From Ballagás to Bankett

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Here in Hungary, after students finish the last of their school-leaving exams, they might have a special dinner at a restaurant, a “bankett,” (like a banquet but not exactly the same), to which they invite their teachers. It’s a chance to spend time together and talk informally. I went to two such celebrations this year and had a great time at both. Serious and light conversations, warm atmosphere, enthusiastic hosts (the students, who made sure we all had plenty to eat and drink). This is all so different from the customs in the U.S. that I want to say a little more about it. I wrote about the serenades and ballagas already. Now for the exams and bankett.

After the ballagás (a ceremony that takes place twice–at school and in the city–after the seniors have finished their classes), the seniors begin taking their exams in several rounds, in a range of subjects. First come the written exams, which (like most of the oral exams) they may take at the standard or advanced level. The standard-level exams are administered by the school; the advanced exams, by the district (and at a location other than the school). Then come advanced oral exams, also administered by the district. After finishing all of this, the students take their standard-level oral exams, which are usually administered by their own teachers in the various subjects. There are oral exams in physics, biology, chemistry, languages, Hungarian language and literature, history, music, informatics, civilization, and more. Not everyone takes every exam; typically, at this stage, students take two or three, depending on what they have taken already and what they need for the university.

I administered the American and British Civilization oral exam to eighteen students in two classes. In addition, I administered two standard-level English exams (since all my other twelfth-grade students from those two classes took the advanced exam). I also sat in the room and listened while other exams were being given; that was part of my responsibility, but it was also an honor.

I did this last year as well and enjoyed it, but this time I understood much more. At its best, the oral exam is a dialogue between student and teacher. The student comes in the room, walks up to the teacher administering his or her first exam, chooses an envelope at random (which contains the specific topic), and sits down to prepare for at least half an hour. When called up–only one student takes the exam at a time–he or she goes to the examination seat across from the teacher, and begins to speak about the topic. Once the initial presentation is over, the teacher poses questions and the student responds.

I saw several physics exams, each of which involved a different experiment–one with a pendulum, one with an electric current, and one that I don’t remember. I listened to a music exam, which started with some theory and sight singing and ended with the student rising and singing a Bartók song magnificently. I heard Hungarian literature (including world literature) exams on topics ranging from Homer to Kafka to Radnóti, and Hungarian grammar exams on vowel harmony, etymology, and logic. History was one of the most dazzling experiences; students spoke in detail about topics from ancient Greek democracy to the rule of Szent István király to the Reformation to the Holocaust to the Kádár regime. Across the subjects, students weren’t always able to answer the teacher’s questions, but those questions served a purpose beyond the test itself. Some questions served to clarify or correct a detail; others challenged the students to explain the meanings and reasons behind the facts. All of this reminded me a little of my oral exams in graduate school; there, too, I found that I was learning something through the exam itself, through the exchange with the professors. But that was graduate school; I have never seen anything like this in high school in the U.S. (or even in college).

I forgot to mention that we dress up for their exams. The students wear white and black (shirts and suits), or white and blue, or their own class’s color combination. The teachers wear white and black, though not as strictly (and we all made some adjustments for the weather, since it was intensely hot). The oral exams as a whole begin and end with a ceremony: all the students in a row, facing all the students who will be examining them. They present flowers to the exam supervisor, who comes from the district. At the end, they receive their diplomas, certificates, and report cards and present flowers or chocolates to the teachers.

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Through these exams, through showing what they have learned and discussing all these topics with their teachers, the students cross over into another stage of life, which is why the bankett is so fitting. It’s a kind of recognition of each other and many things. We get to ask each other questions about life, studies, politics, future plans, cultures, languages, things that you have wanted to know about each other. We get to express appreciation that maybe didn’t find its way into words before. We get to laugh together.

I fear that my description was clumsy, but so is everything right now; I leave for the U.S. the day after tomorrow and will be there until early August. There is much to look forward to this summer and in the coming school year. As for this year, thanks to all the graduating seniors, their families, and their teachers for building this beautiful ending, which holds, transforms, and releases the years that came before.

