A Dream School (Varga)

I have been teaching at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium for more than five years now. By now I realize that things aren’t perfect (I realized this long ago), but in an imperfect world, this school glows.

Let’s take yesterday as an example. We had our annual pályaorientációs nap (Career Day), where people from different professions spoke to students about their work. Teachers not giving a presentation were supposed to be present at a session, help the speaker with any technical matters, and take attendance; we could choose which sessions to monitor. I chose those of my colleague Gyula Jenei, who spoke (to three consecutive groups) about the literary journal Eső, now more than twenty years old, of which he is the founder and editor-in-chief. So in other words I got to spend the entire morning in a discussion of literary journals, poetry, editorship, and more. The students seemed quite interested and asked many questions.

Since it was the last day before the break, the teachers then went to a meeting with the principal, László Molnár, who presented gifts to teachers who had achieved a specific milestone (such as a degree or a master’s qualification). He began by speaking about the difficulties with which we live today: not only the poor teaching conditions, but the lack of recourse for teachers—and the war in Ukraine, and how all of this can give us a sense of limited freedom. He went on to speak about freedom, quoting someone (Miklós Jancsó?) who said that every artistic work was about freedom or the lack of it. While this was perhaps an oversimplification, he said, there was still something to it—and so the gifts he had chosen for the teachers were all works of literature, by authors from around Europe and Russia, that had to do with freedom or its lack. He then proceeded to present each one, explaining why he had chosen that particular one for the particular teacher. The presentation was punctuated by three videos: Omega performing their “Ballada a fegyverkovács fiáról” (“Ballad of the Gunsmith Boy”), János Kulka performing Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” (in a stunning Hungarian translation) at the Dohány Street Synagogue, and a Christmas song performed by an a cappella group.

I don’t know how many schools in the world have a principal who can speak with such dignity and sincerity—who can bring together philosophy, literature, education, and the world we live in, who neither minces words nor descends into dogma, and who conveys true respect for teachers, students, and the subjects being taught. I think we are very fortunate.

From there, after a toast (the students had long gone home), we proceeded to the cafeteria for a delicious feast.

On my way home, I ran into a former student who graduated in 2020. I don’t want to repeat all of what she said, because it was so moving and sincere. But she thanked me for what I had brought to the English and Civilization classes—both the spirit and the literature. She brought up Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which I had introduced to her class and which has been on my mind recently too). I was left with a sense of wonder: that this had all happened in the first place, that it had stayed with her, and that five years had gone by since my first few months at the school (and with her class, which was in the tenth grade then).

There has been disillusionment of a sort. The national situation is distressing: the teachers’ low pay and lack of curricular freedom (does curricular freedom exist in public school systems overall?), the various short strikes that have taken place to no avail, the government’s firing of certain teachers who took part in civil disobedience. For a combination of reasons, I did not join the strikes: I am vulnerable as a non-citizen (if I inadvertently did something illegal, I could get kicked out of the country); it would feel false to strike over a job I love, even though I agree with the strikers on certain points; and I am uncomfortable with slogans and political movements overall, since they don’t fully represent my views. Yet I respect the strikers for acting on their convictions. I think about half of our faculty has taken part in the strikes in some way. I see integrity on both sides (which doesn’t make things easy; it would be easier to believe that one side or the other was totally misguided or fake).

That, and I often wish I were a literature teacher, not a language teacher, so that the literature I brought in would be the essence of the course, not something extra that I add on, time and resources permitting. But maybe there’s something to be said for this quiet insertion. It’s a shame that literature is not a core part of the language courses, but if it were, it would probably be botched by the textbooks. The language textbooks (most of them published by Oxford University Press) are not all bad; they have useful grammar and vocabulary and the occasional interesting text. But the topics are often so condescendingly presented (“Let’s hear what five teenagers have to say about friendship!”) that it’s better that they don’t lay their hands on literature at all.

