In Person

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The coronavirus isolation is not all bad. It’s good for working on projects, sifting through thoughts, going on bike rides. Even on a short bike ride, I find all kinds of things to explore; I turn off onto dirt roads (which are dry, not muddy, right now), discover a bridge or path I didn’t know about before, take detours, cross meadows, peer into the river, and turn back when I think it’s time.

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So that’s isolation, on the one hand. At home, too, there’s a lot of exploring in it. Putting together the online journal Folyosó, which will appear on May 11, I have been editing pieces, experimenting with layouts, fixing this or that feature, and getting so absorbed in the whole thing that I stay up late.

But the pandemic is bringing out, in different ways, the necessity of doing certain things in person. Zoom and other online services are substitutes, and substitutes only. Sometimes a substitute will not do. For instance, we (the drama club, the drama teacher, and I) were going to take Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves) to the festival in Veszprém this June. The festival was cancelled; of course it was. First of all, if the drama troupes cannot rehearse, how can they prepare for a festival? Second, a festival of this kind cannot take place virtually. We were disappointed, but this just brings out how drama requires physical presence–of the actors among each other, of the stage and space, and of the audience along with the actors. The actor and director Joel Grey wrote about this in a memorable and treasurable New York Times piece.

With teaching, too, the best thing is to have classes in person. We work with the substitutes because we have to, and some good things come out of them. But there is nothing like being in the room together, seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, sensing the mood as the lesson progresses, picking up on understanding and uncertainty, and above all, living the lesson–be it grammar, literature, or something else–together. The substitutes–Discord, Zoom, Messenger, Google Classroom, and so on–are functional, but functionality is not everything. I think of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz.

I don’t think anyone is mistaking Zoom, etc., for a palace. But it’s also good to see them for what they are: substitutes. Less than ideal. Not the ideal itself. Granted, they can do some things that in-person gatherings cannot (for instance, bring together people from all around the world). But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

A new video by the rock band Kiscsillag expresses this uproariously (and bawdily). The song itself, “Nem szégyellem,” precedes the pandemic–and appears on the band’s new album, Tompa késekbut the video itself was shot on mobile phones, just a few weeks ago, in the band members’ homes. (See a Music Backstage article on this.) A gem of quarantine rock and home filming–and you don’t need to know Hungarian to appreciate it, though each word raises the appreciation higher.

 

 

There you have the soul of it, ticklish but true. It isn’t just that certain things are best done in person. It’s that when all the things around you–the food in the fridge, the bathtub, the rocking horse, the vacuum cleaner, the chess board–start acting as substitutes for the world, then you know that you, too, have been substituted.

 

Why Spring Break was Cancelled in NYC

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On March 30, New York State issued a directive for schools to continue online instruction throughout the spring break, which includes Passover and Easter. There was a possibility of giving teachers and students two days off–for the first day of Passover and for Good Friday–but that ultimately got nixed. Why no spring break? The primary reason given is this: that if students and teachers are busy with schoolwork, they will be more likely to adhere to social distancing, which in turn will help the city overcome the coronavirus. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a letter, “We are confident that continuing remote learning will help ensure that families adhere to social distancing in the coming weeks, which is imperative to slowing the spread of the virus and keeping ourselves and our neighbors safe.”

This rationale reveals an underlying belief (endemic to American education) that a good part of the purpose of school is to keep people busy and out of trouble. Not only that, but if you are looking to keep people busy and out of trouble, just put them in school.

The assumption that this is a legitimate purpose of education–to keep people from doing other things, to keep them busy–creates plenty of mischief of its own. Leisure, rest, breaks should be part of education, not distrusted. A spring break, far from releasing the masses into the evils of the streets, could actually give families and individuals a chance to catch up with themselves a little, celebrate the holidays, do some housecleaning, relax, and prepare for the coming weeks and months. In contrast, online instruction without a break will contribute to stress, which, beyond a small amount, is bad for the health and for education too.

The idea is not limited to the current crisis. Many U.S. pedagogical models emphasize the importance of keeping students busy at every moment. Granted, most educators will stress that the activities should be purposeful and meaningful, but they still recommend a tight sequence, with swift, well-coordinated transitions. There’s an assumption that if you let up just slightly, havoc will ensue. And so it becomes the truth. Many kids do not learn how to handle pauses, silences, and uncertainties. Why not? Because they are told, from day one, that they must stay “on task.” Teachers are told to keep things swift and purposeful–to remind students of the aim of the lesson, to demand outcomes, and to avoid having students do any one thing (especially listening to the teacher) for very long.

