The Russian Student
May 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
They would have seen the images, even though most were only ten or so at the time and some weren’t even here, the black and white footage of the white men circling around a single black, the black man rising, falling, the arms of the circle rising, falling, the black man trying to rise once more. The images were repeated a year later, the same footage slowed down and dissected frame by frame, this footage soon followed by that of fire and smoke rising in that city for several days—at the time we were shown nothing but—and of a white man being pulled from the cab of his truck, and falling, and some in the room even know his name.
And these images have persisted, with them, with all of us, in spite of all the images, fabricated and real, that have since been pushed our way to grab all of our attention, and it doesn’t seem they will ever go away.
Does anyone know what the images represent, why all the disturbance happened and what it meant?
He was in his thirties when he saw the footage, yet when he replays the frames now, in his mind, he cannot see any faces. The motion of the kicks and the raised and lowered arms appears methodical and lifeless, the circling senseless, as if he is watching a ritual that has drifted from its context, from any kind of ceremony or belief.
But his purpose today is direct, and, he thought, fairly clear. The English instructor is having his class discuss an essay on the LA riots and first wants to make sure they know the background.
Our history of black/white injustice, civil rights, civil strife, police brutality, and, of course, a violent society—they rattle off the answers as if for a fill-in-the-blank test, as they may have been asked to do in high school, though from the pat way they reply it sounds as if they are talking about something distant, something that happened to someone else, buried in the past, not relevant anymore, or at any rate not relevant to them.
“If the causes are so obvious,” the English instructor asks, “why didn’t anyone see the riots coming, at least to this extent? Some fifty dead, a billion in damage, our second largest city brought to its knees.”
The class looks at him with blank faces.
“No one saw Watts coming, either.”
Which he has to explain.
No blacks in the class, however, and not many in the school, which may account for their remove. It is hard to accept what has not been seen, what none of us see that often, what in effect has been hidden. Also history for them is anything that happened a few years ago. The time it takes for the recent to become displaced has gotten shorter, which may not wholly be their fault.
But mention of money and death stirs discussion, and as they review the specifics—innocent victims, the property loss, wholesale looting—the class divides, their voices heat. Concrete details touch the quick of their own views of responsibility, of authority, even of oppression, though these are personal and in some cases juvenile and forced.
They got what they deserved, one student claims, though doesn’t say who they were or why, which sets off a mixed roar of approval and outrage. A few try to temper his remarks with explanations of the hardships in poor neighborhoods, of psychological strain, though these are sketchy and unconvincing. But there is some social concern in the class after all. He wouldn’t have heard such comments in the private schools where he has taught. Monte Vista is a community college, whose doors are open, its fees inexpensive.
Others, however, sit and stew in indignation as they listen.
Bullshit, another student shouts, and several nod assent. He doesn’t explain, however, perhaps because he doesn’t think he needs to. More likely he hasn’t often been asked to explain himself before. The English instructor can guess, however, that their philosophy goes like this: one takes what one gets in life, does the best he or she can, and doesn’t complain—a message they get at home, and elsewhere.
He wonders what the Russian student thinks, given what he may have seen when he was younger. But he sits in the back corner with his boots propped up on an empty desk in front, stares straight at him, or maybe through him, and says nothing. He looks like he is listening, perhaps is engaged, but there are also twists on his face that suggest a sneer of defiance. Against what, the instructor has no idea. He hasn’t said anything since the quarter started.
“What works for the individual may not work for society as a whole,” the English instructor says.
Because one of his goals is to get his students to think globally, beyond the immediate circles of their lives.
“Understanding causes, the reasons why strife happens, is not the same thing as justifying it.”
A distinction he has made many times before, not always with success.
He does get frustrated with his students for their incomplete thought, their knee-jerk reactions. Still, they are young and are learning, and he knows he should be patient. His students, for their part, often suspect when he teaches such material that he is pulling an agenda. It is a temptation he has to watch. His major goal is to get them to look at what they are saying and think it through, to learn to think for themselves. He should not take sides, but help them learn to let reason speak for itself so it can speak through them.
To do this he should encourage them to speak up, then see what can be managed out of what comes. First he must earn their respect himself, and to do this he should be impartial but committed to what he is doing, or at least put on this face, not tell them what to think.
But he also believes he should respect them because he knows they are decent at heart, that many are of better character than he. The English instructor does not hold illusions about what his discipline brings.
“Before we reach judgment, we should first understand.”
Besides, he’s not convinced the way they think is that different from the way many others do, who are older. He often has to remind himself of the advice he has just given.
“Otherwise me may tag the wrong people and our sentences will have no effect.”
They look at him once more. But his reassuring voice calms them and brings them back together, ready to follow. Perhaps, too, the implications of what he has just said sinks in.
“Everyone was hurt by the riots, one way or another. Sometimes events go to such extremes that it doesn’t matter what we think. We have to put our judgments aside, pick up the pieces as best we can, and figure out what to do.”
Also lately he has been wondering what he is supposed to tell them, were he of a mind.