It is also a strange time for writing. I love working on Folyosó but have yet to reach the point where many students are submitting work on their own initiative. A few do this—and I am grateful—but for the most part I select work from assignments that I give. There lies the problem: I can never be sure that the students wrote the piece themselves. That is, I can tell when it is their own work (a certain character and vivacity comes through, along with non-native use of English), but when I think something isn’t theirs, I have no way of proving it, since the cheating has become so sophisticated, with AI programs and such. Students would have no reason to submit a piece they didn’t write, since submissions to Folyosó are entirely voluntary, but many will cheat on homework. A few students have actually come forward on their own and admitted that they didn’t write a particular piece, but usually I am left to struggle with doubt (especially when a piece is suspiciously polished, without much of a personal element).

But a great thing about being a teacher is that you can open up a different way of looking at the world. The students are paying attention, even when it doesn’t seem so. Or rather, all of us pay attention even when we don’t realize it. I remember explaining to students (a few years ago) why writing was important and not just a dull duty. I mustn’t forget the importance of such explanations. Also, we are all contradictory human beings. I have a student who claims to be interested in nothing but technology and sports, but who makes exceptionally insightful comments about the stories we read. A subject can become interesting at any instant.

I often think back on my years at Columbia Secondary School and the times when the principal, Miriam Nightengale (a wonderful leader and person) would remind me to keep a sense of humor about it all. “Trick them into taking interest,” she would say with a twinkle. In the beginning there, I took the class disruptions too much to heart. There were students with very low patience thresholds, who would shout or chatter continuously. Over time, the students started to trust that the philosophy classes were important and interesting—and showed this in class, philosophy roundtables, Contrariwise, and hallway conversations—but I see now how I might have won them over earlier. I had little sympathy for the disruptors; it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would chatter or call out rudely during a lesson (or talk while someone else is speaking, period), since it’s so jarring. But even they would agree with me; they too wanted calm, focused classes. Once again, we are full of contradictions. The one who shouts may be longing for quiet. The one who interrupts with off-topic comments may take interest when you least expect it.

One of my favorite moments, with one of my most difficult classes at CSS, was when a student gave a speech that was full of rhetorical pathos but absolutely illogical (and he knew perfectly well what he was doing). It was patently an argument that we should be kinder to the homeless, but it made very little sense. The students listened first with curiosity, then with expressions of befuddlement. Then they burst out laughing. Then, in the discussion, they pointed out every fallacy. (This was the ninth-grade Rhetoric and Logic course, for which every student had to write and deliver a speech.)

Another favorite memory from the difficult times was the “Locke and Beads” incident.

But to return to yesterday: after the feast, I went home for a couple hours and then headed to the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which also hosts plays, concerts, and other events) for the Híd Szinház performance of Zsolt Bajnai’s play A hagyaték (The Bequest), which I had seen twice before at a different venue. This, too, had connections to Varga; Kata and Marcell Bajnai both graduated from Varga, and Kata was there at the play, visiting from Spain, where she now lives. The director, József Rigó, is the father of Eszter Rigó, who attended Varga as well. It’s a remarkable one-act play, which I understood slightly differently each time.

Earlier in the week, on Monday night, I went to the Tisza Mozi for an inspiring book presentation by my colleague István P. Nagy, who just published a poetry collection. Gyula Jenei interviewed him and the publisher, and István’s wife and colleague, Judit Méri, read aloud from the book. (And last week I went there for an Eső event.)

Let me not forget to mention the annual tradition of caroling, which the eleventh-grade bilingual students perform each year. They travel from classroom to classroom throughout the day, so that by the end of the day, every student in the school has seen the show (which involves a short skit as well as songs). This year’s show was absolutely joyous, with one student leading on guitar and everyone singing with full voice. Here is just one minute from one of the performances.

Several colleagues wished me a happy Hanukkah this week. (I am comfortable with “Merry Christmas” wishes too—I grew up with Christmas and am fond of it—but was touched by my colleagues’ thoughtfulness.)

So yes, Varga is a dream school for me, and for many students too. It’s not hard to see why.

