I’ve been teaching in Poland for 10 years, so I think I have the right to say a few things about Polish education. I do so not as an American with some pretension that our model is better. In America, we have a teachers union that protects the incompetent, a funding system that forces the most interesting of teachers to conform into one scores based homogeny, a liability conscious atmosphere that might get a PE teacher suspended for patting a student’s shoulder. We’ve got armed guards at school gates, metal detectors at the doors. Education boards that still wish to debate evolution. We’ve got problems.
I left after two years and found a home in Warsaw at an international school where we offer the IBO Diploma as well as the Polish Matura. I also teach many Matura bound students privately, where I often find myself in the role of child therapist.
Let me explain—
Meet Jutta Molak. She’s in the 8th grade, a pallid girl with ponytail whose pastimes include catching up on homework and studying for exams. We have been having private lessons for four years now. On Monday it’s me, Tuesday the French tutor, Wednesday it’s math, and Thursday she has piano. She hates the piano but may tell her mother when she’s 37. Friday’s she is off, which means she has time to study.
She lives in a refurbished block in Mokotów where I assume other school-aged children live, but that remains an assumption. Even in the brightest of weather, I don’t see many kids trafficking the streets. I imagine them all like Jutta, sedentary, indoors, elbows on tables too tall for them.
Jutta is a frail girl, but growing like bamboo. I’m starting to witness her transformation from girl to young woman. She is bright and having just turned 14, already world weary. She enjoys that I invent lessons upon arrival and entertain big topics like love, war, the minimum wage, race, aging, gender roles, marriage…love. Well, Jutta is not too keen on that topic—she has yet to move on from the eight year old’s attitude towards “boys”, that they are basically primitive, intrusive, ignorant, loud, and stinky. I told you she was bright.
At the moment, Jutta is reading Sienkiewicz’s Potop. The mention of the title releases a sigh as thick as Sisyphus, seeing his boulder roll back down the hill. At 900 pages, it does not really sit atop Jutta’s couch cushions, but rests within them like a small child. I recognize the cultural importance of Sienkiewicz but at the same time can’t imagine many 8th graders having the patience to follow his slow developing 19th century idiom beyond the first 200 pages. I have experimented with many books over the years, classics and contemporary, and unless the subject matter contains some form of wizardry, have found that middle schoolers tap out at about 300 pages. Won’t Sienkiewicz still be waiting for them when they are old enough to appreciate him?
8th graders are not only fed the tomes of Sienkiewicz, but also more digestible American classics like Catcher in the Rye, which however includes complex material for the early teen—scenes with prostitutes, pimps, licentious English teachers, and existential questions over where ducks go in the winter. I teach that book to my 11th graders and they love it, or hate it, but have plenty to say about it. The content is relevant to their experiences. Jutta skipped over the prostitute parts and didn’t remember anything about the ducks. It didn’t matter anyway. For the test, she just had to remember that Holden attended Pencey Prep and failed out of three schools before that, not four. That was an actual question.
“Any essay to write?” I asked. I liked to begin our lessons with questions about Jutta’s week at school. It gave me much fodder for essays like these.
“Like you know about one of the themes?”
Jutta’s voice squeaked as the pitch rose and fell back down over the syllable, so that ‘why’ had two sounds—‘why-y?’
“Why? Isn’t it important what books mean?”
“How am I supposed to know what they mean? The author doesn’t say.”
“You never talked about it in class?”
“Not really. I mean, the teacher talked a lot and we took notes.”
“Did the teacher like the book?”
“How should I know!”
“Did he get animated at all? Were there parts he got excited about?”
“I can’t remember. Was there a part about nuns?”
“Yes, two nuns. Jutta, I have to ask, do you have tea?”
“Oh, I forgot!”
A pot of boiling water was usually waiting for me at the kitchen counter. When Jutta’s mother was busy with patients (she was a doctor and had a clinic on the bottom floor of the apartment), she left it there along with a selection of green teas. The czajnik was too heavy for Jutta, but I enjoyed watching her play the role of hostess. She brought me a plate filled with wafers, gingerbread, and chocolate covered plums.