Graduation, Giving, and Form

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For a high school teacher, graduations happen year after year. But a few stand out; you know, then and later, that they will bring something out of your life and work. This was one. Last week, on Monday and Tuesday, three different classes serenaded me before their last class with me, according to tradition. For some students, this ritual may feel awkward, but they take part in it anyway, knowing that it has meaning. For me, it was one of the most moving events (a threefold event, in fact) in all my years of teaching and beyond. Being sung to, being recognized through song, for those few minutes, does not go away when the songs are over.

Then, in the evening serenade on Tuesday, the teachers sang to the students and vice versa. The school’s drama teacher, the homeroom teacher for class 12A, sang a Transylvanian folk song to her students (with a stunning voice); as she sang, she walked around from student to student, with dance in her step, singing directly to them and looking into their eyes. When I spoke with her afterward, she said she would teach me the song.

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On Thursday we had the school ballagás (farewell ceremony, similar to graduation in the U.S. except that it precedes the final examinations), with singing processions, speeches, and awards–flowers upon flowers, song upon song. First the senior classes walked hand in hand, singing, through the hallways, visiting one classroom after another; then we all went outside into the courtyard.

Yesterday was the citywide ballagás; we weren’t sure whether we would get to have it outdoors, since the weather seemed in between this and that. In the case of rain, we were to listen to the event through loudspeakers at school. But when we arrived around 8:30 in the morning, the sky was showing good restraint. Except for a few drops, it held back throughout the entire ceremony: the speeches, the performances, the procession through the heart of Szolnok, and the release of the balloons.

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Before the ceremony began, parents and relatives greeted their children with flowers, kisses, and photos. Then Marcell Jankó (the MC–and the bassist of 1LIFE) announced the beginning of the ceremony and introduced each speaker and performer. There were three speeches–Gábor Medvegy’s 11th grade farewell speech, Marcell Bajnai’s 12th grade farewell speech, and an Headmaster László Molnár’s address; a poetry recitation by Frida Hajnal; and a flute performance by a student whom I have heard many times but whose name I do not know. In his speech, Marcell Bajnai asked, “Mit adhatok?” (“What can I give?”) This question set the tone of the ceremony and filled the day. I was asking myself a similar question, a question of many years, in a different way; I will get to that later.

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Then came the procession through the city: the seniors in the middle of the street, with two cordons of students from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade, walking hand in hand, on either side of them. On the flanks (the sidewalks), parents, relatives, teachers, and friends pressed along. It was crowded; toes got stepped on, and mud occasionally got stepped into. But that was part of the meaning of it all: walking together, for that short stretch, before going our different ways.

 

 

 

Soon we approached the bridge but did not cross it. (There is no symbolic significance in that; our itinerary took us leftward.) The crowd seemed more crowded; the graduates, more graduated.

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Then came the releasing of the balloons.
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Graduations happen all over the world, year after year, and with all their differences and details, they share a similar form. Given the repetition and multitude, what makes each one beat out its beauty? Why the crowds, the waving hands, the swells of emotion?

In a way, the answer is easy; it’s a rite of passage, and rites of passage matter, no matter how many millions of times they take place. For the families, this is a momentous occasion: seeing their children, siblings, grandchildren, step out into adulthood, into the next stage of their lives. For the teachers, too, there is a kind of family joy; most of the teachers at Varga are parents themselves (or soon to become parents), and so they are not only seeing their students off, but remembering, anticipating, or sometimes directly experiencing their own children’s graduation.

In the past I felt somewhat peripheral and extraneous at graduations, because I have no children and will not be able to have any at this point. I was happy, overwhelmingly happy, for my students but felt a little like an uninvited guest. Over the past year or more, I have come to know things differently. True, I wanted children but do not have any; the reasons and causes are complex and cannot be traced to one particular thing. (Those who say “you can always adopt” are mistaken; there’s no “always” here. Time really does run out, and adoption is no simple matter.) But I have something to give just as I am; I am not a perfect teacher, but I have given something to my students, and they have given something to me too. Moreover, I can give things that no one else could give in the same way, just as others have their own ways of giving.