Preparing for a Ten-Minute Concert

During the long break this morning, we held a little performance in the hallway, outside the teachers’ room. Two groups of students sang four American and British folk songs; I accompanied them on cello. The singing was full of spirit (and in tune and on time). The audience’s enjoyment came through, both then and throughout the day.

Because of the coordination involved, it took weeks to prepare this ten-minute concert; the participating students were from different classes, and we had only one rehearsal all together. Also, my cello playing was dismally out of shape even a week ago; I had to coax it back. But coax it back I did.

This morning, to take the bus to school, I needed to be out the door by 6:30. I managed this and got to school before 7. I went to the drama room and warmed up for about half an hour.

The cello playing barely figured in the concert, though. I played introductions to three of the songs, then accompanied the students with pizzicato. They hardly needed the accompaniment; they held their own and sang with full voice.

This was the fourth short concert that my students and I had held at Varga during a long morning break. The first was in 2018, with class 9.A; the second, in the spring of 2019; the third, the following December, and the fourth today. There was a stretch in 2020-2021 when, because of Covid, we were not supposed to sing at school at all. So it was good to sing again and know that we could.

I have a lot to do in the next week—particularly editing and putting out the autumn issue of Folyosó. Once it is published, I can give attention to writing and translation again—and music too, but played on my own.

This little concert reminded me indirectly of Keith Vincent’s lecture on “Haiku and the Japanese Novel” at the ALSCW Conference: about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and how the haiku prepared him for the longer forms. This concert was the haiku: demanding intense concentration in itself, and part of something larger. Many people, hearing about a ten-minute concert with students, would say, “Oh, that’s so nice,” or “How lovely,” but there’s more to it than the “nice” and the “lovely.” It’s a way of approaching the larger projects as well.

I am weary of all the opinion pieces about how “we” have given up the madness of around-the-clock work culture, how, after Covid, “we” have started to demand something saner. I gave up that kind of work culture long ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I work hard—but at the things I have chosen, not at jobs where I am at someone else’s beck and call. Over the years I have turned down or ignored jobs and opportunities that would have paid more but put me at the company’s mercy. Yes, a teacher has to fulfill requirements, but at the school where I am now, they are not too onerous; there’s room for music and literature in addition to the standard material. The salary is dismal, but I can manage with it here. People may think I’m independently wealthy, with a lot in the bank, but that is not the case; I have very little. Rather, I can live simply, and why not do so? The greatest challenge right now is exhaustion in the evenings—not exhaustion, but simply falling asleep. Another challenge is affording travel when I need it; a trip to the U.S. costs me a lot, relative to what I have.

So a ten-minute concert is also a possibility, among many others, and in that light, something worth doing more often. When you lift up the possibilities, they change what can be found in the minutes of a day.

I was sorry not to go hear Grand Bleu last night, but by the time I realized there was a concert, it was too late to go out to Budapest and get to the concert on time, and besides, I needed to rest and catch up with things. I have been meaning to mention that I heard them and Gábor Molnár in a wonderful concert at Sejribizli, shortly after returning to Hungary from the big trip. I was still a bit jetlagged but loved the music and atmosphere; the audience included many Turks and Indians as well as Hungarians and others, and there was a great cheer to it all. I leave off with a picture from that concert and a link to “Emlékszem még,” one of my favorites of their songs.

Three Upcoming Events for “Always Different”

What better place to start than at the school where the translator and poet are colleagues, and where the director, librarian, and others have eagerly offered to support the event? On Tuesday, May 24, the school library will host the first launch event for Always Different, Gyula’s poetry collection Mindig más in my English translation, published by Deep Vellum in April 2022. This has special meaning for me, because if it hadn’t been for the school, I might not have met Gyula in the first place or embarked on the translation of his poems. Also, early in my second year at Varga, before I had even started the translations, one of my students brought up Gyula’s literary events. “He brings writers to talk to us; it’s really great,” he said. “Sándor Jászberényi came to talk to us. Do you know him? You should read him; he’s really interesting.” I started coming to those events, which opened up into others. So in several ways, this is where it started.

