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.

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 4

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“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 3

IMG_0935 The third chapter of Tobias Wolff’s Old School, “Frost,” has the following exchange between the narrator and Purcell (p. 44):

Frost. I don’t even know why I bothered submitting anything, given how he writes. I mean, he’s still using rhyme.

Yeah, so?

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says that everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see a rhyme in a poem, I know I’m being lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true–rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wishful thinking. Nostalgia.

The situation was this: At the beginning of the third chapter, we learn that George Kellogg, the excessively benevolent editor of the Troubadour, has won the first contest and will thus get to meet with Robert Frost. Purcell dismisses the whole enterprise.

First I asked the students to explain what Purcell was saying. They did it, point by point. Then I asked what they thought of it. In the first section, one student burst out, “That’s what I think.” A few others seemed to concur. They gave reasons: to rhyme, you have to invent something; rhyme sounds pretty, whereas the world often isn’t; rhyme imitates other rhymes and rhymers. Then I asked whether anyone saw or heard rhyme in a different way. Hands shot up. One student said that good rhyme is hard, so you can admire it. Another said that we are drawn to harmony. Another said that rhyme makes a poem memorable. Another suggested that Purcell was speaking out of jealousy. Then we started talking about how rhyme can draw associations between things.

The other section was more subdued but just as perceptive. Most of them rejected Purcell’s complaint from the start. One student pointed out that you can rhyme with the word “chaos,” in which case you aren’t creating harmony at all. Another said that we rhyme all the time, that rhyme is part of our everyday language. Others talked about how rhyme makes you think.

This set us up well for the next lesson, where we discussed the rest of the chapter. When I arrived, I saw students discussing the novel in the hallway.

At the start of the lesson, I played a muffled recording of Frost reading “Mending Wall,” which they had read with me. In the first section, no one seemed to know what was going on until the very end, when one student cried out in Hungarian, “Emlékszem!” (“I remember it!”). In the other section, they recognized it right away. We then talked about the passage in Old School where the headmaster introduces Frost, and the one where the narrator’s understanding of “Mending Wall” changes as he listens to Frost reading it aloud. (This is a fictional Frost, but I can imagine Frost reading like this.)

Then the teacher Mr. Ramsey’s challenge: Aren’t those poetic forms–rhyme, stanzas, etc.–outmoded? Shouldn’t poetry reflect modern consciousness? And Frost’s response (of which this quote, from p. 53, is just a fraction):

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

We talked about the difference between grief and grievance, poetry and petition–and everything seemed to be settling unsettlingly into place. Then in the last minute, I asked, “What advice did Frost give George when they finally met?”

“Go to Kamchatka!” they cried out. “Or Brazil!”

And what do you think this advice means?

In one of the sections, students called out: “Go see the world!” “Step out of your comfort zone!”

But a student in the other section heard it differently. He thought Frost was subtly getting back at George for (as he interpreted it) making fun of him. That left me in thought as we headed on to our next stops in the day.

 

This is the third 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 2

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I don’t want to say anything yet about today’s discussion of part of the third chapter, “Frost”–in particular, George’s poem, Frost’s take on it, and Purcell’s attitude toward rhyme–because the other section will be discussing this tomorrow.

On Monday, in class, we (both sections) read and discussed the second chapter, “On Fire,” and talked about many things: the class picture of the boys who had died, decades ago, in a fire supposedly caused by smoking; why the narrator was drawn to smoking, and why he finally stopped smoking at school; what it might say about him that he could imagine the consequences of his smoking; why Big Jeff, who started the current fire with a failed rocket experiment, does not get in trouble; why Purcell wishes (or claims to wish) that Big Jeff had been expelled; and why the narrator decides to submit not his fireman poem, but rather his elk poem, to the competition. At the end, we considered how the chapter wove together past, present, and future.

The discussions went gracefully–thoughtful comments, a good rhythm, enough time to slow down with certain passages. But today something took off. It surprised me. I hadn’t expected such a lively and moving discussion of rhyme itself. But more about that another time, after a little more time has gone by.

This is the second 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.

Is Teaching a Calling?

Some of my respected and dear colleagues describe teaching as a calling; while I ultimately agree that it is, I find the concept perplexing and will try to tease it apart a little. The term “calling” is too easily misunderstood; one must get rid of the false meanings in order to find the true ones, if they exist.

First of all, what is a calling? The word “vocation” means roughly the same thing (as its etymology suggests), but its adjectival form, “vocational,” is most commonly used in reference to manual and technical trades. (Both “calling” and “vocation” can denote an ordinary occupation or source of livelihood; I will go beyond that here.) A calling, as I understand it, is an internal pull toward an action or a line or work. A person with a calling does not necessarily want to be called and is not necessarily happy when called. Yet there is something right about heeding the call. Alternatives do not seem satisfactory.

Some people think of a calling as something they love to do, something they would rather do than anything else. But this is not necessarily the case with a calling. For one thing, it might not take shape at first. Teaching is not monolithic. Teaching elementary school is profoundly different from teaching high school; teaching literature, from teaching physics. Its nature can vary greatly from school to school as well. A person may be suited to one kind of teaching and not another. So it may take a while for a new teacher to find his or her way. The time of searching may hold many doubts.

Is there something, though, that characterizes all teaching and distinguishes it from other professions? I believe that there is; I discuss it in the fifth chapter of my book, where I bring up Plato’s Symposium to shed light on the problems with the New York City workshop model. A teacher is a translator and mediator who brings the subject to the student and vice versa. To do this well, she must go far into the subject or topic to see what it holds, and then must find a way to bring it to her students.