“Holden liked the nuns a lot,” I said while deliberating my snack. “He had breakfast with them at a diner in New York. He thought they were intelligent. And nice. And honest. You know, all those things Holden likes.”
“I thought he didn’t like anything,” she said while sitting back down. She never took cookies for herself. Rather, she rested her elbows on the table, and tilted her head into her cupped hands. She was tired.
“Ah, so you do understand something about the book. Well, he liked the nuns. And he liked his sister Phoebe.”
“I remember her. She gave Holden her Christmas money and it made him cry.”
“Why did he cry?”
“I don’t know! Because he didn’t have any money.”
“Did the teacher speak at all about Holden’s relationship with Phoebe?”
“They were siblings.”
“I know that Jutta.”
“And he snuck into her room and brought her a record, but it was broken into a thousand pieces.”
“Did she like the record?”
“Why would she like a broken record?”
“Because it’s so Holden. And she loved him. He bought her a record she loved and he broke it. Doesn’t that sound like something Holden would do?”
“I don’t like him.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said while chewing on a plum. “Why?”
“Because he just complains about everything! And he can’t do anything right. Because he fails out of school and doesn’t care what his parents think.”
“Aha! Is that why kids go to school? To please their parents?”
“Well, ye-es! And their teachers.” Jutta giggled at the end of statements she didn’t quite believe.
“Or maybe you go to please society,” I said. “And get all your passing grades so that you can fit into society. Because there’s only one society, and if you don’t fit into it, then where are you?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “You’re lost.”
“Exactly. Like Holden.”
“Well, he should just fit in!” she progressed logically.
“Well, he wouldn’t have so many problems.”
“You think people who change to please others don’t have problems?”
“Weh-ell,” she took a while before answering—“they don’t have to change themselves.”
“But in Holden’s case, it seems like he has to. You know, become like Stradlater and Ackley and all those other prep schoolers, and he’s not like them at all. He’s more like one of the nuns.”
“Then he should just go become a nun!”
“You think his parents would be happy with that?”
I fingered through my bag for my exercise book—a Pearson’s guidebook for the Polish Matura. But each time I got a thumb on the corner, I instinctively let go.
“What do you think Holden’s parents want him to be?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she deliberated. “A doctor or lawyer or something. But what’s wrong with that? He’d have money and people would respect him.”
“But he wouldn’t respect himself.”
“Well why not?”
“Because he would be doing what others think is best for him, not what he thinks is best for him. And he doesn’t even know what’s best for him.”
“Then if he doesn’t know, he should just stick with what others know.” She giggled.
I thought wryly about my own experiences as a 20something, completing a marketing degree and taking my first fretful steps into the corporate arena, sticking with what my father knew. It took seven years to find the exit door from that society and another seven to locate a new one—a school door at that. Back to the beginning.
“You know what we’re talking about right now?” I asked.
“A theme. To fit in or fit out…”
“That doesn’t sound like a theme to me,” she cut in, confidently.
“Because the theme is coming of age. The teacher talked about that.”
“Oh, so the theme is announced by the teacher? I thought it was something the reader discovered.”
“The ending is discovered!”
“And how did the book end?”
“Great. Probably because you’ve got 500 pages of Potop packed on top of it.”
I thumbed the corner of my exercise book again. Third conditionals were awaiting us. We could quit the conversation and call it a nice warm-up. But when I looked into Jutta’s weighted eyes, I did not have the stomach to lead her through more drills. How many conversations did she get to have like this?
I let the book go.
“So, we’re back to Phoebe and Holden. When he was in her room, you remember that?”
“He told her he was going to run away.”
“And become a nun?”
“No—but something close. Just live in the country and get a job and be a nobody.”
“What an idiot. You don’t even need to go to school to do that.”
“Exactly. So, he told her his plan, or fantasy, and she worried that he was going to leave her. At the end of the book, he’s supposed to meet her after school. She surprises him by dragging her luggage behind her. She packed a suitcase, ready to join him on the adventure. Isn’t that sweet?”
“They’re both stupid.”
Jutta digested the comment with a sealed smile. Or smirk. Something in between. She liked being challenged and was searching for answers. Some of them hers, some of them others’.
“So,” I continued, “Holden scolded her and told her nobody is going anywhere. Including him.”