Some of this is fine. But it has turned into a system-wide fear of autonomy, of being left to one’s own devices. This relentless busyness doesn’t help education or those involved in it. Even less does it help those badly in need of rest right now. At the very least, teachers and students could have been given those two days–Thursday and Friday–so that they could celebrate the holidays at home and enjoy a brief respite from online life. Education does not take place in frenzy, nor cures and recovery in exhaustion.

Kindness as a Staple

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Just about everything has been said about the coronavirus that can be said with knowledge, feeling, or both. One of the biggest challenges is the uncertainty surrounding the virus; that too has been said many times.

But one thing hasn’t been said enough, or I haven’t seen it enough. Part of the stress lies in not knowing whether people around us have it, whether anyone we know is dying of it, whether anyone we know has died. I worry that I will find out months, maybe years, later that someone I know died from it. I worry also that many with the virus are afraid to say anything at all.

The virus carries stigma. Those who admit to having it–or to knowing someone who has it–risk ostracism, blame, and other loss. For their own protection, people keep medical matters to themselves; doctors protect the information too.

So if we want to know what’s going on, we first have to pledge to treat others with staunch kindness, to treat kindness itself as a staple. That requires not just sweetness, but daring too. Those with the virus are not the enemies of the rest; any of us could be one of them one day, and they’re suffering alone.

At this point, as far as I know, no one I know personally has the virus. A friend’s daughter–who lives in London–has it. It’s possible there are others. I am in good health; to my knowledge, my family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and students are well, here, in the U.S., and elsewhere. But I know my knowledge is limited.

I don’t mean in any way that people should start compulsively posting their health status on Facebook, that doctors should start revealing personal information, or that individuals should face pressure to state how they are. No, these would do more harm than good! But maybe it will become possible–or simply necessary–for people to speak without trepidation. Maybe there could be guarantees of job security, housing security, basic services for the ill. Maybe those receiving the news could treat the messengers with honor. That will help us all.

Old School in Hungary: Part 9

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We finished the novel, and then schools throughout Hungary closed on account of the coronavirus. We didn’t have a chance to discuss the book as a whole. But at least we completed it and discussed the ending together; we devoted our last lesson to the last half of the last chapter. Afterward, as we quickly adjusted to online classes, students’ written responses started to arrive in my box. The days went by, and I thought about how strange it was that for us, too, school had become a memory–a recent one, yes, but a memory all the same.

The students’ responses to Old School varied in emphasis, idea, emotion, and more. I am quoting a few here–with the authors’ permission–to give a sense of the range. In this one, a student describes a change of perspective over the course of the reading.

At first I didn’t know what to think of the book. It felt dull, like just another book about writers coming to visit a private school. The fact that we don’t know the name of the narrator didn’t help either. It made me feel like it’s not even an individual story, which, now that I think about it, is not even a bad thing. I couldn’t relate to the main character. He had different problems, feelings, and attitudes towards the questions of life. In chapter ”Übermensch,” for example, he read a novel and suddenly realized that he belongs to the next level of humanity. How am I supposed to place myself in that situation?

But as I read more and more, I started to get the picture. The discussions helped me understand the deeper meanings that I wasn’t able to recognize while reading at home. There was one part in particular that I couldn’t stop reading. It was the part when the narrator got expelled. One reason for that is that I can’t put a book down not knowing what happens next. What’s more, the way the narrator heard the same usual sounds of the school brought up some memories of mine, memories of my last day at primary school. Although it wasn’t an expulsion, I felt the same way. Now that was relatable. The way I, once a student, became an outsider.

It is difficult to summarize the whole novel as one single unit. It has parts that seem to be only storytelling, but in reality have a double meaning. There are also philosophical parts, which require the reader to think about certain questions for themselves. Overall, this book has definitely changed my perspective on life.

Another student, after explaining what he didn’t like about the book–the difficulty of the language, the lack of information about the characters, the lack of clear signals when a dialogue is beginning or ending–went on to discuss what he liked:

The characters were very interesting, especially the “narrator” in the perspective from which we could usually see his thoughts mostly, not his physical acts. Also the way he plagiarized the book, and thought that it really was his.

