The Masque of the Orange Death

(Kur Report – Part 8)

 

My brother’s nickname for Austria is “Clean World”. It’s his way of contrasting what he hears from me about the Covid and political situations here to what he is experiencing in the States. Well, if my home is in Clean World, where I am right now is . . . I don’t know . . . Prospero’s Castle?

As announced in my last posts, I left for my third cure week at the health resort on Wednesday at the crack of dawn. After about 4 hours of travel, I arrived, got my room key and was instructed to isolate there. Twenty minutes later, someone from the Red Cross came to my room and stuck a Q-Tip up my nose. An hour after that, someone bought me a plate of food. Five hours after that, my phone rang. My test was negative. I could leave my room. My cure week had begun.

This place is almost hermetically sealed. Everyone here has been tested, some of them more than once (if they are employees or patients who come from hotspot areas). No one else is allowed in and we have strict rules to follow if we go out. We get our temperatures checked daily before lunch. We have to wear masks outside of our rooms and sanitize our hands when entering and leaving any of the seven therapy areas. Everything imaginable is being done to keep the plague out of this place.

So, I guess it is no wonder that Edgar Allen Poe and his “Masque of the Red Death” keeps infiltrating my thoughts. What are we, if not a bunch of oblivious and merry guests concentrating only on having a pleasant time while a sickness rages outside our doors? Like the rest of the guests here, I considered tuning out the world for a week. But, unfortunately, the CNN breaking news on my TV and my list of political podcasts keep me informed about events outside, and I can’t seem to let them go. Twump’s clearly deteriorating mental state and increasingly demented actions have enabled him to sneak into this Castle of Clean World like an uninvited guest to wreak the same mental havoc here. But, of course, only for me. The rest of the people around me seem to be quite happy and fully enjoying the temporary good life.

I had free time yesterday and spent it in my room watching part of John Lewis’s funeral, including Obama’s powerful eulogy which really moved me. Afterwards, on the way down to the café terrace, I was deeply into thoughts about all the things he had said. Slowly, they got drowned out by the conversation of a group at a nearby table. It was the shallow talk of virtual strangers socializing out of necessity – complaints about the Covid restrictions and tips on how to get around them, a lengthy discussion about whether or not Hansi Hinterseer (an Austrian skier-turned-B-Grade-folk-singer) was gay, a mock feud between an Upper and a Lower Austrian, a debate about which receptionist is the rudest . . . It all struck me as so banal and meaningless. John Lewis is dead! Americans are dying and our democracy is on life support!! The “leader” is insane!

Which brings me back to Poe and another one of his stories. I remember some college professor telling us how Sigmund Freud was a Poe fan and that especially “The Fall of the House of Usher” was inspirational to him. It helped him to develop the theory of the subconscious. The upper floors house conscious, rational minds dealing – however feebly – with the world as it is. The crazy is buried in the basement – a place full of fear, obsession, and the irrationality of animalistic drives. Depending on how you see it, the protagonist either descends into madness or the crazy he tries to keep down resurfaces to destroy him. The whole house collapses in on itself.

Twump dwells in the basement of his mind. Years ago, I decided that he wakes up each morning with one thought in his head: “What dickish thing can I do today?” That has remained true up to and including today. It will be true tomorrow. It will be true on November 4th and on January 20th.

But! she says, with a budding, ever-so-slight sense of hope and change, Americans do seem to be waking up. Where locked doors fail to keep the orange menace from crashing the party and bringing the house down, the locked hands of various resisters just might: young BLM protesters shielded by a wall of moms, protected by leaf-blower dads, guarded by vets. Backing them up are the whistle-blowers, the Bulwark and Lincoln Project, the Squad, the leakers, the media monitors, the experts, the front-line doctors and nurses, the podcasters, the artists, the postal workers, the vote protectors, the voters . . .

Together they may finally pull off the orange one’s masque, revealing for once and for all that underneath, there is absolutely nothing.

 

The Karens

 (A White Mother of Black Children Reflects on Privilege)

 

It has become nearly impossible for any informed American to ignore the subject of white privilege in these turbulent times.

But for many, I suspect, the question has remained distant, intellectual, or abstract. In my case, it has been intensely personal. I have discovered myself to be completely and utterly ambivalent about it.