I was fully part of the graduation ceremonies this week–not in the way that parents, or teachers with children, were part of it, but in a real way nonetheless. I cheered, sang, walked along, felt awe, bumped into people, congratulated people, met parents, and walked home along the river when it was over.

Understanding this, I see that the act of giving has a form, which resembles release. When you give something, you let it be no longer yours; you don’t cling onto it or stamp it into the ground. The recipients may then take it as they wish. For instance, the best advice is given without insistence; the person giving the advice does not try to control the outcome. Everyone has a different form of giving, but the forms have this release in common. I have been thinking and thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” which ends (please read the whole thing),

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

It takes time to find one’s form of giving, and the finding isn’t final; sometimes the form comes undone or gets dislodged. But once it’s found, the giving does its work, seemingly without end. How do you go about finding your form? For some it is easier than for others; parts of it I learned early, and parts have taken all my life so far. I think it has to do with participating in the common forms and all they hold, walking along for that short stretch, again and again. That, and taking your own way, daring to differ, and learning from the bravery of others. Yes, and knowing how to let things and people go.

My best wishes to the graduating class–and thanks to everyone for these beautiful days.

 

Photo credits: I took all the pictures except for the second one, which appears courtesy of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium website.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

“Sunrise, sunset”

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As I enjoy coffee, birdsong, and breeze (the balcony door is opened wide) and think about the coming week, I thrill over the extra bundle of time that got dropped into my lap. Last week, we had the graduation ceremony; this week, the seniors take their finals. While I have many things to do at school, this Monday through Thursday I have no classes until afternoon. Thus I have some morning time for two big projects: reviewing the page proofs for my book and learning the liturgy and texts for Shavuot.

There were two graduation ceremonies: one in school (on Thursday), and one outdoors, throughout Szolnok (on Saturday). I couldn’t attend the second, since I was in Budapest–but the first was unlike any I had seen or heard before. With their form teachers at the front of the line, the seniors walked hand in hand, class by class, through the halls, carrying flowers and singing songs in unison (including “Gaudeamus igitur”). The faculty stood outside the teachers’ room and listened to them as they wove by. It was so beautiful. Then we went out into the schoolyard for the speeches and awards.

These rites of passage have meaning, but only if we recognize that life does pass by.

In the U.S., women (and men) over 30 are continually urged to conceal their age, to make themselves seem younger than they are, to knock off a decade somehow, as though one’s true age were a source of shame. I reject this shame. It is in my fifties that I find things coming together: meaningful work and projects, self-knowledge, a few insights into the world around me, a sense of fun, and a tolerance for the many things that I do not know or understand. I was not there in my twenties, thirties, or forties; why hide from my age, when it has allowed me to build things? One day I will be older still. In fact, that will happen right now.

Each age comes with its responsibilities too. They are not spelled out and absolute–they vary from person to person–but they make themselves clear. I see the fifties as a time of ordering. The house is built; now put things in place. For some, this happens much earlier; for others, later; or maybe different parts happen at different times.

When preparing the Torah portion for this last Shabbat, I struggled with the text (Leviticus 21), which discusses how the priest must keep himself pure. For example, he may marry only a virgin, not a profaned woman, a harlot, or a woman banished from her husband. The judgments of women seem archaic–but as I worked with the text, I saw greater meaning. The priest, in his role, has an obligation to conduct himself in a holy manner, for the sake of the holiness itself. Others might be at liberty to marry a “profaned” woman–but he may not, even if he wishes. There could be many reasons for this: the relationship should not stir up gossip, its status should not be ambiguous, the children should be born into good reputation, etc.–but the larger point is that he must restrict himself for the sake of his role, which in turn serves something larger.