I really liked (or disliked) the other characters as well. For example my favourite of them all was Mr. Ramsey, who won this place because he was so different in the school than after the narrator was expelled, in the car and at the station. And when he gave the pack of cigarettes to the narrator: that was such a middle-finger to the Honour Code which he did not agree with. And there was Goss, who behaved disgustingly. And this was, I think, some of the biggest magic of the book: you could really associate with the narrator, how he felt in these situations, and what his feelings were about other characters, and it was so well written! And anyone can associate with these feelings, because there is no human being who never felt the stressful pressure while being charged by something, knowing/realising what he did and what the consequences will be, but unable to say a word for his protection. And also, these characters are so real, that you can really associate with them.

One student brought up the loss of innocence in the book–the realization that the school has double standards and that the world isn’t a “pink bubble”:

Old School deals with many moral issues and social problems. It can be read as a parody or satire on the value of art and morals in society (for example, the racial boundaries). But what caught me the most that the novel introduces us to an academic environment with strict standards, but later we can see them as double standards and false standards. Like when the boy is caught copying, he knows he has broken an ethical code (which I think is not so perfect), but what he doesn’t know then, he learns later in the book: All the people who judged him so harshly were liars too, as was the idea of “not lying.”

My personal favourite part is when the narrator whistles a song what he learned during his summer job. I had no idea why the school’s handyman Gershon was so upset when he heard it. It was a big suprise when it turned out to be a Nazi song. I found it the story’s most shocking part. That was when I felt that the writer pulled us out of the little sweet school life to push us into the true and cold reality. This was a powerful point for the narrator (and for us). At that moment he finally realises that the world isn’t a pink bubble. He experienced bad things before, but lots of people experienced so much worse. And he started to cry when he found out the truth about the song and Gershon’s past. I think it was very a human reaction from the narrator. At that moment I could sympathize with him.

Another student went through some changes of perspective and understanding while reading–at first noticing what the book wasn’t, but later realizing what it was.

Through the last few weeks, I have been a part of a story whose atmosphere was unknown for me in many aspects. At first the book itself sounded great, as though there would be some action and adventure. Yet it wasn’t as I expected it to be. For me the most interesting experience was that when I was reading the chapters I didn’t feel any of this great adventure, but as I am now fully aware of the whole story, I look back and see lots of expressions, conflicts, confrontations, secrets. I think this is why it is unusual for me but these things take the story to a whole other level. Now I think reading a book like this can help us with understanding some real important issues we will be having in our lives, so I think it teaches a lot about how to handle some situations.

What I have realised is that reading a book is one thing, but to talk about it with people of different opinions is the best way of understanding what it may hold hidden between some pages. Through the discussions, I could feel sometimes that some parts of the book are just boring and like the story wasn’t going anywhere, but after all I think these might have been the most essential parts to make a full story. If we think about the fact that throughout the story we have met some famous writers who, in other cases we wouldn’t have met, this is a story full of knowledge. If we think about it, this book really broadens our minds.

I am glad that we had class discussions, as now I can see lot of things more clearly, and I think this built a stronger trust between some classmates.

One student wrote about the book in terms of the questions it raised:

My first question is why Makepeace gave money to his wife, if they didn’t live together. He could have loved her very much.

The other question that makes me think about is Susan and the narrator’s relationship. I can’t stand how could Susan be so kind and friendly with the narrator, after what he did. She could have become a talented writer if he hadn’t stolen her novel. I can’t stand this, but I have to recognize her. When they were at the restaurant, she said “writing is too frivolous; it makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good,” but she knows that the narrator was a writer, and she hurts him with this monologue, maybe just accidentally. I think the narrator liked Susan more than as a friend, before they met, but during the “date” Susan gives clear signals that she doesn’t like him. Why does the narrator accept Susan’s idea for a meeting place, if he knows there’s won’t be anything between them?

One of my favourite citations in the book is: “let sleeping dogs lie….” We discussed the meaning of this sentence, but it started the gears in my brain. Is it a good decision to keep the truth hidden? Maybe, if I were Makepeace, I would have told the truth. He felt guilty, and he could feel much better through making a statement. On the other side, it could make others lose their confidence in him. But he hasn’t got any choice, because that was one of the headmaster’s terms. In my opinion, Makepeace was a totally honest and good person, if he got hurt by this little lie.