Two realizations keep recycling through my brain and confusing me. The first came after watching a few seconds of the video of the murder of George Floyd (which was all I could take) and then thinking, with utter abhorrence, “In this scenario, I am not the neck. I am the knee.”

The second realization was that I have spent the last 20 years ferociously wielding my white privilege like a shield for the sole purpose of protecting my black daughters. But my ability to do that is now coming to an end. The older one has begun her new life in an apartment in Graz and the younger will be moving out and joining her in about six weeks. They will have to go on living without my shield.

I won’t be there to silence passers-by.

I won`t be there to make the train conductor think twice about asking for their tickets in a suddenly different tone.

I won’t be there to stop strangers from touching their hair.

I won’t be there when the neighbor downstairs tells them that they walk too loudly.

I won’t be there when the policeman asks them for their identification.

 

No, they are going to have to go through this world mostly on their own now. And what a world it is.

– – – – – – – –

My learning curve about racism here and in the United States has been a long one. I look back at some of the statements I made in lecture halls and can only shake my head. I remember discussing a “groundbreaking” article about how economic success in life has as much to do with luck as with talent or drive. I felt at the time that it was important to challenge the prevailing myths about self-reliance and “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” and dishwasher-to-millionaire American success stories. It didn`t occur to me at the time that access to “luck” had racial preconditions. That was about the time when we were planning to start a family.

Years later, when the anti-foreigner movement was underway here in Austria, I argued that “foreigner” was just code for non-white races. I said that, in contrast to Austrians, Americans had dealt directly with the topic of racism and were starting to come out of the other end of the tunnel. I thought. That was about the time when we were considering international/interracial adoption and wondering if it would be fair to the child.

From there, I had the revelation that the concept of “race” was merely a social construct and not a real thing. After all, if you go back far enough, we are all Africans. While raising my children, however, I discovered that race was only a construct for white people. For others experiencing the consequences of race-related belief systems, it is a real thing. And a danger.

And now, after George Floyd, I have finally realized that true equality means this: As long as the construct of race remains real for some of the people, it remains real for all of them.

I am the knee. I am the white woman calling the cops on a Central Park birdwatcher. I am the person who saw a suspect in twelve-year-old Tamir at the playground. I am a Karen.

 

This very morning, I discovered that new slang term (“the Karens”) in a New Yorker article. I told my husband about it and he found it a bit too amusing. He immediately googled for more information. Later, during breakfast, I asked my daughters if they had ever heard of the term. There was an uncomfortable silence and a meaningful look passed between them. Then the elder daughter answered.

“Yeah . . . we didn’t want to tell you about it. We were afraid it would upset you.”

 

The Anarchy of the Chicken

 

I brought my morning coffee out onto the screen porch today only to look down and see the door to the chicken yard wide open. About half the flock had gone through it and were milling around and looting the vegetable and flower patches – places they had no business being. Still in my bathrobe, I quickly donned my rubber boots and left the house to quell the insurrection. As I came down the garden steps, all the chickens, including the ones who had stayed inside all came running toward me with their sharp beaks and superior numbers. It freaked me out a bit, but I told myself “All they want is their equal rights to food and water.” I had been slow to wake up and was the source of their current hunger. And I could fix it.

They milled around me as I filled a pitcher full of corn kernels and then scattered it inside their yard. Half of the chickens had the sense to run back inside through the open door. I corralled the rest of them in with some careful blocking and quiet shoo-shooing. Once order had been re-established, I surveyed the flock to make sure they were all present and accounted for and that none had been harmed. I was especially happy to see all four chicks doing well.

Of course, I had other options. I could have sicced the cats on them. I could have furiously nabbed the wayward chickens one by one and tossed them back inside. I could have decided to build a bigger, nastier fence to keep them penned in (or out, as the case may be). I could have cowered in the basement in case they made it all the way to the front door of the house while hysterically phoning friends and telling them to reassert my dominance. I could have tweeted angrily, calling them “thugs”. I could have had someone else clear them out brutally and then walked to the henhouse with a copy of “The Backyard Chicken Bible” held upside-down and posed for a picture. I could have proclaimed myself the Law-and-Order Chicken Queen.

 

But it turned out the way of understanding, kindness, and sharing was the better one. I gathered four eggs today and there are surely a lot more to come.

