not going to be the narrator’s final attitude. A student pointed out “I began to feel” as a temporary state; others picked up on other things. We could then consider why he works himself into a fever of (supposed) confidence over a story he hasn’t written yet, and why he collapses in French class. And then–humiliation upon humiliation–Big Jeff wins the contest. Think what you will of Big Jeff’s story–some students found it preposterous–but he wrote it.

That was one section. In the other, on Monday, I was giving them some background on Nietzsche and Rand; we read excerpts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Fountainhead. But some students would not let me get away with telling them that Nietzsche said that “God is dead.” What does that mean? they wanted to know. Does this mean that God was alive before? How, according to Nietzsche, did humans kill God? Was Nietzsche an atheist, or was he creating a new religion of his own? All of these are important questions, and I had never been pelted with them in this way before, so I tried to offer answers, realizing that the more important thing here was the wrestling with these questions, the insistence on making sense of them. Then a few students got onto a seeming tangent about animals. Do animals go to heaven, according to Christianity? I said there was no clear answer on this issue. If they do go to heaven, a student asked, does that include all the animals over the course of evolution? I imagine so, I said, but I really don’t know! How do you expect me to know these things?

“Teachers are supposed to be smart,” a student quipped.

“Yes, and smart people admit that they don’t know everything.” (Ha! I got them there.) So we turned our attention to the text–and from here it made sense that the narrator would get caught up in The Fountainhead, as distant as Rand supposedly is from Nietzsche, as much as she liked to think of herself as indebted to no one.

At least at this stage, liking the book is immaterial here. Or rather, the dislikes are as important as the likings, as a way of opening up the book. This is partly a surprise for me. I knew that disliking was important, but I didn’t know how much it could fuel a discussion, and what kinds of understandings it could bring out. Some lessons are so lively I can barely keep up, and others are sleepier, but we’re now in the middle of the book, following it where it goes.

The book won’t go to Kamchatka, not on the surface, anyway (I’ll give just that one spoiler). But I think some students will be surprised by where it goes.


This is the fourth in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I added a sentence to this piece after posting it.

Old School in Hungary: Part 1

Old_School_coverWhy would I choose to teach Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to 33 ninth-graders (in two sections) here in Szolnok? The first answer is that I saw a chance to do so, a chance that might not come back any time soon. If I didn’t take this chance, there’s no telling that they would ever read the novel, and I knew it would be worthwhile for them, even though (and especially because) they wouldn’t understand everything right away. It would not be forgotten.

We had our first lesson last week. Before we opened the book, I showed them pictures of Nixon and Kennedy. I asked them, on the basis of the pictures, who they would vote for. They selected Kennedy (unanimously, I think), mostly because he was the more familiar of the two. I asked them which of the two they could more easily imagine at Varga, our school. Again Kennedy. Why? He seemed like one of them, just older and part of the past and a different country and culture. Maybe this, too, had to do with the familiarity, the way his lore had entered their lives.

Then we opened up and read the beginning.

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all.

They were hooked, or at least interested. It wasn’t just that the prelude helped them understand the opening sentence. Rather, they understood what came later: the narrator’s discussion of class, an unmentioned topic at a boys’ elite boarding school that professed to uphold “a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.” They understood how the school could exist at two levels: that of its ideals, and that of its undercurrents.

But would they understand these boys who were vying for the literary award, whose prize was the honor of a private audience with a famous visiting writer, who would select the winning piece? They have known nothing quite like this; they take part in contest upon contest, but the prize is money, an academic award, or some modest fame.

But they realized quickly that they did not have to match the story directly to their lives. It unrolls its own meaning. They grasped a passage that explains (at least partly) why the boys cared so much about that competition: the narrator talks about writers who were welcomed by other writers (p. 7):

My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.

Even if the students reading this had never wished to be anointed themselves (and I imagine a few had), they could imagine these boys battling their hearts out for the prize.

Today, in our second session, we read the part with Hartmut’s tune, Gershon, and Dean Makepeace: the narrator unwittingly learns a Nazi tune at YMCA camp from the chef, Hartmut; whistles it later at school, in the presence of Gershon, a handyman who (unbeknownst to the boy) is a Holocaust survivor; and is summoned by Dean Makepeace for an explanation. Some students picked up on details: they recognized the time period, noticed that Hartmut was Austrian and understood what this might mean; they understood that the narrator hadn’t realized that he was whistling a Nazi melody in Gershon’s presence, but that for Gershon it brought back the sick cruelty and degradation of the concentration camp. They understood, also, what was missing from the narrator’s apology to Gershon: how he held back the fact that his own father was Jewish. (He reveals it to the reader just at the moment that he admits that he didn’t say it to Gershon–or to Dean Makepeace.)

