Old School in Hungary: Part 7

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“In this book, two things happen,” one student said. “The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” That was that. But I wanted to hear more. How did he understand these actions? What made them stand out? Did he see a relation between them?

Arch Makepeace, the dean of the school, resigns from his position when the boy (the narrator’s character) is expelled for submitting someone else’s story as his own. Makepeace argues that if the boy is being punished for laying “false claim to a story,” he himself has “laid false claim to much more–to a kind of importance, to a life not his own.” All this time, he has lived, taught, and served as dean in the midst of rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I–and while he has not confirmed this outright, he has not dispelled the rumors either.

In class on Wednesday, one student pointed out that Makepeace is partly responsible for the very contests he hates: not only has he failed to speak up against them, but his own reputation has fueled them.

Then a student suggested that Makepeace actually comes to believe the rumors that he knew Hemingway in World War I. There’s more to that than may appear; I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another student pointed out that he actually does know Hemingway, since he knows his work. Thus the lie is true in a way. This brings up a lot that might have passed by us otherwise: the way he drops A Farewell to Arms from his honors seminar but keeps something by Hemingway on the reading list. (That in itself shows an intimacy with Hemingway’s writing.) He behaves toward Hemingway’s writing the way one would toward an old friend who gets annoying at times.

Back to the other student’s point: although nothing suggests that Makepeace really believes that he knew Hemingway personally, he does seem to have fallen for the sense of being special. This, in fact, allows him to resign; he somehow believes that he has the wherewithal to live without the school and without teaching. There’s a submerged hubris at work here. Later he finds out how wrong he was (191):

In former times Arch had supposed that his sense of being a distinctive and valuable man proceeded from his own qualities, and that they would sustain him in that confidence wherever he happened to be. He’d never imagine that this surety was conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him. But so it was. Unrecognized, he had become a ghost, even to himself.

And just a couple of pages earlier (189-190):

Up to the moment he resigned he must have imagined that teaching was a distraction from some greater destiny still his for the taking. Of course he hadn’t said this to himself, but he’d surely felt it, he later decided, because how else could he not have known how useless he would be thereafter? For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and thought in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.

If the Hemingway rumor has fed his own notion that he is destined for something greater, then through believing this notion, he has come to believe the rumor. But the rumor is also true to an extent; not only does he know Hemingway’s work, but Hemingway the person rises up again and again in it: “Who could not think of Hemingway when reading about Colonel Cantwell pissing on the Italian battleground where he’d been wounded, or Santiago pursuing his big fish?” Arch keeps trying to muffle his Hemingway but has doubts about doing so; he “distrusted his growing aversion to both the man and the work. It might well be a dishonest form of chagrin at his own false position, or simply resentment at looking so small beside the giant to whom he’d let himself be linked” (184-185). Even as he thinks he looks small beside Hemingway, he unknowingly imagines himself a giant of sorts. He is too reticent to show this off or even accept it in himself, but it becomes part of his thought and action.

And there–we concluded yesterday in class–lies a parallel between him and the narrator. Both take on a story that is theirs and not theirs. Both pay for this truth-lie by leaving the school: the one through being kicked out, the other through resigning.

I’ll stop here for now, since the second section finishes the book tomorrow (the first finished it yesterday). I think back on the words: “In this book, two things happen. The first is that the boy gets expelled. The second is that the story ends with Makepeace.” We will take this up on Monday, our last day with the book.

 

This is the seventh 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.

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.

Essay Prep à la Cartoon

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Yesterday I told my ninth-grade students (in Szolnok, Hungary) that today they would be writing an essay about the advantages and disadvantages of replacing a city park with a new parking garage. (The assignment is from the textbook.) Yesterday they wrote their outlines. A few got worried when I told them the essay would be graded. “So it’s a test?” they asked. I explained: no, it wasn’t a test, just graded in-class writing. “So it’s a test,” they replied. One of them asked me if it was OK to add something that wasn’t in the rubric: specifically, a suggestion of an alternative solution, such as an underground garage. By all means, I said; if you wish to improve upon the rubric, please do so.

According to the rubric, they are supposed to give an introduction, then discuss the advantages of replacing a park with a parking garage, then discuss the disadvantages, then wrap everything up with a conclusion and opinion. In my view, it’s a stronger essay if the author makes an actual argument (since the author’s opinion comes up anyway). That is, before the conclusion, the author should explain why the advantages outweigh the disadvantages or vice versa (or offer an alternative). That way, the argument has its own place, and the conclusion can be devoted to wrapping things up. I welcomed students to stick with the rubric in the textbook or modify it in this particular way.

(I use the textbook, but not only the textbook, in class; I supplement it with literature, articles, songs, discussion, skits, writing assignments, and other texts and activities.)

When I entered the classroom today, a few minutes before the start of class (there’s a ten-minute break between most classes), the room was in commotion. A few students were up at the blackboard, explaining what they had written and drawn. One had written a sample outline–not detailed enough to give anyone ideas, but just enough to convey the essay’s structure. Another two students had illustrated the issue itself (in the picture shown above). Unfortunately my photo doesn’t capture the whole drawing; the tree on the garage rooftop had a big “X” crossing it out, and the sun behind the clouds was a bright yellow. (Despite the message of this picture, different students took different sides on the issue; some supported the parking garage idea, some vehemently opposed it, and some expressed ambivalence or took a different tack altogether.)

The two students who had drawn the picture cheerfully consented to having it published on my blog; the one who had written the outline did not want it published anywhere.

I commended them all for meeting before class to prepare for this writing exercise, which, I stressed again, would not be a formal test. That is, they would not be penalized for spelling and grammatical errors. The goal was to show that they could explore two (or more) sides of an issue in a structured essay. This is English class, so part of the purpose is to practice the language. Most of the time, the textbook emphasizes vocabulary, usage, and grammar, as do the tests; this time I wanted them to focus on what they were saying and how they were organizing it logically.

The essays I read so far were even better than I expected: all different from each other, all well organized and explained, and each one with a different quality. One had precise and detailed logical argumentation, another a descriptive flair; another was archly grim, and another had sophisticated vocabulary and turns of phrase. Everyone worked intensely throughout the class period. But I think it’s the few minutes before class that convey what it’s like to teach here. Students conducting “essay prep” with an outline and cartoon of their own making–they grasped both the challenge and the laughter.

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.

Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.