 

 

 

Don’t Treadle On Me

 

I think it is important that the world knows something. I own one of these now:

It is called a treadle hammer (or so google tells me) and the husband surreptitiously acquired it yesterday while professing to be out on a foray for bear’s garlic with our neighbor. I wondered briefly why they needed his horse trailer for this excursion. Now I know. When they got back, the husband sheepishly confessed the truth and then showed me our new possession. I stared at the thing and in that moment, it finally dawned on me: I am married to a serial hobbyist.

This realization really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. While organizing the basement storerooms last month, most of the work involved schlepping all of the husband’s (former) hobby paraphernalia from one place to another. Evidential remnants of his ever-shifting interests are everywhere in this house: the grape press and still acquired during his wine- and schnapps-making days, the kayaks and windsurfing sail and parachute left over from his various flirtations with extreme sports, shelves and shelves full of books on the perfect golf swing, cicada fish aquariums, woodworking, knife-making, bread baking, photography, mineral collecting, magic tricks, gardening, Asian cooking, etc. etc. etc. There is a self-made meat smoker on our front porch, a collection of old post-WWII bicycles under our back porch, a pile of Vespa parts in the basement along with enough fishing tackle and rods to equip an entire Boy Scout troop. I could go on . . .

But back to the treadle hammer. This new acquisition resulted from the husband’s latest interest, which I foolishly encouraged by gifting him a weekend seminar in blacksmithing where he made his first knife. He has been designing and building his own forge for the past few weeks, and now, with his new machine, he is planning where in our garden to set up shop. I assume there is an anvil somewhere in my future, too. (Sigh.)

After inspecting the machine, I went back to my laptop and was immediately confronted by this image, followed by a second sudden realization:

They’ve done it. I had begun to doubt the existence of the proverbial “rock bottom” (there seemed to be an unending supply of new lows), but these Twumpian Tea-Party-Offshoot protesters have finally managed to hit it.

 

If it were possible for fingers on a keyboard to sputter and stammer, mine would be doing it as I struggle to express my utter disgust. Is this woman ignorant of the Nazi sadism that led to these words being cast in wrought iron and hung over the entrances to concentration camps? Or worse, is she aware of that brutal history and nevertheless displaying her “clever” twisted word play and American flag-muzzle for the world to see? Either option is shameful.

Unfortunately, her stupid cardboard sign and my husband’s new toy are now inextricably connected in my brain. There is really no reason for it other than the timing of my seeing them. Or maybe it’s the similarity of the words tread and treadle, the first of which was on the Gadsden flags that Tea Party Old waved around.

One thing is clear, though. This woman and her compatriots are in dire need of a new hobby.

 

Remotely Reconnected

After marrying a foreigner 30 years ago, I stayed in a state of denial about my emigration for another six or seven years. Eventually I had to face the fact that I had settled 4,635 miles away from my family. This was made somewhat harder by the fact that we all seem to share a hermit gene and are pretty pathetic in the pen pal department. Years could go by without a peep from any of us. But then, every so often, some excuse for a reunion would arise, flights were booked and free days were arranged. We would all congregate on my sister’s porch and simply pick up from the point where we left off – be that three or five or ten years earlier. No recriminations for previous periods of silence. No “So you ARE still alive!” remarks. Just great conversation and laughter and enjoying the precious moments together.

I’m betting most people have some remorse over neglected relationships in this time of forced distancing. I’ve found myself calling up this or that old friend almost daily – just to check in or catch up. And people have been doing the same to me. I’ve had messages from high school friends back home, calls from students and in-law family members, emails from former colleagues, and yesterday, this text message from my bff:

Well, Ly, I have to confess that a certain evil penguin is not the only culprit to blame for my blog silence. I’ve also been preoccupied with this motley crew:

At some point in the late evening, one of these guys plants a meme bomblet in a sibling(+) WhatsApp group and we are off to the races. Some subset of us begins to chatter engage in witty repartee sprinkled with slightly painful punning and obscure movie quotes. Time zones are a recurring theme. Childhood nicknames are debated. Moments of trek-iness pop up leaving at least one of the sisters in the dark. Sometimes one brother writes in what he thinks is German. The other brother finally discovers John Oliver and gets immediately hooked. One hilarious thread creates a sketch about Twump captaining the Titanic. (“Only I can avoid hitting the iceberg. I am not responsible for hitting the iceberg. Now where’s that presidential lifeboat, Marine 1?”) We talk Wisconsin politics, the pros and cons of Biden, and the cons of brown sugar lima beans. Just last night, one brother and I philosophized till 3:00 o’clock in the morning about the triple-whammy of current catastrophes (corona virus, economic collapse, and the twump pwesidency) and compared them to “that old chestnut of nuclear annihilation”. Aaaahh! The good old days when calamities were simpler!

