The Mist and the Mistake

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This photo, maybe my favorite that I have taken of Szolnok so far, marked the end of a vivacious day and week. On Friday the whole school assembled at the Szolnok stadium, across the Tisza, to see the ninth-grade classes compete against each other (through performance, mostly dance) and undergo their grand and humorous initiation. I had heard that we would all be walking over the bridge together; I looked forward to joining this procession of six hundred or so.

Earlier that morning, we dispersed for various activities: music, drama, art, and more. I went with a colleague to see the drama workshop, led by the drama teacher, who also directs the school’s Thespis Teatrum Drama Club. Held in an elegant hall across the street, the lesson focused on improvisational exercises, which brought out wit and laughter.

When the class ended, I went back to the school to get some things done before the historic bridge crossing. After a while, the building went silent; I realized everyone had left. I rushed to catch up with them–down Kossuth Lajos Street, around the corner at Szapáry, and then south toward the bridge. As my feet began clattering on the planks, I saw just two people ahead. I soon realized they were students from the school; after catching up with them, I asked them where the event was. They pointed me to the stadium, and I rushed ahead, only to find a locked door. They then motioned me to the side of the building and held the doors for me. Only then did It occur to me that most of the students and teachers must have taken the other bridge, the one right near the school. Of course! Why would they walk all the way to the Mayfly Bridge, when there’s one right across the street? I could have realized this earlier–but I had the one bridge so firm in my mind that good sense could not replace it.

Then came the performances. I took many pictures, but from too far away. This picture of my ninth-grade students conveys the idea, though. They didn’t win the competition, but they danced with spirit and skill.

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After the event, I walked back—over the correct bridge—to the school.

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I saw birds circling over the river, flying around and around, over and over again. I shot a video with bells ringing in the background (since it was noon). I don’t try to make videos when the bells are ringing; it has just worked out that way.

People went home from there; we had no afternoon classes, since it was a special day. Earlier in the week, the ninth-graders dressed up in various costumes, held marches and rallies, performed stunts, and covered the walls with flyers. These are my two ninth-grade sections, one of them in 90s costumes, and the other (the next day) in recycling gear or something like that. They are great kids; I thoroughly enjoy teachibg them.

I leave off with a photo from Thursday evening, after a long day at school. (I left around 6 p.m. because I was grading tests.) When I exited the building, I saw misty streets and lights. That is my bike in the foreground. I unlocked the lock, climbed on, and rode away.

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With all the dancing, singing, and campaigning, all the memorable markers of the week and year, I think I will also remember the mist and the mistake: taking the wrong bridge, having it all work out anyway, and taking the right bridge back. Was one bridge really wrong, though, and the other right? Only in terms of what I had set out to do; otherwise, each bridge has its share of rightness.

Note: The school photos are posted with permission of the students and in keeping with school policy.

That Iron String

sitting in cafe 2I am writing this in my favorite Szolnok cafe, Cafe Frei, which has a warm, quiet atmosphere and an internet connection. The picture’s a bit grainy, but it captures the feel of  the place. Tomorrow the teaching begins; I have put together an outline of my lessons for the week and have begun assembling the details in my mind. There’s a set curriculum for the English classes–but room to plan the lessons, add some activities, decide on the emphasis, and more, as long as the students learn the substantial material in the books. For Civilization (American and British), there are informal textbooks too, but much room for additions. I think this is just the right combination of structure and flexibility.

I will begin with introductions and a short class discussion about education itself. Then I will bring up the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; then we will go right into the lessons.

It’s the first time, in all my teaching (except for my year teaching first-year Russian as a graduate student at Yale and my summers at the Dallas Institute) that I have worked from a preestablished curriculum. In my first three years of public school teaching, there was no curriculum for my subject (ESL);  in the fourth year, the school had a curriculum, but I was teaching a subject (literature through theater) that didn’t completely fall within it. At Columbia Secondary School, I created, taught, and oversaw the philosophy sequence for grades 9-11. So there was a curriculum, but not at the outset.

Yet although I usually didn’t have a curriculum at the outset, I advocated for one and set about to create it, not just for that year, but for the longer term. I define curriculum as a general outline of the topics, works, ideas, and skills that will be taught, as well as the key assignments. It does not have to be granular, if the teacher knows the material well. In language instruction, though, it probably should lay out the details, as long as it retains some flexibility. So much goes into teaching and learning a language that you can’t teach well from a general outline unless you have years of experience. You can teach something from an outline, but you’ll probably omit or shortchange many important topics and exercises.

That said, my “ex nihilo” or “quasi ex nihilo” beginnings will come in handy here too. Teaching in an unfamiliar country is no trifle; it takes a willingness to rearrange and recast the elements a bit, not only the external ones, but the internal ones too. For example, in American Civilization I plan to introduce students to Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (in the context of the unit on the American frontier). Although Emerson was not a frontiersman in a physical sense, he expresses an intellectual frontier that has delighted and troubled me for years and that my former students have remembered again and again. I delight in its vigor, imagination, and boldness; I am troubled by its seeming rejection of predecessors, tradition, and external wisdom. Either way, Emerson’s writing makes a mark; students and teachers come back to it over the years. The ambivalence and memorability can congeal into a few questions for a class discussion.

“Trust thyself,” Emerson writes; “every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He continues:

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

How can writing arouse such a strong Yes and No at the same time? How can words so self-sure and resounding be simultaneously right and wrong? Also, does he make a single point, or several contradicting ones? To accept the place that “providence” has found for you, you must be alert to “the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You cannot be entirely removed. The trustworthiness comes from both introspection and alertness, and from language, which connects one person to another.

I do not want to give too many of my own thoughts here, since there are discussions in store. “That iron string” is part of anything important I have done. Still, I have often had to stop to make sure it was in tune, and in tuning it, I had to listen to outside and inside sounds, not only from the present, but from combinations of times.

I end with a photo I took of the Tiszavirág híd, the Mayfly Bridge, which crosses the Tisza in Szolnok. It seems appropriate for the crossing into teaching (and for iron strings too).

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