“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”

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We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)

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I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Happy Volume 5, CONTRARIWISE!

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Last Thursday I received word that the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE had just arrived at Columbia Secondary School! Soon we will receive copies here in Szolnok. At that point I will have more to say; for now, congratulations to the writers, editors, faculty advisor, and everyone who brought this about. The journal thrives.

As many readers know, Barnabás Paksi  (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary) won first place in this year’s CONTRARIWISE International Contest; Gábor Medvegy (also from Varga Katalin) shares the second place with Hakan Urgancıoğlu (Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, Istanbul, Turkey). Their pieces appear in this issue.

There will be a CONTRARIWISE event at Book Culture (536 112th St., New York City) on Sunday, June 3, at 3 p.m. If you are in the vicinity, go! It’s an incomparable experience. Here are photos from the 2014, 2015, and 2016 events (at Word Up, Bowery Poetry, and Book Culture).

Now I Really Live Here

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Imagine these three things in a single week: finishing my manuscript before tomorrow (it’s all done except for a final endnote check and a few last touches); administering an English oral exam, from morning to late afternoon, to prospective students; and dealing with a paperwork emergency (a rather ordinary occurrence).

My colleagues, as well as the school’s financial officers, the principal, and the CETP, have been helping me with the paperwork logistics, which, over the past few months, have improved my labyrinthine skills and sensibilities. Despite confusion, runarounds, exclamations of “what?” and “miért?” the sense of absurdity, and what have you, we are making steady progress: I have a bank account, residence permit, tax number, health insurance number, and various other things that took a while and seemed mildly impossible. I am finally getting paid. There have been side benefits too; somehow, through all this, though I don’t know how or where, I learned the word következő.

Most countries have bureaucracy, I suspect, but it’s different in each place. In the U.S., services and offices are streamlined but overloaded; there’s always a number to call, but you might spend an hour on the phone, on repeated occasions, trying to get through to a person (who might be in Singapore). Here in Szolnok (and, from what I gather, in Hungary generally), you can’t resolve much by phone. You must go to the individual offices with all your paperwork, speak with someone, show proof of your existence and legitimacy, learn that you are missing a required form, come back with it the next day, proceed in this manner for a while, finally get everything signed, proclaim your relief over finishing it all–only to be told, out of the blue, weeks or months later, that something from a few months ago never got done, that it’s an emergency now, and that you must go to three different offices to resolve the matter. At first this just seems par for the course; the first three or four (or five or six) forms and office visits don’t rattle you. But after a few months, you finally grasp, with sinking mind, that it is part of the local human condition. Everyone goes through it in some way. Fortunately people help each other; not only at school, but at the offices themselves, I have been treated with goodwill.

Speaking of goodwill, I have been meaning to mention my gift hat. One day, when I was leaving school, one of the receptionists pulled me aside and handed me a hat; she said the other receptionist had brought it in for me. Apparently they had seen me coming in hatless in the cold. Here it is (and here’s the lovely faculty room).

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As for the photo at the top, I took it in Buda; I include it here partly for the yellow tape (a distant relative of “red tape“), partly for the pensive couple and hooded crow. The crow was just taking off; you can see the fanned tail and rapid wings.

I can’t say anything about the entrance examination, except that it’s great to participate in them and think that some of these students will enter the ninth grade here next year. We won’t know the admissions decisions until April; the process is centralized and complicated, somewhat like high school admissions in New York City.

There will be more soon, once I am past the crunch. All in all, the days are long and full.

“Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.”

My ninth- and tenth-grade classes at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, respectively. This week, the ninth graders read Act 3, Scene 1; the tenth graders, Act 1, Scene 3. (It’s the only time we’ll have this symmetry, I think.) In preparation for Bottom’s “translation,” I visited Maszka in Budapest, where I found a simple donkey mask (not the rooster mask shown below).

For Midsummer, the students not only read the parts but act them out, moving around the room; the action brings meaning to the words. We discuss the text briefly as well. For Hamlet, students read the parts dramatically and also spend time with specific passages. Eventually the two approaches will converge; if everything works out, we will give some kind of Shakespeare presentation toward the end of the year.

Here below, to the left, Snout speaks to Bottom; to the right, Titania wakes up.

The next two pictures show a different cast. To the left, Bottom returns to his rehearsal, with Puck following behind. To the right, Titania wakes up.

Every time I teach these plays, I find them “translated”; no two readings or discussions are identical. Here in Szolnok, there has been insight after insight, surprise after surprise.