The exhausted Essentials among us worry about the state of the world. The Retirees among us worry about the Essentials. The Recently Unemployed among us just worries in general. But for an hour or two each day all of that ebbs while the messages flow. 4,635 miles shrink down to about a foot and a half – the distance between my eyes and the screen, my ears and the “Ding!”’s, my heart and the messengers.

 

Love in the Time of Corona

People occasionally ask me how Europeans see the whole political mess in America, so when this newspaper arrived at my doorstep on Super Wednesday, I put it aside to use in my blog. There is a reason I am finally posting it today – a week later and at a time when the corona virus and crashing economy have completely shoved political topics aside in the news.  Add to that the crescendo-ing crisis at my workplace and it is almost a wonder that I have any room left in my brain for the primaries. But as I said, there is a reason – and it has mostly to do with cat puke.

The three topics mentioned above have been intermingling constants in my consciousness and I keep feeling that they are all somehow connected. I’m going to try to get to the bottom of that here. Starting with politics . . .

The article above is a pretty accurate assessment of the state of the Democratic primary race, except that it pronounces Sanders to still be the clear front runner and it predicts a contested convention. Well, either things change quickly, or I have missed something in the coverage of the race.

In my own assessment, after watching all the more attractive candidates drop like flies one after another, I find myself imagining the fall debates with either of the two remaining contenders against Twump. Will it be two septuagenarians tossing word salad or two septuagenarians flinging invective poop at one another while bemoaning all that is disgraceful and disastrous in America. I can’t help seeing Bernie as the flip-side of Twump’s coin, with a different set of issues, but also banking on grievance and fear. Two men completely locked into their world views. I don’t like the idea of having to choose between revolution and devolution. I don’t want to vote based on fear or any other negative emotion. I think I prefer Biden’s kinder senility.

Because that is a second constant theme in my thoughts lately. How Twump has succeeded in putting the “coarse” back in “discourse” and then spreading it around the globe like a . . . well, like a virus. I’ve been noticing signs all over in all different contexts how communication is becoming ruder, more aggressive, more profane.  Swearing politicians. Stories of increasingly vicious trolling in the internet. Group mobbing on social media. Nasty movie reviews of perfectly nice films like “Emma”. (You see? It has even infected me!) I’ve watched little seven- and eight-year-olds in our school calling one another “wankers” while giving them the finger. Older kids speaking with the crassest words, hurling insensitive insults, and being either oblivious to or unbothered about their reception. “That’s just how young people talk today,” they tell me. (Nonsense!) The number of 15-18 year-old students who stop attending because they can’t handle the school day is increasing and a lot of their stress is social. It has prompted my husband to send out a letter to all the parents in his school, asking them to talk to their kids about the way they communicate in the classroom. I hope it will help, but when I observe how the parents themselves behave in discussions, it seems pretty clear to me where the kids might be getting it from.

There has been one meeting after another in my school and I see the different factions getting more and more rigid in their views – more certain that their assessment of the problems and solutions is the only right one. No room for compromise. The tone can be aggressive, threatening, fear-inducing, insensitive, impolite, even crass. One group says it’s simple: close the kindergarten and fire those two teachers. Problem solved. The other says it’s simpler: raise the tuition by one hundred percent. If this or that family can’t afford it – well, too bad! They can go somewhere else.

These recent developments have gotten the teaching team worried about the continuing existence of the school. It prompted my boss, who is not a sentimental person by nature, to send us an atypically cutesy meme – something I would have found sappy in the past:

Love . . . should be the virus that all people on Earth are infected with , , ,

 

Which brings me to Topic Number Three. Which is really Number One. Today’s news included the biggest drop in the world’s stock market in history as well as the shutting down of an entire country (Italy. Our neighbour.) Closer to home all the universities are now closed in Austria for the coming week (or weeks?) Even closer to home, the theater in Graz we were planning to take the kids to next week has cancelled all performances until April. And at home, I got an email today from the Department of Education. It was a directive to all teachers to start preparing materials that students can do at home. We think that all schools might be closing down starting Monday.