The second event will be on June 8, during Book Week, at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library here in Szolnok that hosts and supports so many projects, including the Shakespeare festival that we held for the first time this year). Marianna Fekete will be our beszélgetőtárs (“talking partner”—that is, the person who interviews us). This, too, is a great honor for me; I have attended and participated in many Verseghy Library events, but this one stands out in all sorts of ways.

The third will be on June 25, at the evocative and cozy Nyitott Műhely in Buda. I first went there in February for an event featuring Csenger Kertai and the pianist Loránt Péch. I loved the event and the place. I started dreaming about having an event there one day. Now it is happening, and Csenger will be our beszélgetőtárs.

There will be still more events for the book over the coming months—online events, U.S. events, and others—but this is an exciting beginning. Details for the second two events are forthcoming, but in short: the one at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár will begin at 5 p.m., and the one at the Nyitott Műhely at 6.

Non-backpack day

Today was the day before our short spring break, and the overall spirit in the school was exceptional. It went in two directions, silly and solemn. I will take up the silly here. The solemn part will be in the next blog post.

The student government had declared this day a non-backpack day. That is, students were to bring their books and supplies to school in anything but a backpack. This was the most joyously outrageous and bizarre event I have witnessed at Varga so far. As far as containers go, I saw a birdcage, a fishing net, a shopping cart (above), a trash bag, cat carriers, a cooler, baskets, a desktop PC case, a chest of drawers, hangers with clothespins, various outlandish bags, a front-pack, a cardboard file cabinet, a toolbox, a hanging organizer, and all sorts of other things.

I hope we do this (or something comparable) next year. Thanks to all the students for their inspiration and sense of fun.

I participated too, though by accident! I left my backpack at home today because I was bringing my cello in for our Shakespeare rehearsal. So I was carrying the big cello case around for a good part of the day and getting some good-hearted laughs. But the cello was actually inside it. I arrived at the school before 7 a.m. and went to the drama room to warm up and practice. That was a beautiful half hour or so, followed by an even more beautiful day. More about the day in the next post.

A Festival, a Book, and a Conference

The Shakespeare festival is arriving soon! On April 22, the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium will hold a day-long event filled with acting (by students from six different schools), sonnets, songs, games, lectures, workshops, an art contest, a jury, and more. Everyone is welcome! (At Varga we have no classes on that day.) This festival has been in the planning for two years. It had to be postponed a year because of Covid, but now we can actually hold it, in three weeks and a day from now!

Next, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum) now exist; the publisher has already received copies from the printer! Gyula and I will receive five complimentary copies each, and I am ordering many copies for events. We intend to hold at least two events here in Hungary, and if everything works out, I will give readings in Dallas and NYC as well. The official pub date is still a few days away (April 12), so I will make a new announcement then.

Finally (for now), the ALSCW has released its Call for Papers for the October 2022 conference, which will take place at Yale. I will be leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” which may feature guest presenters from Hungary, if everything works out! More about that later—but in the meantime, if you are interested in presenting a paper in any of the seminars, please follow the instructions at the top of the document.

I should have a few more announcements very soon, but that is enough for now.

(The photo is of my students’ performance of Hamlet scenes at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár in June 2019.)

Happy Celebrations

The students of class 11.C gave their caroling performance today, which they had planned, organized, and rehearsed all on their own. All their homeroom teacher and I did was give them time to prepare it; they handled all the rest. In accordance with our annual tradition, they went from room to room, performing it for different classes and for the faculty. I watched five of the performances. They were spirited, well danced, well sung (the singing was recorded in advance, because of Covid restrictions), and full of humor and goodwill.

That was most of the day for me; in the remaining time, I had conversations with my classes, but Tuesday is a short day for me anyway. Then, in the afternoon, we had a lovely faculty celebration. Several faculty and staff members were honored, the principal spoke kindly to us, we greeted each other at a reception, and then we all headed down to the school lunchroom for a tasty meal.

