The Solidarity of Learning

Apr 2, 2013

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Whoever is in charge these days might consider combing the populace for anyone still alive that has a reliable memory that goes back to the 1950’s or 60’s. A little later would be even better. Those rememberers should be given a stipend for life, and their only job would be to bear faithful witness to the relentless obscurantism that has blistered the last forty years, and to tell the rest of us what has changed. The madnesses have accelerated so that they’ve bent time, for a while, to their purposes, and it isn’t easy to remember that things – even in living memory – haven’t always been the way they are now. That would be revolutionary, to take on the discipline of faithful memory as an antidote for the spell we can fall under now: the strange certainty that our ways are universal and eternal and inevitable.

Lately I’ve been remembering the early 1980’s. Not the music. The shit storms that were blowing in central America, in central Europe, the ardent, obscene larceny they called NAFTA that was being conjured in Washington and Ottawa and Mexico City. I recall those good people of conscience with their nose in the wind – some of them – were beginning to bury their hopes in the backyard bomb shelters. In my little corner of the world I returned home in the midst of a recession of sorts and work was hard to find. I took a stint teaching in an ESL school, with a room full of kids from Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas. Ostensibly they were having their finishing year abroad, but really their parents had purchased for them a year of lonely safety from the terrible machinations of the right and the left, to keep them from the armies, the militias and the guerrillas.

The class had kids who the year before had flirted with guns in the countryside, with pamphlet writing and street demonstrations, with liberation theology and death squads back home. They were tormented by wanting to be with their families and by being grateful they didn’t have to be. Most of them weren’t nearly as politicized as they were scared. As kids do, they were trying on opinions and stances the way they’d do jeans in a clothing store, but the gravity of the scene at home strung out into the current of their days an undertow of guilt and urgency, and it made them unrecognizably substantial and too adult in the eyes of the Canadian kids they’d see on the street or in the bus. What was happening at home was so close to the bone, so painful to consider, that we rarely talked about it in class. They would lapse into unresponsiveness. There was just too much fear and loneliness, too much haunted uncertainty. Finding the words was hard enough in their mother tongue; it was impossible in the language they were learning.

And so we ended up talking about what was happening during those very same days in Poland. None of us knew anything about Poland, but the struggles in Gdansk and elsewhere and the marital law and goon squad street justice were in the news every day. The great gift of those struggles for my class was that they gave the kids a surrogate language to talk about their own lives, their fears for their future and the future of their towns and cities, their uncertain, drifting allegiances. In the early days Solidarity seemed like a doomed fantasy, and we waited for the Russians to plow that wild, unlikely flower under. But those tense months went on, and Solidarity began to look a little more like courage instead, like how it all could be. It carried with it a whisper about what was possible if enough people at the same time outgrew their bitter depression and defeat and decided, probably with nothing to lose, to act. Solidarity was contagious, at least in that classroom, and the kids would come to school daily with things they’d learned from the newspapers about what was happening in Poland. They were for a year displaced and homeless, but they still wanted to learn. So they learned someone else’s struggles and dreams, someone else’s enemies and allies, in someone else’s language, until they could learn their own.

Things went as they went for Poland, for Central America and for me, and by routes circuitous and unlikely this winter, thirty years later, I was in Poland for the first time, in the Krakov airport, heading towards two days of teaching. It was to be the first time I would try to plant my work in another language, a language I didn’t know five words of, and I was very unsure that we could manage anything of merit or use. There were a few stones in the road early on: the airport security guy asked me where my gun was, and things were strange and tense for a while; we passed a farm wall that had white supremacist rants spray painted along it’s thirty yard length; there was clearly a lot of borderline poverty in the countryside; almost half of the homes in Krakov burn coal to stay warm, and the air can be acrid and harsh. Our hosts had the heartaches that come from having kids and from not having them, from being young in a deeply uncertain time, from trying to make marriages and businesses work. They also had a canny alertness to what was happening in the world far from their borders, and with it a savvy willingness to try impossible things. My appearance there was once such impossible thing. The event took place on one of those European riverine freighters that seems a mile long and ten feet wide, but this one was tricked out beautifully as a teak and brass conference hall and restaurant, moored on the Vistula River. When the night came for the screening of Griefwalker in a language that was no one’s mother tongue, the place was packed. People came from all over the country, they told me. At the workshop the next day the same the place was packed again.

The organizers had hired a translator. She was nervous, capable and devoted. We conjured together that evening and all the next day a kind of syntactical dance, and it was marvelous. The people were curious, respectful and attentive. A good number of them chirped alternative translations of my opaque visions. When we came to the day’s end, the formal thanksgiving and farewells lasted a courtly and graceful forty five minutes. Very old world manners abounded. I received very fine applause. The organizers were abundantly lauded. But here is what I will never forget: the translator got a standing ovation, as was proper.

The people appreciated and honoured us for having come a long way to be with them. What was stirring and heart breaking, though, was the enormous regard and respect they had for the opportunity afforded them to hear something new, something from afar, and the veneration they had for learning, and for those who made it possible. Many of those people were of the generation that filled the streets for Solidarity and dared the Russians and their own secret police; the rest of them were the children of that generation. The early 1980’s were lived memories for them. The dreams for Solidarity were dangerous dreams in those days. There must be some real heart ache that many of them have not quite come true in the time since then. And still the peoples’ thirst for learning, and their respect for the chance of being taught, endures.

I have worked in many places across the English speaking world and beyond, and I’ve seen no equal to that thirst and that respect. It’s probably out there – I continue to travel as much as I do because I’m sure it’s out there – but I’m fairly sure it is uncommon. The irony is that teaching events abound in the English speaking world, minus that thirst and respect. Most of them are rootless, homeless, hovering in conference centres and retreats, belonging to nowhere, dedicated mainly to self improvement. Learning seems to be held in the same esteem now that food is: being so common it is more like a consumer good, more like fuel than medicine, tolerated when it is fast, sweetened and easy to process, and generally dismissed when it isn’t. A large crowd of North Americans attending an event given by an unknown teacher without any advance press or PR, in a foreign language, who doesn’t promise inevitable and instant personal transformation: that is an unlikely scene.

Teachers seem to have become more customer satisfaction engineers than living treasures. Teaching is trancing when it loses it’s ability to radicalize, and ‘radicalize’ means etymologically to draw one to the root of things. I hear that university teachers are now evaluated by their students, and that this determines a lot of job security. These days teachers – the radicalizers, at least – are paying, dearly, for being held to the artifice of conjuring novelty and schematizing wisdom. The day will surely come, if it hasn’t already, when the consequences will be more democratically disbursed.

I didn’t stay in touch with any of the Central American kids, but to this day their kinship with the Polish people I met thirty years later, unexpected as it was, is clear to me: it is forged by mayhem, and by a clear and present danger to the human ability for disciplined, purposeful wonder. Perhaps it took the predations and privations of the communists foreign and native, and before them the nazis and their collaborators, and before them the Austro-Hungarian imperialists, and before them I don’t know what, for the Poles of the present moment, at least the ones I was privileged to meet, to learn and relearn and remember and treasure the great privilege of learning. I haven’t given up on the outside chance that it might take something less catastrophic for our corner of this world to begin doing the same. What has been our increasing poverty during the course of my life time can one day again become our riches. All that is needed is a living, practiced understanding that the willingness not to know and the willingness to learn and to have real teachers in our midst – they are what conjure the teachers in our midst.

All blessings and praises upon the translators, and the great rememberers, and those who gather to hear them remember.

Stephen Jenkinson

Photo Credit: Ian MacKenzie