Everything seems connected.

My students need a time-out and a course correction. My school needs them too. So do the politics of my home country, the economy, and the world. The Corona virus seems to be forcing us all into one. And yes, I realize that is an insane way of looking at things.

But my cat agrees with me.

He jumped onto my desk this afternoon and started retching. The only thing within reach was the newspaper I had been saving to blog about. I quickly removed the first few pages, spread out the rest in front of him and let him empty his stomach onto it. I then carefully folded up the paper and tossed it in the garbage.

Later, I started reading the article for my blog post and discovered that the second half was in the part I had thrown away. I fished it out and gingerly opened it back up. There was the puke and, of course, it had landed right on the article I was looking for. Its stain smeared into two adjacent articles – a complimentary review of the movie “Emma” and a public service ad for the corona virus hotline.

 

Fifty-eight

A serenade from twenty-seven students. A wave of WhatsApp wishes. Facebook full of happy feelings. A birthday blog from a bff. Red roses refreshing my room. A delicious dinner date. And, finally, a last little gift of good news from the cosmos.

 

 

America Report – Day (Minus) One

It hasn’t been mentioned here before (as far as I can remember) but I’m back in Milwaukee for Mom’s 90th birthday party slash family reunion. It’s 10:00 am on Day One and I have already been up for about six hours. I’ve had a pot of coffee and listened to a couple of podcasts on yesterday’s impeachment hearings, which I find oddly calming. I have taken a long walk, bought a Christmas present, and written a blog post longhand – this one – which I am now trying to type up on an IPAD. (It is my first time using this particular device and it is not going quickly.) I have also started my latest crocheting project. It is another symbolic one – a pink flamingo – to bookend the bat (-shit crazy) one I made during my last visit . . .

(screeching brakes sound)

Back up to Day Minus One.

There is nothing like flying direct on a decent airline (Austrian). Having stayed overnight in Vienna at my generous brother-in-law’s apartment with its impressive collection of single malts, I awoke at a civilized hour, had an unhurried coffee and shower and then meandered casually the two blocks to the airport train station (with its convenient check in counter where I relieved myself of my heavy suitcase. ) I arrived at the airport with plenty of time for duty-free shopping and podcast downloading and breakfasting.

The plane started boarding and, as always, the first impression was that the plane would not be full. Of course things changed. A half hour after we should have been I the air, passengers kept straggling in – most of them harried American senior citizens who had had the misfortune of being randomly selected for an extra security check. They were NOT a happy bunch. Women in a tizzy shared their stories of being “tickled”. The men were more angry and the baseball capped specimen in the seat behind me was particularly enraged. After his first sentence, the thought “Twump voter” passed through my mind. He went on with his complaining:

“This is just a third rate country trying to act important,” he said. “We should strike Austria off the list for the next trip.”

I went through a myriad of unspoken responses to this affront to my adopted country, but finally landed on “Austria says thank you”. Later I leaned my seat back at the first opportunity.

Despite delays, we made up all the lost time, the food was actually good (haven’t said THAT in years!), the landing soft, the arrival procedures quick and my bus to Milwaukee left just ten minutes after my leaving the terminal. My sister was there to pick me up, and when I brought my suitcase up to my room in her house, what did I find?

Next it was all talk talk talk talk until Rachel Maddow finally gave my sister some respite from me. Ten minutes into her A block on the impeachment hearings I was fast asleep.

It is going to be a wonderful week.

The South African Gardener

 

Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.

Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.

So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:

According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. http://theconversation.com/you-say-morals-i-say-ethics-whats-the-difference-30913

 

Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.

I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.

This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.

So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.

But I really really wanted to see how it ended.

So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’

‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but the fact that everyone does something doesn’t make it okay. Saying ‘Everyone does it’ is basically the antithesis of having ethics.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’

 

At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing.  (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)

 

In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.

There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!

One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.

‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.

I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.

Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’  Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.

And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.

————————————————————

*(And, yes, you read right. Austrian students have Religion as one of their school subjects. If you want to hear my thoughts on that disturbing reality, you can read ‘Heathen Talk’ or ‘Scene of the Crime’.)