At the end of the evening, there were gift bags waiting for each of us. Each year we receive a gift bag for the holidays, but this one had a special element: a personalized “Christmas passport” made for each of us, with a collection of anonymous positive comments about us from our colleagues. Somehow I overlooked the announcement that these comments were being collected; I would have had a lot to say about others! But the comments I received were so warm and heartening, they give a lift to the holidays and the new year. Thank you, all of you. I am so honored to be working with you.

I think back on 2017 and 2018, when we had our most recent Christmas concerts, organized by the music teacher, Andrea Barnáné Bende, and held in the Református Templom. Those were glowing events, filled with student performances—choral music, guitar, other instruments—and a faculty number or two. Here we are singing “Hymne a la nuit” at the December 2017 concert. It was a great welcome to the school.

In 2018, the faculty song was in Hungarian, “Karácsonyi álom,” and we had a few students singing with us too. I was so excited to do this that I memorized the song and practiced it a lot. But I had no idea that a surprise had been planned. You will see what I mean.

In 2019, everyone was so busy that there wasn’t time to prepare a concert like this. Then came Covid. But this year, even without a concert or live singing, we had celebrations that brought us together. As before, there was a genuineness and beauty to them. Thanks to everyone for this.

“Ez lesz”: Playing Cello at the Eső Evening

About two weeks ago, Gyula Jenei invited me to take part in an event for the Eső literary magazine, of which he is the founder and editor in chief. Eső has been important to me since the fall of 2018, when I first became aware of it; I have many of the issues and have learned about many Hungarian writers by reading it and attending the events. He wanted me to play cello between the pieces, and a thought came to mind: what about playing a few Pilinszky miniatures—that is, Pilinszky poems set to cello? I hadn’t chosen the poems yet, or worked out the cello and singing parts, but I knew I could pull this together.

Gyula put me in touch with the event organizer, the kind and ebullient István Turczi, who had a grander plan: there should be five short Pilinszky pieces and a longer classical piece at the end. I had my work cut out for me for the next ten days or so.

I was going to play everything from memory, but for the classical piece, I needed to practice from sheet music at first, and that narrowed the choices considerably. I chose the first movement of Bach’s third cello suite, with some trepidation, because the piece is relentless and I don’t know that I have ever performed it. In addition, I had barely touched the cello all fall, because I have been working on two translation projects, one of which, the Jászberényi, is now done (a draft, that is).

So, on the days when I could, I practiced two to four hours. For the Pilinszky, I would hum and play rough drafts until something took hold. The five poems I chose were “A tengerpartra,” “Akár a föld,” “Amiként kezdtem,” “Metronóm,” and “Ez lesz.” The melodies and atmospheres did in fact take shape; once I had them in my mind, the real practicing began. Here’s a recording of one of them (it isn’t perfect, and I intend to make a better recording of all five, but it gives a basic idea).

As for the Bach, the challenge was different and in some ways much greater, since there was the piece, written centuries ago, and there were my fingers, not quite up to it. I worked on it from different angles and heard it getting better day by day, but didn’t know if it would be anywhere close to ready by Monday. On Sunday I felt a kind of panic and was tempted to contact István and cancel the Bach. But i didn’t.

Then came the event. Such a warm and interesting occasion, in the lovely Szigligeti Kanapé, a performance space with raked audience seats (sloping upward, so everyone can see), a carpeted stage (great for the cello, no chance that the peg will slip out of place), a great program, and the greatest audience in the world: Varga students, a few Varga teachers, and a few others. István Turczi interviewed the writers (Gyula Jenei, Magor Molnár, and Ahmed Amran), and each of them read from their work; at certain transition points, I played a piece. The Pilinszky went over beautifully, even better than I had hoped; it miraculously worked. I tried to relax in between the pieces and listen to the readings, but this was only partly possible; I was making sure in my mind that I remembered the upcoming piece. At one point I thought I had forgotten the third line of “Metronóm.” What was it? What could it be? Then it came back: “a szálkák mozdulatlan jelenét.” As it turned out, “Metronóm” may have been the best of all the pieces. But two pieces later, Ahmed Amran (a Yemeni author who has been living in Szolnok for about twenty-five years and writes in Hungarian) read his story “A földdombok,” which I had read a few times before, and I was surprised to realize that the very ending was going to connect perfectly with the Pilinszky piece that followed.