Unfortunately education leaders and policymakers rarely see education in this way. But such a definition of teaching does help explain what a teacher’s calling might be. It can also offer some clarity to teachers who don’t know whether they’re called or not—who think that they probably aren’t called, because they find themselves wanting out or the profession. “I guess I am not called,” they think, “because a teacher who is called would want to stay, no matter what.”

That brings up the question: does it matter whether you are called or not? Or do you just make the best decisions you can, given your conflicting desires and mixed circumstances? If we could live by trial and error alone, then we’d probably be experimenting until the cows came home and longer. In that case, the only reason to stay in a profession would be practical: you gain the experience, and that helps you do a better job. It hardly matters what it is; you just find something that you can do and do it (or do something else instead). But we do not live by trial and error alone, or for practical purposes alone.

There is such a thing as a soul finding its way. It already has a way, but the world knocks it this way and that, off course and back on, and it tries to make sense of this and steer away from garishness and lies. At some point it starts to know itself and grow sturdy in what it does. But that is not the end of it; the work and the soul may still be at odds with each other, and the latter has to keep knocking around for a while, trying to get stronger and clear out a path. That is what’s involved in responding to a calling.

A few things may indicate that this is indeed going on.

First, a teacher who is “called” and who leaves the field will feel out of sorts in some way. Like Arch Makepeace in Tobias Wolff’s Old School, this person will sense something missing—will walk around detached, no longer belonging to the same worlds as before, and will sense a wrong in this.

When I took two years away from teaching to write my book, I was content with the way of life and would gladly have extended it for another year, had financial circumstances allowed it. I then became a curriculum adviser (at my current school) and could have continued in that role, but things took a different course. To help with curriculum, I found myself jumping in and co-teaching a philosophy class, then writing the high school philosophy curriculum for the school, then offering to teach the high school philosophy courses this year. My own choices brought me back into teaching. I found that I had missed it and that I thrived in it. (I also found, once in the full thick of it, that I missed the quiet time, which I have been enjoying this week.)

Second, a teacher with a calling will find a way to the vitality of the work. There is much humdrum stuff in teaching: paperwork and mandates, things that have a purpose but distract from the immersion in subject matter. The world of education debate and discussion isn’t much better; there’s an awful lot of chatter and very little sustained discourse. Yet the field holds something better than all of this. No matter what the circumstances, it is possible to go farther into the subject matter and learn from others.

In different ways, both teachers and students come to the subject as novices; over time, they become more adept at navigating it but become all the more disarmed by it and opposed to reducing it. That is part of the sadness and joy of teaching. I say sadness because I recognize again and again that I do not live up to the books I teach, do not teach them exactly right, say things in class that I later question and refine, but all the same, somehow, introduce my students to these books and maybe to a way of being alone with them.

David Bromwich writes (in the fifth chapter of Politics by Other Means):

The novice literature instructor was never expected to contribute to the higher learning from a freshman class on Hamlet or Augustine’s Confessions. It was merely assumed that what the instructor had to say would add to the student’s sense of taking part in a conversation larger and other than that supplied by the daily surroundings. This understanding had to do with an acknowledgment of great writing not as familiar and acceptable but as unfamiliar, and worthwhile under a description one can only make for oneself. The tradition that a teacher thought of evoking was an awareness of the impalpable links that bind one person to others remote in time or space, the recognition Burke thought more vital to humanity than any social contract, and which he called “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art.”

I will return to this passage later, with more context, when discussing the fifth chapter of Bromwich’s book. The meaning is subtle: the teacher of a freshman class (like the high school teacher) opens up the way to these books so that the students may find a different way of life in them—not because the literature tells the reader what to think and how to live, but because it draws him or her into something private, something out of the ordinary, and thus into a partnership without social contract, a tradition that comes from not following what others think.

So that’s it, right there: the recognition that the most important part of teaching may lie in its imperfection. Not that a novice teacher’s offerings are equal to those of an advanced scholar; that is not the case or the point. But even the advanced scholar opens up a subject for the students so that they may enter it; the students may misunderstand what the scholar says, and yet, if they take to the solitude behind the words, will learn the most important thing one can learn: that there is more, and that one can come to see it more keenly.

There is the teacher’s calling: whatever it is that says “do not stop opening up the subject for others. Do not complain that you did it poorly. Do it better, but recognize that even your poor offering had value, because once the subject is ajar, it has no end.”

I made a few revisions to this piece long after posting it.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School: Truth, Tangent, and Return

After yesterday’s post on yearning and return, I realized I had omitted something that had been on my mind for a long time. Here it is.

If you have not yet read Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School (2003), please read it before reading this piece, which will reveal some of the ending. I also encourage you to put off reading reviews until you have read the book. Though widely praised, it has been strangely misunderstood by some, including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. Reviewing comes with pitfalls: the best reviews draw attention to good work (or warn against the mediocre), while the worst sacrifice the book to the reviewer’s own needs and frailties. Few reviewers are consistently insightful; they succumb to their own stuff, as we all do at times. That’s how I see Kakutani’s review. Enough of that.

I am writing about this book because, from the first reading in 2003 through the third and most recent one yesterday, I have been carrying it around in my mind. I pick it up (in my hands or in the imagination) and return to favorite passages. It says more about education than many an education book; it is part of my own education. It is the ending that stays with me, though everything else builds slowly to it—an ending that seems a tangent but becomes a return and vision. I will look at this return today.

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