One student thought that if the boy had told Gershon that his father was Jewish, he would have been trying to get Gershon’s sympathy, instead of offering sympathy. He has a point there. But we were all left thinking, along with the narrator in retrospect, that the apology was lacking–not just imperfect, but dishonest. We talked, especially in the first section, about what makes a genuine apology: how it requires opening yourself up to pain, acknowledging the pain that you have caused. (I do not believe in perfect apologies; nor does this book, I think. Apologies don’t have to follow a script or check all the boxes. But they require a basic willingness to see and be seen.)

It so happened that we read the passage about Gershon today, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it brought even more intensity to the discussion, especially in the earlier session. (One of the two sections meets with me on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the other on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.) It was striking that the narrator didn’t portray himself as noble. After imagining a melodramatic story of reconciliation and bonding between himself and Gershon, he rejects the idea (p. 23):

Fat chance. I wanted out of there, and I was confiding nothing. I’d let Gershon think the worst of me before I would claim any connection to him, or implicate myself in the fate that had benched him in this room. Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe? All this came over me as a gathering sense of suffocation. I stammered out a final apology and left, taking the stairs at a run as soon as the door clicked shut behind me.

Forget about “relating.” Who in the world has not done this? Who has not rejected a human connection, simply because it seemed too inconvenient, too unlucky, too miserable?

No wonder the boys in this story throw themselves into the writing contest. The narrator suspects the same: “Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class” (p. 24). It seems to them, ironically, that to be a writer is even to escape yourself. At the end of the first chapter, everything seems to come together, just momentarily.

It is not an easy book. The words, details, references, ideas, emotions, evasions, and bare truths would be a lot for some college students, not to mention ninth graders. But here we are, and such chances do not come every day. They will be able to reread the book in the near and far future. The copies are theirs. But they can’t reread it unless they’ve read it in the first place. That’s why we’re doing this now. Some students will respond to it more than others, or in different ways from others–the “they” is a generalization–but that, too, is part of the point. For a few students, this is already a revelation. They didn’t know that writing could be like this–but what is “this”?

We will find out as we go along. I have read the book four or five times and returned to certain passages repeatedly over the years. I have carried it in my mind. I have written about it on this blog. But I didn’t know what it would be like to read it aloud with my students, to hear the words, to sound them out in time. I will write about this as we go along–not describing every class session, but keeping track of this so that we can look back on it later.

I am grateful to my colleague Marianna, who made this possible. While we read onward, she will continue working through the textbook with them. They are already far along in the textbook, so we have some room. Last week and this week we have been reviewing for a test, but beginning next Monday, they will focus on Old School in all their classes with me, until we finish reading it. I can’t wait to see and hear what comes.

I made some edits to this piece (for clarity) after posting it.

This is the first in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

“The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time”


There’s a common assumption in American society, and to varying degrees around the world, that if you are not frantically busy, then you are not working hard enough. A leisurely life, in the view of many, is nothing but a frivolous luxury. Especially if you are a woman, you should be running around doing this and that; many people prove themselves by rattling off their schedule to those around.

It is acknowledged, now and then, that some men need to go off into their studies to ponder, or to the river to fish. But for women, this kind of leisurely solitude has little or no place in the public imagination; a woman who goes off on her own to work on something may even arouse pity. “Poor thing!” they think, if they think about the matter at all. “She doesn’t go out, she doesn’t socialize, she must be so lonely and bored.” Or: “Why isn’t she an activist?

Why shouldn’t leisure (of various kinds) be treated as a good–not only for the wealthy, but for everyone who needs and wants it? “I just can’t afford it,” some will reply. But there are also those who can’t afford to go without it. What’s more, it needs, like other things, to be learned and passed on. This can be done almost anywhere; tt’s possible to create leisure even on a low income. This is an old idea; liberal education, in its earliest conception, was education within leisure, for leisure; while this idea has been contested over time, part of it holds up as strongly as ever, if not more so.

First of all, leisure allows a person to think. It isn’t the same thing as sloth–lying around, dilly-dallying, munching on chips while watching TV (though all of that can have a place). It’s a matter of slowing down enough to carry a thought from beginning to end–to test out possibilities, consider meanings, and so on.