Azok a földdombok ereszkednek le hozzá, amelyek mellkasukat nyítottak neki, hogy meglelje gyermekkori örömét és a halal végtelen csendjét.

(Those hills descending down toward him are the ones that bared their breasts to him so that he could land upon childhood happiness and the infinite quiet of death.)

And then, immediately afterwards, and closing the Pilinszky series, “Ez lesz”:

Ez lesz

Oszlás-foszlás, vánkosok csendje,
békéje annak, ami kihűlt, hideg lett,
mindennél egyszerűbb csend, ez lesz.

(That Is to Be

Dithering-withering, the quiet of pillows,
the peace of a thing now chilled, gone cold,
a quiet simpler than everything: that is to be.)

And then, after some closing remarks and memories of Eső contributors who had passed away, it was time to finish up with the Bach. “What will be, will be,” I thought, and plunged in. It went a lot better than I had feared. It wasn’t perfect—mostly because I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in my playing, but also because the cello needed new strings and a higher bridge, which I didn’t undertake before the evening because of all the adjustments involved (not to mention the necessary trip to Budapest). But I played it all the way through without breaking down or losing momentum, and there were some nice moments along the way. In retrospect, I see that I could have chosen something shorter and simpler. But I didn’t know that at the time. I think it was important to do this anyway, because every bit of practicing helped, and it helped the Pilinszky too.

People loved the evening: the readings, discussion, music, and whole atmosphere. Afterwards a few of us went out to a restaurant to talk for a little while. Someone suggested that I record the Pilinszky pieces. I had already thought of doing it, but now I am thinking of doing something other than a home recording, so that it really comes out well. We talked about this and that for at least an hour, and then Marianna and Gyula took me home. I am grateful that Gyula and István invited me to be part of this, and that Marianna took so many photos. And that we had such a good audience. In some way I feel part of Eső now, and the cello has been yanked back into my life in the happiest of ways.

P.S. Speaking of Pilinszky, do come to the online Pilinszky event (hosted by the ALSCW, and featuring special guests Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Csenger Kertai, and Gergely Balla, with me as interviewer and moderator) on March 20! Here’s the informational website, and here’s the Facebook event page.

Congratulations to Class 12.C!

When I first started teaching at Varga in the fall of 2017, one of my classes was the wonderful 9.C in the school’s bilingual program. I continued teaching them over the next two years, and one of the two sections continued with me this year as well. They graduated today.

They are full of intelligence, curiosity, and humor. We slogged through the textbooks together, read literature together, prepared Shakespeare performances, sang, and much more.

I remember visiting the school in September 2017, nearly two months before I moved here, and meeting this class. So when I began teaching them in November of the same year, we got going right away. Besides working from the textbook, we held a weekly News Day (where the students would perform a mock newscast in class), read and performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (followed by Hamlet the next year), and had all kinds of interesting discussions.

In tenth grade, some of the students attended my philosophy elective, where we would read texts together—Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Buber, and others—and discuss the ideas.

In eleventh grade, for American civilization, we followed the textbook but also read poems, sang songs, listened to speeches. One of my sections read The Crucible by Arthur Miller. This was also the year when the class prepared a Christmas caroling show for the school.

This year, I had only one of the two sections, and we did a lot: in addition to preparing intensively for the exams, we read To Kill A Mockingbird and had lively discussions for which the students themselves prepared the questions.

But those were only my classes. The students were doing so much beyond them: learning other languages, other subjects; taking part in Model European Parliament, student government; playing instruments, performing in folk dance groups; taking part in competitions; forming relationships; learning magic tricks; figuring out life.