“Why did he change his mind?”
“Maybe seeing Phoebe with her suitcase woke him up. Maybe it made it real and when it was real, he realized it was stupid. Like you say.”
“So Phoebe helped him.”
“A lot! And here we have a second theme—Phoebe to the rescue—how a baby sister can save a lost brother.”
“That’s a theme?”
“It’s certainly something you can write about. Would you like to?”
“No thanks. I’ll stick with the tests.”
I sipped my tea.
“Why do you think Polish teachers prefer tests for literature, rather than essays?”
“Because they have to test on things that they know are right!”
“Ha! That’s good.”
“You know, like what happened in the book, and when,” she continued.
“Well, plot-points. And characters.”
“Like Holden’s brothers. Do you remember them?” I was diving in now.
“There was DB…”
“What do you know about him?”
“He was a screenwriter. In Hollywood.”
“Did you know why Holden hated him, or at least hated what he did?”
“Because he hated everything!”
“No, not the nuns and not Phoebe. See, we have to break this down. It’s complex. It’s human.”
“So do you know why?”
“Because he thought DB was a prostitute.”
“Wha-at?!” The twin noted syllable and the giggle. Jutta was clearly interested. “How can that be! The prostitute was Sunny—she was a girl!”
“Yes, a young girl. God, I can’t believe you read this book when you’re 13.”
“You just turned 14.”
“Well, it’s not hard. It was easy.”
“Yea, the words are easy. But not the experiences. DB, he was a prostitute—according to Holden.”
“Did he wear a dress?”
“No, that would be cross-dressing. Prostitute is different.”
“I know what a prostitute is.”
“But you don’t know how I’m using the word—Holden thought DB was prostituting himself as a screenwriter. You can use it as a verb.”
“That sounds gross.”
“It means he was exploiting himself.”
“What does that mean?”
“To exploit is to get use out of someone, or even some place, without any cares over what is right and wrong. You know, ethics.”
“He thought DB was wasting his talents. Screenwriting was an easy way at money—like being a prostitute. But he thought he could use his talents to write something of value, like a novel or something. Like literature. Holden was rather high-minded.”
“High-minded, and wants to be a nobody?” she smirked.
“Exactly. You’re starting to get it.”
“I’m not getting anything.”
“What about his other brother?” I asked. We had to talk about him.
“Yea. Did you have to know anything about him?”
“Yes, that is important.”
“When Holden was 13. He died of leukemia.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember how Holden felt about him?”
“Well, he was upset that he died. Anyone would be.”
“Do you remember Allie’s baseball mitt?”
“That wasn’t on the test.”
“Too bad,” I said. “You had to know Allie died of leukemia, not cancer. But nothing about the baseball mitt with poems on it.”
“Alley wrote poems on his baseball mitt.”
“Why would he do a stupid thing like that!”
“Because he liked poems!” Sometimes Jutta exasperated me. “He liked to read,” I said. “And when you play baseball, sometimes you’re standing in the outfield for a long time and nothing is happening. So to pass the time, he read the poems. Cool detail, huh?”
“I think that was a waste of time.”
“Well, that’s ok. It’s nice to hear your opinion. What do you think Holden thought of it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You did read the book, right?”
“In like a week!”
“Really? Wow, I give my 11th graders three weeks.”
“What, are they that stupid?”
“You think taking your time with a book means you can’t read? Do you think reading is an Olympic sport or something?”
“No-hoh!” she laughed-said.
“First one to the finish line wins!”
“Well, why not? Three weeks is kind of slow.”
“I like to break the book into parts. And I like to talk about those parts with my students, like what we’re doing now. Can you imagine how many conversations we can have like this about one book?”
“If you talk about everything? Like a thousand.”
“So I need three weeks, see.”
“Your students must hate you.”
“How do you feel about your teacher and his tests?”
It was clear that Jutta was enjoying the conversation, and even the book. A school book to enjoy—what a revelation. Conversation, she said later, was easy—“you don’t have to worry about being right or wrong.”
“Do you think it’s easy knowing what you think?”
