Today, nearly nine months after receiving word that I had been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Romania and a full two weeks after we arrived in Timisoara, I finally taught my first classes at West University. I’ve been teaching for 25 years so I rarely get nervous or anxious before classes (like I did the first five or so years I was teaching). Today, though, with all the work and build up to get here, I was really quite anxious. What if the students didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like them? What if they really didn’t want to be in the class? What if I sound like a total idiot or they don’t like my jokes? All these questions were buzzing around in my head as I walked from my flat to the University.
I walked into the classroom, and I looked around. Some of the students were already sitting at their desks. I smiled at them, and they smiled back at me. I noticed a young man in the front wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Trump’s face. “Oh my god,” I thought, “what have I gotten myself into?” I asked him if the t shirt was ironic or serious and he pointed, with a grin, to the bottom. It read, “Trump: We Shall Overcomb.” I laughed with some relief and the wearer of the shirt, Paul, turned out to be a very bright, funny and politically astute young man.
Within minutes, I was chatting with the students and they were responding with enthusiasm and interest. For the first half hour we just talked about books they liked to read, their favorite music and the places they came from. I found them to be incredibly bright and engaged–they read widely and they are very willing to express their opinions. Most importantly, they laughed and made me feel comfortable and for that, I am grateful to them. (I forgot to take a photo of the classroom, but I’ll do that next week.)
Toward the end of class, I read them selections from the Flannery O’Connor stories that we will be discussing next week. O’Connor, if you don’t know her, writes a weird kind of Southern Gothic/comedy. David Lynch’s regional American Gothicism, for instance, is indebted to O’Connor. As I was reading passages aloud, there were some giggles and outrights laughs and when I was finished reading, I asked them what struck them about the passages: what was interesting? what was funny? what didn’t they understand? They quickly responded to the questions, informing me that they were actually laughing at me for the way I was reading (I loved them for that right away) and they picked up on nice subtleties in the text. O’Connor freely uses Southern vernacularisms–her characters use words like “aloose,” for instance (and in that way O’Connor is, of course, indebted to Mark Twain), so we had a lot of fun talking about those words and what they meant. I really enjoyed this part of class–the students were attentive to the language and they seemed truly interested and moved by O’Connor’s ideas. We will discuss O’Connor’s short stories for the next two class periods and I can’t wait!
The same sorts of things happened in the second class. I couldn’t get the LCD projector to work (I think the cable was busted) and I had some Power Point slides I wanted to show them, but in hindsight, I’m glad it worked out that way because it gave me more time to talk with them as opposed to showing slides (which can sometimes shut down conversation). There are more students in this class so I was worried about finding ways to connect with them, but, again, they energetically responded to my questions and generously contributed to the conversation. This is a survey class of American culture and history that is primarily focused on how American writers respond to violence and non violence within U.S. social movements. We will read about the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, but I told them that given what’s happening in the U.S. right now, we really need to deal with current questions of racial justice and police brutality before we begin tracking our way through American history. They seemed genuinely interested and quite knowledgeable about these issues and they expressed a good deal of interest in pursuing these questions. Next week, then, when we will primarily talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and racial injustice in the United States.
When the second class was over I said goodbye to the students and walked out of the building. I can’t remember the last time I felt that emotional and happy about a class. This is all to say, that I’m so delighted to be here, doing this work and enjoying these opportunities of sharing ideas with these students at West University. Thank you William Fulbright and thank you American Studies students at West University!
After class, I walked across town and met Sujata and the kids at Viniloteca, a little coffee/beer/used record shop in a basement right around the corner from where the 1989 Romanian Revolution began (I’ll write more about that in a future post). Viniloteca is run by Emile, who might just be the coolest guy I’ve ever met. The children adore him because he loves David Bowie and he puts extra sugar in their lemonade.
During the communist era, Emile smuggled rock and roll records and beer into Romania. I love him for that. I said to Emile, “Well, rock and roll changes the way people think, you know, so you are in some part responsible for the revolution.” He just smiled. When we walked into Viniloteca last night, Emile had a Bob Dylan record playing (Hard Rain) so we talked about Dylan’s many merits and the scrum of Dylan/Laureate critics. He’s a big Nick Cave and Flaming Lips fan, so we went over all that, too. Viniloteca is a neighborhood place–all the folks who walked in there either knew Emile or the other patrons and just about everyone who walked into the cafe would go from table to table shaking hands with the other patrons or giving them hugs before they went up to Emile to order their beers or flip through the used records. I have a feeling we are going to be spending a lot of time at Viniloteca during our stay in Timisoara.