Another student focused on the ending:

I think this ending was very messed up and unordinary. As I like to read, I have gotten used to some types of endings, such as in the crime stories, where they find out who the murderer was. But this was absolutely different. We didn’t get to know whether the main character visited his old school or not.We didn’t get to know about his family life, or what his job was alongside writing. Although I would do it differently, this ending was good in his own manner. It was a plot twist, and the readers hadn’t expected that. And the good writer pretends to surprise his or her readers.

Another had a striking comment on the copying of “Summer Dance”:

What made an impression on me? Well, I liked reading this book because it wasn’t a fairy tale. It had some real-life problems, and these things made it better. When I found out that the narrator was Jewish, I didn’t really understand why he didn’t say it to Dean Makepeace. He could just say it, and this way he shouldn’t have apologized. A while later I finally understood that he was afraid. Afraid because he didn’t want to be an outcast in the school. Afraid of what his friends would think of him. And I felt sorry for him, not knowing that he was going to be strong enough to say it.

This is why I was so happy when he copied “Summer Dance.” Even though it wasn’t his, everyone thought that it was. He had the power to announce the truth about himself. The whole school found out that he was Jewish. He was no longer afraid or embarrassed about his true self, and this is what made an impression on me.

Another student expressed ambivalence–relating to certain things, finding the ending and overall style unsatisfactory, but enjoying the experience overall:

Quite frankly, the story was relatable. The protagonist went through some character development, which happens to the most of us at his age. He even cycled through the same outlooks on life as I did, or am currently doing. Having your role-model be the perfect and peak performance of a human, without any faults. Of course he too realized how stupid that is.

The only thing I can nit-pick about is how the end left too many questions open, and how solving them required a lot of post-processing and theorizing by the class. Some people find these things entertaining, and I have to admit it is kind of smart, but since I personally would have missed the hidden meanings, I find it under-handed.

I would never really voluntarily read stories like this one. It was honestly more of a documentary than anything, although it was relatively enjoyable even though it was a mandatory read. The class discussions were fun and I think they were better than simple classes where we learn things I mostly already know.

Many students wrote about the discussions themselves. Here are a few quotes:

Although I really enjoyed the weird storyline at the end, my favorite part was discussing the story, because it was very interesting to hear my classmates’ thoughts about it. I also enjoyed that I could give some useful thoughts to these discussions. I felt that I understood the meaning of the story, so I am really happy about that, especially because I am not a huge fan of reading books. This book encouraged me to start reading more often.

Another:

The class discussions let us get to know each other’s personality more, which was really important for our little community. They also showed how intelligent my classmates are. I noticed it when small arguments came up in class and everyone could keep their chill and talk about the disagreements with respect.

Another comment that brings up the class arguments:

To begin with, the characters of the book had really big effects on me. I could “see with their eyes” and think like them. For example, Ayn Rand’s personality and features were exciting and disgusting at the same time for me. Besides her, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost also impressed me. Also the calm and kindness of the narrator’s grandparents melted my heart. In a nutshell I was able to observe so many people with different lives, habits, and features.

For me the most important part was the class discussion, so I would like to focus on this. Due to the discussions and arguments, I could hear my classmates’ opinions on a given topic. It helped me get to know them a little bit better. I could see how they could argue and what their reasons were. It also showed how wise and mature they are.

Lastly, I stepped out of my comfort zone too. I read something that I thought I would never choose, but as it turned out, it was very good. So in a percentage of the reading I tried something new, and new things are always exciting.

Taking everything into account, I liked this book, but I liked how we elaborated on it even more.

I could go on with the comments, but after all, not one of them is the last word, for the students individually, for the class, for me, or for the book, so I don’t need to turn them into anything conclusive. Instead, they show how some students met the book in time: what it meant, didn’t mean, or came to mean.

I think of how quickly it all went by. Walking into the classroom (sometimes seeing students up at the board drawing diagrams of the plot–they were nervous about the pop quizzes), starting the discussion, hearing students’ comments, looking at passages closely together, raising more questions, and then hearing the bell and realizing that we had run out of time. I also think back on the long conversations with students who didn’t like the book but would linger after class to talk about it. Liking or not liking–that’s secondary to what happened here. For this I am grateful to Old School, to my school, to my colleague Marianna (who helped make this possible), and to my students.