She got stuck here, smirking, wriggling in her chair. It was a moment I like to call emptiness, when students suddenly realize they don’t really know what they know (or like what they know). That their perceptions are limited and to a great extent, conditioned. To take them back into emptiness is to realize just how vast (and empty) the mind is. Had Jutta begun this process at all? Had school helped her in the process, or only reinforced the boundaries?
“Holden had two brothers,” I continued, “DB and Allie, and you’ll probably forget their names in five years.”
“In five weeks.”
“Right. Along with all the other knowledge you’re learning for someone else. But what about the knowledge that’s most relevant to you?”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s a good start. So let’s stick with DB and Allie, but not just what they were and what they did—but who they were, and what they meant to Holden. What they mean. Which brother did Holden seem to value more?”
“Because he died.”
“Well, we value everything more when it dies.”
“That’s true.” This was the first time in the conversation Jutta didn’t giggle, sigh or squeak. “Especially when we find those things beautiful. And Allie was about the most beautiful thing in the world to Holden.”
“Just because he wrote those poems on his baseball mitt?”
“No, that was just one anecdote. But it shows why Holden was so attached to him. He seemed untouched by this world, designed totally for people who “play the game”—who exploit others and themselves—prostitutes, like DB.”
Jutta was thinking. It was beautiful.
“When you get older,” I asked, “do you want to find out your talent for life, or just take the easiest road in front of you?”
“I want to be a veterinarian.”
“Ok…I wouldn’t call that a prostitute. That’s noble, helping animals. Holden approves.”
“Well, I’m going to do it for money.”
“But you love animals.”
“And you want to help them.”
“I guess, as long as I get paid!”
“Jutta, you’re terrible. So Allie…”
“He didn’t get a chance to grow up and become anything.”
“He died. He died young. How did this affect Holden?”
“Well, he was sad.”
“What did he do?”
“Something. Agh, I don’t remember!”
“He punched all the windows in his garage, destroying his hand.”
“Really? What a stupid thing to do.”
“But you said it was normal to be sad.”
“It is, but not to punch all the windows!”
“What does it show?”
“That he’s sad.”
“He’s more than sad. Come on.”
“Ok, that he’s an-gry.” Sometimes two syllables words were also broken—into two.
“That’s better. Why?”
“Because his brother died. Because he was just 11 years old and beautiful. I don’t know, he lu-uved him. Most 11 year olds don’t write poems inside their gloves. Most don’t read poetry!”
“I think he’s weird.”
“What? It is weird. And dangerous! What if the ball is hit towards him and he’s busy reading a poem! He’ll just get hit in the head and die.”
“Do you think it was fair that Allie died? Do you think Holden thought it was fair?”
“Of course not! It’s not fair for anyone to die.”
“No, I mean to die young. That’s not fair.”
“Especially someone like Ally, who was really smart and different. And wasn’t a prostitute. He wasn’t going to waste his life. He read poems in a baseball field. He was, I don’t know, like an angel?”
“Sure! That makes DB..”
“DB’s the devil?”
“Well, devilish perhaps. Living in Hollywood, selling his soul for money. Whereas Allie is reading poems in a baseball field. Angelic. You see the contrast? I think we have a third theme…”
“So if DB died, Holden would be happy?”
“Well, that’s a different book. Actually, if it was DB who died, I don’t think there’d be a book.”
“Holden’s having a hard time growing up,” I said pointedly. “He’s stuck. Or frozen, isn’t he? Or he wishes he could be, but life just keeps going and going and you really do have to grow up. You have no choice—”
“What if you don’t want to grow up?” she asked.
“What’s wrong with growing up?”
“Ah, there’s so many problems,” she sighed with a wide gesture of the arms. “You have to work and pay all the bills and when the toilet breaks you have to fix it.”
“And you have to buy a house.”
“With just you in it?”
“Sure, just me.”
“All by your lonesome.”
“Well, I’ll have a dog.”
“I’m not getting married!”
“No way, ne-ver!”
“You know, you sound a lot like someone I know.”
“Do me a favor Jutta—will you promise me that you will read the book again, when you are a little older? Say 17? Even 19?”
“Read it again?!”
“Yes, again. But not like it’s the 100 meter dash. Leisurely, in a comfy chair, no tests to worry about. Just 30 or 40 page chunks, like a meal. You don’t want to overeat a good book. Look what can happen to you—“
I pointed to Potop, deflating the family couch.