With Covid, we had online classes for several months last spring, then again from November to April of this year. They had different reactions to this, but whether they liked it or didn’t, they held up. It was great to return to school in person, though. I remember when we first started doing so, for small review sessions, a few weeks before the whole school went back. I could see what a difference it made to them too, how happy they were to be in a room together.

After many months, the time for their final exams arrived. This year, almost all of the subjects had written exams only, but we still held the oral Civilization exam, since there wasn’t a written counterpart. For weeks, the eight students taking this exam had been attending our review sessions. This morning, they came to the appointed room, prepared their topics, and gave presentations. A colleague and I held the examination; other colleagues and an exam supervisor took part in the proceedings. Ceremony surrounds these exams: the teachers meet early in the morning to establish the protocol, then the students enter the room, dressed for a formal occasion, then they leave until called in for their exam. At the end, the teachers confer, the supervisor gives a report, many documents are signed, and then the students, teachers, administrators, and testing supervisor gather for the closing ceremony, where the students receive their diplomas and prizes and present the teachers with gifts.

So that was the day.

Here is one of my fond memories from our Shakespeare rehearsals, in the spring of 2018.

And here is the finale of their final caroling performance (one out of many) in December 2019.

This afternoon, after the little graduation ceremony, I bought some groceries and headed home. I noticed that the Lipóti bakery had the class tableau in one of their windows.

Thank you, Class 12.C, for all that you brought to my classes and to the school. Best wishes with everything you hope and plan to do, and with all the surprises that come along the way.

Listening All the Way to the End

For the fourth consecutive year, I was one of three teachers administering the oral entrance exams for our school’s bilingual program. For three days, all day long, we interviewed eighth-graders in English. Their scores on this exam, combined with their scores on the written tests, will determine their admission to Varga and to this particular program. The interviews took place in person, but with masks; that added to the challenge. Throughout the examinations, I could see how excited and nervous each student was, each in a slightly different way. It reminded me of when I was little and we would be driving somewhere, and I would be looking at the other cars on the highway and realizing that they were driving somewhere too, and that inside each of those cars were people who said “I” about themselves and lived out that “I.” I could hardly believe it, but I grasped it: that everyone was an “I,” with a particular way of looking at the world and a privacy of experience.

What is it that allows the insular “I” to affect others–maybe just a few people, maybe hundreds, maybe millions, maybe far more than anyone knows? Part of it is that we’re all trying to figure out the puzzle of living, or some part of it. Some people’s way of grappling will inspire others. This morning, before heading off to school, I re-listened to Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Light as the Breeze,” which I had come upon the previous evening. (Cz.K. Sebő, or Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, is one of the two lead singers and guitarists of Platon Karataev; he has many solo releases too.) The song is so beautiful—with hints of Elliott Smith’s “Angeles” and Nick Drake’s “From the Morning,” but with its own soul and meaning—that it kept coming back to my mind in the brief pauses throughout the day, giving things a lightness and a motion. And I wondered: what songs are playing in other people’s minds? What poems, conversations, questions?

To get even a hint of this, you have to listen all the way to the end, which is impossible in a way, since life requires us to cut each other off at some point, or at least to cut ourselves off. But within the short segments of time that we have, listening to the end is possible. It has to do with keeping the ears and mind open, recognizing that there’s more. With this song, it’s right near the end when everything starts to dance, the song comes together, something quietly glorious happens.

During a test, the surface goal is much more cut and dry. The examiner is trying to see what the examinee knows and can do. Does this person understand the text? The questions? How well can the person express an idea or talk about a subject on the spot? How accurate and expressive is the person’s vocabulary, grammar, syntax, command of idiom? Will this person be able to handle the demands of the bilingual program in particular? But it’s possible to stay within that specificity, yet recognize that the student exists beyond it. A student who gets a top score may end up not coming to the school, because of a conflicting pull in another direction. A student who receives a lower score may have an excellence in another area, such as history or music. Sometimes it’s a question of timing, too; a student may be having a particularly bad or good day. So we score as accurately and fairly as possible, but there’s so much going on beyond the scores.