Second, leisure can be profoundly productive. There are things you can’t work on in a rush. For my translation work, and for any serious writing, I need stretches of time, so that I can work without worrying that I will suddenly have to stop. Interruptions are part of life, but too many get in the way of your thinking and condition what you are able to do in the first place.

Leisure also changes your attitudes about life, often for the better. If you recognize that you don’t always have to rush, then you can take time with things that need time. This allows you to actually accomplish them. For example, writers often make the mistake of submitting pieces for publication before they’re really ready, or submitting them to the wrong place. It takes a lot of time to bring the writing to its ideal state and seek out appropriate publications. If you rush any of this, you will probably do something wrong. But if you take the time to persist, something will work out.

Leisure is good for the health, too. On weekends like this, when I don’t have to rush anywhere, I feel rested and clear-headed. I can piece together the events of the past week, month, and year; I can look ahead and ask myself questions; I can have fun and laugh.

It can take place in company; leisure doesn’t have to be solitary (in the most obvious sense, the sense of physical aloneness). Whether with others or alone, you can take time to enjoy something, discuss something, or just be together or by yourself.

But leisurely solitude is a great thing for those who want or need it. It isn’t for everyone. Some people get anxious when alone for too long; others get bored when they don’t have enough to do. Such boredom or anxiety isn’t fixed, though; a person can lose it over time.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “leisure” derives from the Old French “leisir,” “capacity, ability, freedom (to do something); permission; spare time; free will; idleness, inactivity,” from the Latin from Latin licere “to be allowed”; it has the same root as “license.” Interesting that it contains both the sense of “capacity to do something” and “idleness.” That is its paradox: to do certain things, you need idleness as your foundation.

Leisure also allows you to do nothing, or seemingly nothing. To look out at the frost on the trees, to listen to music, to read a book, to take a long bike ride, to sit and think, to sit with your cat (who understands leisure very well), to laugh over something funny that happened, to make up a story in your mind, to sense the changing of the light.

I close with “Leisure” by Amy Lowell:

Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.

Blasts from the Present and Past


Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar, but the overall spirit was. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.


Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but I want something else now. One reason I respect and enjoy 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech. They have many contrasts; sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics are both clear and enigmatic; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it.

Different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe a surprise or even a revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone—made the waiting good. I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was touched and honored. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.


I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it. Later I edited it some more for clarity.

“Self-Partnered”? Or Self-Branded?


A recent New York Times opinion piece by Bradley B. Onishi posits that many single people are in fact “self-partnered“–in other words, that they are in a relationship, not primarily with others, but with themselves. Onishi seems to see this–including the branding–as a good thing. While I see many joys in being single–and do not view marriage as the key to human legitimacy–I find this argument preposterous. A relationship with oneself is not the same as a relationship with another. Using the term “partner” for singleness creates confusion. But beyond that, I see no reason to justify single life, or any other kind of life, with a big idea.

First of all, singlehood is not a partnership with self. When you’re by yourself, you more or less know yourself. You may question yourself, search yourself, or even argue with yourself–but all of this happens within yourself. In contrast, when you face another person, you are confronted with what and who you do not know, even if in some way you know the person well. Even Odysseus and Penelope call each other “strange.”

Second, no matter what your relationship or lack thereof, you don’t have to justify it with a big idea or catch-phrase. It can exist on its own terms, and it can change. Why would anyone want to be “self-partnered”? It sounds more lonely than not being partnered at all–because the term evades the solitude. Why not let there be solitude, and company, and anything in between? Why not let these things be a little bit wordless, too?

One of the commenters on the NYT piece wrote, in response to my first comment,

Bingo. Everything has to be portrayed as some kind of new discovery of The True Way (same with diets, exercise, our relationships to technology, religion, and so on).
Looking for a ‘soul mate’ has little to do with reality. A partner is something else. Not to say that there aren’t good reasons to live on one’s own; there are plenty. But do we have to call it being your own soul mate?

That’s right, we don’t! Terms like “self-partnering” create the illusion that our choices are equal to any others. In fact they are not. Nothing is complete. No matter which way we choose in life, we give up something else. Some of us wonder what might have happened if we had chosen (or at least allowed for) a different way. Such questioning is fine. We can rejoice in what we have; we can bewail it. But we don’t have to petrify or laminate it in phrases. It can take surprising and changing shapes. I would rather learn from life than sum it up; I would rather work with words over time than scavenge them for an instant brand.

I changed the title slightly after posting this piece.