Today’s rules are more flexible–and can vary considerably from one culture or position to another–but like ancient rules, they carry principles. Each office in life comes with its obligations and strictures. In most cultures, a teacher does not socialize with students outside of school, since this would break the integrity of the classroom. Facebook “friending” between teachers and students is common in some places (for instance, here in Hungary) but comes with boundaries. Friendships between teachers and parents are a trickier matter; in some cultures and communities they are common and accepted, whereas in others they break the norm. Yet even where accepted, they must be conducted properly. Even collegial relationships can be tricky, since they come with many unspoken and unofficial rules.

With all the supposed liberties of our era, one of the great challenges is to glean and apply the rules, allowing for appropriate variation. No profession, no way of life can survive long without structure, but what kind does it need? Some parts are obvious at the outset; others take time to figure out but hold equal importance. Part of the beauty of Leviticus (along with its harshness) lies in its offering of structure.

Those who flagrantly disrespect structure (such as President Trump) affect not only themselves but others. The structure is never only for oneself; it sets an example and hints at a form. Throughout my life I have learned from others’ structures and lack thereof.

Back to the question of age: I see the fifties as a time of knowing one’s structure, arranging one’s life within it, and treating others with dignity. This does not have to be rigid or final; there will be many mistakes, openings, bendings, and rebuildings. But one comes to see structure for what it offers and means. This can happen earlier and later too–but there’s a special time when structure comes into focus.

This brings me to the title: “Sunrise, sunset.” The days go by too fast; you barely get your structure together, and it starts to creak. All the more reason, I think, to give it honor.

 

I took the photo on my bike trip.

I revised this piece in several stages after posting it.

The Millefoglie of Success

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Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.

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Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Endings and Unendings

Graduation goodbyes can be tricky. This afternoon I spoke with an alumna who attended the Philosophy Roundtable last  night and returned again today for the International Celebration. We talked about two simultaneous truths. On the one hand, there’s no such thing as goodbye, at least for the living, because there’s always a chance (big or small) that we will cross paths again. On the other hand, to diminish  a goodbye is to diminish everything. At times we must leave a person, place, practice, or idea behind. This allows us not only to go forward but to gather up the meaning of the past.

In the languages I know, there is more than one word for goodbye. The more casual the expression, the less final the goodbye; the more formal, the more final. (In English, we have “see ya” on the one hand and “farewell” on the other.) This suggests to me that farewells contain something serious and unpopular. That does not automatically make them truer than their casual counterparts–but they need to be heard with full ear.

Should a high school treat graduation as a “goodbye” or as a “poka” (Russian for “while” or “later”)? Some might argue for a balance of the two, but they don’t balance. The goodbye is heavier and needs its weight. How do you say, “Goodbye; you’re welcome to come back” without taking away from the goodbye? To do this, you must acknowledge that the goodbye could be final. This might mean, “Goodbye–if forever, best wishes to you; and if not forever, likewise all the best.”

The needs of school and students may diverge here, though. A school needs its alumni; they offer continuity and wisdom (and, at private schools, financial support). When students return to speak of their experience, the school gains a sense of meaning. Yet a school needs a sense of departure as well; while students leave, the school continues on and must turn its attention toward the ones who are there. Alumni, for their part, need a combination of departure and return, which varies from person to person and changes over time.

So in schools and individual students, there is need for both return and departure, for “see you later” and “farewell.” Schools may pull toward the former and students toward the latter, but in any case they are distinct goodbyes, each with its form and meaning.

 

Note: I added to this piece after the initial posting.

 

 

Blogging abroad

graduationI won’t be posting here over the week or two (or more), because I’m wrapping up the school year, getting ready to teach at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, and guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, along with Michael E. Lopez and Rachel Levy, two of my favorite education bloggers.

As of yesterday, I have a piece up on Chalkbeat about my students’ CONTRARIWISE celebration, which took place on May 18 but returns to mind time and time again. (Time played a big role in the event, as you will see.)

My school had its historic first graduation yesterday, in Lerner Hall at Columbia–a great and beautiful event, with a reception (pictured here) outside the library. Tomorrow’s our official last day of school (for students in grades 6-11).

I will be back before too long with some thoughts and posts. In the meantime, here’s a second piece about CONTRARIWISE. Also, see the July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times).