I am not opposed to testing or competition. Both are necessary; both can illuminate and even stretch a person’s capacities. The problem lies not with either, but with the excessive authority given to them, their way of claiming the last word. No test, no competition has the last word. It just offers a few words or numbers. Those words or numbers (and the challenges behind them) can tell us something useful. Sometimes they affect our future. But our work goes far beyond them.

Speaking of work, when I arrived this morning, around 7:30, one of the school’s cleaning staff had just finished mopping the floor in the room where we have been holding the exams. When I arrived, she told me that she had just finished in there, and then asked if I would like to keep the window open. She then proceeded on to the next rooms. I don’t have any moral to draw from that, except that she brought something to our day, maybe without realizing it herself, maybe without our knowledge.

The Winter 2020–2021 Issue of Folyosó

It is here! Peruse it with abandon, and leave a comment if you wish! I have copied my Letter from the Editor below.

Folyosó began in the spring of 2020, when school in Hungary had gone online in response to COVID-19. After a brief interlude of in-person classes in the fall, we have been back online since mid-November, with ongoing hopes of returning to school. During this time, students have written essays, stories, short scenes, contest entries, and more; this issue features some of these winter fruits, along with Lilla Kassai’s art.

We proudly present our first international contest, for which students wrote pieces about imaginary inventions. The jury (Judit Kéri, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, Edit Göröcs, and I) had a difficult time ranking the ten finalists; while we eventually chose winners, we are delighted to publish all ten pieces here. It was an honor to receive entries from the Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie in Istanbul, as well as from many Varga students; we hope to bring the two schools and others together for an online Folyosó event this spring.

For the scenes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students were supposed to start with something in the play and take it in a surprising direction. The scenes published here—Áron Antal’s “Something Even Stranger,” Gréta Tóth’s “A Midsummer Night’s Gestalt,” Gergely Sülye’s “As from a Voyage,” Dorottya Turza’s “The Surprise of the Century,” Dávid Csáki’s “Let Him Roar Again,” Bertalan Szegi’s “Act 1, Scene 1,” and Zsófia Szabina Gávris’s “A Nice Article”—abound with wit, emotion, and surprise.

This is also the first time that we feature writers from Class 9.B (which I teach once a week); I have been impressed with this class’s imagination and look forward to publishing more of their work.

The winter issue does not include any writings from the Orwell project, but we may publish a few of them in the spring. For this project, Varga students joined with a class of tenth-graders at Columbia Secondary School to read and discuss Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a great experience; you can read much more about it on the project website.

Some of the pieces in this issue grapple with difficult problems: isolation, introspection, death and grief, political vanity, and disillusionment; others delight in books, friendship, everyday mishaps and mistakes, and visions of the future. The issue’s overall spirit brings to mind William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“: not just the famous lines

It is right it should be so 
Man was made for Joy & Woe 
And when this we rightly know 
Thro the World we safely go 

but much more. In this issue you will find a procession of experience, thoughts, questions: from Szabina Tamara Da Cunha Carvalho’s essay “The Problem with BLM Movements in Hungary” to Hunor Gangel’s “From Late to Early”; from Gergely Sülye’s “Transformation” to Lili Forgács’s “The Truth”; from Sándor Tor’s “Is This the Future?” to Zsófia Vona’s “A Dream Come True”; from Sándor Szakács’s “Challenging Times” to Adél Mihályi’s “Personalities”; from Bettina Czékus’s “Arbya” to Eszter Aletta Hevesi’s “The Story of Gen E”; from Tamás Takács’s “Michael the Caterpillar” to Botond Vass’s “The Shelter.”

We wish you good health, happy winter reading, and many returns! As ever, we welcome your submissions and comments.


Diana Senechal
English and Civilization Teacher
Editor of Folyosó

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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