“Just read it to enjoy it, can you do that?”
“Why do I have to wait until I’m 17 or 19?”
“Because I want to make sure you uh, well—I think it’s important to have some experiences under your belt…to know a little more about boys and girls.”
“You may as well not assign it. Never!”
“Things change Jutta. People change. You change. You can’t stay frozen in one place forever.”
“Holden tried. And Holden failed. He had a nervous breakdown and he was in therapy.”
“He was in therapy?”
“You didn’t catch that det—oh jeez, just promise me—you’ll read it again at 17 or 19….or 24! Read it again and write me an email, telling me your favorite parts, and why you chose them.”
“Can’t I just take a test?”
“That would be too easy.”
This time I reached for my exercise book and pulled it from the bag. We began our more scripted lesson. But another one had occurred, hadn’t it?
Now let me come clean. Jutta is based on two students, the first our veterinarian-to-be and the second someone I have known for six years who recently passed the Matura and provided the key line that teachers must test on “what they know is right”. She is in university now, where she has complained about having to guess teachers’ minds to get those right answers, and to study knowledge as it were “an old forest with all the trees labeled”.
The dialogue itself was inspired by an actual lesson where I helped “Jutta” with a presentation on John Lennon. She produced eight slides containing all the pertinent facts of Lennon’s life, beginning with the Quarry Men, moving swiftly through the Beatles (and the 1960’s) and arriving at his death at the doorstep of the Dakota building. Nothing about what Lennon meant to his culture. Nothing about his peace activism, or his bed-ins with Yoko Ono (of course she would avoid that!). She did include a bullet-point on the song “Imagine”—when it was made and that it reached #1 on the charts. Nothing about the lyrics themselves—and what they might mean.
When I encouraged Jutta to add another slide on the lyrics to “Imagine”, she said: “Why? They won’t care. They just want to hear that I can speak without mistakes for five minutes.”
My heart sank a little. I showed her the lyrics and we engaged in conversation, much like the one above. We talked about things like racism in Poland and making change in society, and whether change was possible at all. Jutta said it wasn’t. She is not a dreamer. But then again, she giggled a lot. It’s hard to tell.
Where do we get our imagination? Do we have it like Phoebe, living inside books, and lose it when we enter school, and start studying them? Do we teach books the way they were intended—for the reader to enjoy, and to find something of him or herself within them? Why is the search for meaning and its expression reserved for the cafes and salons? Do we think young people don’t have the awareness to answer big questions? Do the big questions already have answers?
Teachers aren’t paid much in Poland. It’s hard to be inspired when you’re racing back and forth between two schools just to earn a bare living. But even with low wages, I would like to think there is incentive for bringing dialogue and joy to the classroom. For all the merits of the Polish Matura, which teaches young people to be humble and take in the knowledge of their knowledge keepers before churning out baseless opinions (often the case in America), its didactic methodology carries the risk of breeding cynicism, insecurity and even boorishness. It is a risk to speak one’s unformed opinions. How are they to take form if they remain cloistered inside? And what are books if not reflections of the individuals for whom they were written? Who is “Jutta”, actually?
She is a frail girl with the eyes of an overworked accountant. She is charming, sharp-witted, and deflects unconventional views like they were tennis balls. She likes debate but gets most wriggly on the subject of lu-uv and other post-puberty complexes. But you’ll never hear her untangle these complexes, at least not in school. She is rather trained to say what teachers want and expect to hear. She is rarely inspired though she gets 6’s up and down the report card. She can read classics like Catcher in the Rye in seven days, and epics like Potop in three weeks. She can speak without any grammatical missteps for five minutes or more. She can recite John Lennon’s life like it existed on a timeline, but say nothing meaningful about “Imagine”.
Oh, she has plenty to say about “Imagine”, if we only ask her. But we have to be patient. Don’t reach for the exercise book so quickly. Give it a chance. It takes a long time to get what you are after in this kind of dialogue. It takes time to realize that what’s out there is much more interesting than what you’re after. But don’t worry—if we put our faith in the kids, and they will take us there.