 

This is the last in a series of nine posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. All the students quoted in this post gave permission to have their comments included. To view all the posts, go here.

Life During Virustime

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Within a couple of hours, everything changed. On Friday afternoon (a rainy day), in my English class–we were starting a unit on American musical theatre–my tenth-grade students were dancing and singing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” That evening, at 9:15 p.m., it was announced that schools would be closed as of Monday and that instruction would continue online.

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Although the rumors and announcements had been mixed up to that point, the closure did not come as a complete surprise. That morning, we had held the March 15 celebration–the commemoration of the Revolution of 1848–in individual classrooms. Class 10C gave the performance, which came to the classrooms through the speakers. I was upstairs with the ninth grade and my colleague Marianna. Here is a SzolnokTV video of the performance, the classroom broadcast, and the presentation of a special memorial award.

On Saturday morning, one of my ninth-grade students, Lilla Kassai, had an art exhibit at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library, one of my favorite places to go in Szolnok. I would have been in Budapest yesterday, but synagogue has been cancelled along with everything else, so I went to her opening. It was a beautiful, probing collection of pieces; I was especially taken by the eyes in the various portraits. She talked about each of her pieces to a rotating audience. Her mother, a colleague of mine (the school librarian and a teacher as well), welcomed me warmly and introduced me to family members. What I didn’t realize was that this would be the last chance to see Lilla’s art for a while; yesterday evening it was announced that Szolnok’s cultural centers, museums, and libraries would be closed indefinitely as of Monday.

Paradoxically, it’s harder to teach online than in person. This has nothing to do with technological ineptitude or insecurity. It has everything to do with the lack of physical presence. In a regular classroom, everyone is there, except for those who are absent. Any announcement or discussion is heard by all. Questions can be addressed on the spot. You can have dialogues. Online, you have to wait for people to connect and respond. For the most part, we won’t have real-time virtual sessions, though I hope to schedule a few; instead, there will be deadlines. Teachers will be able to work from home or school, but there will be no meetings with students in person.

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The rationale for this national decision (to continue instruction online), or part of it, is that we might be able to keep the school year on schedule so that graduation and final exams can take place. It’s uncertain whether this will work, or what will happen if it doesn’t, but we just have to give this our best.

There’s lots for us to do online: we can read poems, stories, and articles, watch films and newscasts, listen to songs, and more. We can work intensively on writing–and maybe start an online journal. But it’s possible, as always, that the plan will change tomorrow, or next week, or in two weeks. So it’s better not to get too carried away with online plans–but then again, not to be overly tentative either. It would be a shame to hold back, to stick to the dull and changeable, and watch the months go by.

I can’t help thinking of “Life During Wartime”; hence the title of this post. It’s a world war against an invisible bug. It’s human to want to live normally–to get back to regular life as soon as possible–but “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

 

Elmarad (“Cancelled”)

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Everywhere I go, the event posters say “Elmarad” (“[It Is] Cancelled”). In response to the coronavirus, the Hungarian government has banned indoor public events with 100 or more people, as well as outdoor public events with 500 or more. Our school’s beloved Suligála has been cancelled. Films, concerts, exhibitions, readings–cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. Schools and universities are still open, but school trips abroad have been called off, and more restrictions may be coming. Hungary has 13 known cases of the virus at this point, but if it spreads fast, the medical facilities will be overwhelmed. So it makes sense to take these measures. It’s just sad and strange.

What can we do? Take care of ourselves, stay informed and sane, support the events we would have attended, look for ways to help, visit the local fruit and vegetable store as long as it stays open, stay in touch with others, and hope that this passes soon.

Zsolt Bajnai points out in blogSzolnok that cultural institutions and artists holding events online will suffer financially, since they won’t be able to charge for tickets, merchandise, or refreshments. Those funded by the government will survive, but those who depend on the market will quickly go broke. (I think it makes sense to donate to them here and there, when possible.)

It’s unclear how long we will have to go without public events. It’s sort of like watching a cartoon character eat a two-dimensional meal; you can imagine the real thing, but you don’t get filled. One day there will be a song, story, poem, or play called “Elmarad.” It will speak of these days, and we will get to hear and see it in a three-dimensional physical place with coat hooks, creaky chairs, other people, and all.

In the meantime, I hope we deal well with what is happening now, without forgetting the things that matter over the longer stretch.