 

I took all of the photos; the classroom photos are posted with the students’ permission.

 

CONTRARIWISE Congratulations

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The CONTRARIWISE editors-in-chief have announced the results of the 2017–2018 international and national contests! The winning pieces will be published in the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE, to be released this spring. Congratulations to all.

International Contest

First Place: Barnabás Paksi (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary), Bug in the System

Second Place (tied): Hakan Urgancıoğlu (Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, Istanbul, Turkey), White on the Outside; and Gábor Medvegy (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary), My Journey in the Justice Institute

National Contest

First Place: Amogh Dimri (Columbia Secondary School, New York, United States), The Trial of Sibling Envy

“Hold on there, Evangeline”

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This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

Singing in Szolnok

I begin with these pictures of mist because this is how the day began. I walked along the frosted bank of the Zagyva and kept stopping to look at the inscrutable river. I think that set the stage, so to speak, for some good listening.

The day proceeded with rehearsals, lessons, a movie (I showed my students Citizen Kane), and cheer. Then we had a Christmas concert in the evening–mostly by students, but also involving faculty. It was a profoundly lovely performance, with joyous musicians (mainly students, but also teachers in two of the pieces); music ranging from classical and sacred pieces to Hungarian folk songs to modern compositions; and a hushed and eager audience, some leaning over the balcony for better sight and sound.

Eight teachers (including our director and our accompanist) performed “Hymne à la nuit.” A kind colleague made a video. My solo begins just after the two-minute mark. I’ll eventually figure out how to fix the rotation of that later part; to see the whole video rotated, go here.

It was beautiful to be in this concert with colleagues and students–to have so much to listen to while being part of two songs. (The other one we sang was Pachelbel’s Canon; there we joined the students.) I have many more thoughts but am in need of sleep, so I’ll let silence have a turn. Here’s a photo I took during dress rehearsal.

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Update: Here’s a closer view and recording of the same performance.

A Meaning of Performance

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On Saturday night I attended the Senior Ball, along with colleagues, parents, students, and, of course, the seniors themselves. Expecting something like a prom, I was in for a big surprise. First, there was a pinning ceremony, where the seniors, dressed in suits and color-coordinated blouses, walked out hand in hand, with their homeroom teacher at one end, stood before the audience, had ribbons pinned to their chests, and filed out again, hand in hand. From there, they reappeared in their dancing costumes and performed in sequence; each of the four senior classes performed one ballroom dance and one modern dance. (They had separate costumes for each one.) With the help of a dance instructor (whom they had specially hired), they had been preparing these dances since September. Here’s a fifteen-second clip.

In preparing, they learned at least two dances together; that was the most beautiful part of it all. They had not only a ball, not only an evening in their honor, but an accomplishment together. Maybe that’s one meaning of performance: learning a particular form, which then becomes yours. (I wouldn’t call it the meaning of performance, since performance is full of meanings and mystery. Sometimes it’s sheer play, sometimes it has its own language, sometimes it can’t be pinned down, and sometimes its meanings come much later, mixed in with time.)

In contrast, I had a slightly formless (but lovely) day today–taking this direction and that, like the Tisza. I prepared for the week, practiced for next Shabbat (more about that later), and went on a long bike ride, first on the promenade along the Tisza, and then on the continuation of the bike path. Here’s a little terrier running on the promenade, and here’s the Szent István Bridge.

I enjoy the grey November weather, with its rain, wind, and mist; some may find it dreary, but it suits me well. Much lies ahead in the coming weeks, including a move to an apartment near the Zagyva–where I will have not only more space, but a wifi connection. That will come welcome; I need the internet not only for email but for research, lesson preparation, and more. In the meantime, having finished my second latte at Cafe Frei, I sign off, since I have much to do before tomorrow.

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.

Pictures from the First Day

varga katalin 1A happy first day at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium–I am delighted to be here.

Here are a few pictures: of one of the stairways, of a nearby bakery (where I picked up coffee and a pastry during one of my breaks), and of the school from the side.

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I don’t generally blog about the classroom, but once in a while I might reflect on something that took place there. It takes time to know just when and how to do this, so I’m taking the time. In the meantime, these pictures hold something of the day.

The Zagyva passes right behind the school; it isn’t visible in the photo above, but if you continue down this street, pass by the school, and turn left, you see it.

I look forward to tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s a view from the top floor of the school.

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