So much has changed in the world, and in so many ways the world, with its strains, its conflicts, its failures, its realignments and dislocations, has come to him. Before him every day, a spectrum of Asians from half the globe, from a wide range of political and cultural systems, still shifting. Indians and Pakistanis, who in the classroom peacefully coexist. Eastern Europeans, who have seen the names of their nations replaced, their borders redrawn. More recently, a sprinkling from the Middle East. The sons and daughters of the Central American migrations, many of whose families have been here some time, now at the school because it reached out to them.
Not all of them are refugees; many have come for the raw opportunities. After all, this is Silicon Valley, where people think nothing of making millions. While it’s not likely they will get rich, they should be rewarded for their abilities and their efforts, or at least they hold out this hope.
And, of course, there are whites, some from other states for whom California is a foreign place. Their specific heritage, however, is so mixed or their ties to it so diluted that the label white doesn’t denote an ethnicity but rather is a transparent container. There isn’t a majority of any group in the class, and getting along for them is not an ideal but a fact of life.
The English instructor himself is white, though his whiteness doesn’t hold much for him other than its former privilege, and while he grew up in a middle-class home, his income puts him down in blue collar, a term which now refers to those who have to fight to keep their heads above water. He is a part-time instructor, and has been so for over sixteen years, fourteen of them at Monte Vista, who has to stitch together assignments at several schools. Tonight he will drive thirty miles up to Hayward State for a class that runs to ten. Tomorrow he will head almost as far south to another school. But he hasn’t given up hope himself that something will turn up, his career settle, his status rise a notch.
Many of the changes, however, he has seen in class for some time. Now he’s getting more names on his roster he does not know how to pronounce and the nations represented are not familiar. Ethnicities have intermarried, producing new mixes. Many others have families that go back a generation or more and their ties have slackened. And all of his students seem to be moving towards adopting a common identity of this place which he supposes is American, though it is so diffuse he isn’t sure what it is, if there is one. Identity has become not a defining point but an open question.
There have been other changes that make the English instructor wonder where he stands. A loose yet driving pop culture that takes its metaphors from crime and repeats itself, as if in a percussive stutter; a consumer culture that loves us more than ever, no matter what we think. Laws that once ruled our economy have been deemed invalid or put aside, the value of its products and of those of us who make them set on end. Higher up in our culture, where he supposedly belongs, there are endless camps making endless distinctions, where nothing is left unscathed and everything has been thrown up for grabs.
So he has to do for himself what he is trying to get his students do today, get back on track and focus on the purpose. The purpose today is to get them to summarize an essay. To do that they need to grasp its purpose and see how all its parts fit. Summary is an important skill: their ability to analyze a writer’s ideas gives them the power of understanding, which will help them read other texts and guide them when they write their own.
The essay they are looking at today is Jack Miles’s “Blacks vs. Browns,” whose main purpose is to trace causes for the LA riots. It comes from the anthology California Dreams and Realities. He selected the book because it was getting harder to find material that might engage all his students. Other anthologies, built around current events that were supposed to interest students their age, didn’t. California, however, and coming to terms with it, is something they all have in common. Its dreams are attractive, its realities are what they will have to face when they get out of school, if they haven’t done so already.
For their first paper, he had them summarize John Cassidy’s “The Comeback,” an essay that analyzes the various factors that led to the state’s phenomenal rebound after the slump of the early ’90s, a time when many Californians were cashing in on their homes and pulling out. The instructor likes the text because it is complex, reviewing many factors and their interrelationship. Little, he believes, is ever simple, another message he passes on to his students. Cassidy also credits California for its imagination, its openness to new ideas, and this the instructor also believes, that we need to find a way to make room for intangibles.
One major factor for the comeback, of course, was Silicon Valley itself. The essay not only gives the numbers but also reveals a world that was hidden from him and his students, what went on inside those small faceless buildings with cryptic names, the enclosed campuses, the glass corporate structures, and without, an invisible network, electronic and word-of-mouth, where trends, techniques, and opportunities were passed around, which helped sustain the industry and fed the spirit.
And there was a spirit then, an uplifting, an opening up of possibilities, that everyone felt not long ago at all, even those who weren’t in the industry, even the instructor and his students. When he taught “The Comeback” last winter, they liked it because it was upbeat and touched what they call the real world, which for them is the world of work and business, in which they invest their faith. They did well on their papers.
Another factor, not out of sight but overlooked, yet a large part of the overall picture, was the burgeoning of small businesses throughout the state, many started by those who came here from abroad to make a go of it. Small things, added up, can make a difference. They also help explain the makeup of his class, and his students’ mood of a year ago.
Now the Nasdaq has been on a slide for the last nine months, taking the Dow Jones with it. Trillions in investments have vanished in thin air. The English instructor does not know how he can bring such a number down to earth for his students—it is a another problem he has had with much else they have looked at, that the numbers involved exceed common comprehension. Nor does he know what awaits them when they get out of school, but the signs are not good. Forecasters debate when the market will bottom out. Meanwhile, business is off everywhere, he hears, and restaurants and shops and other small concerns throughout the Valley have shut down. The network remains invisible and he still does not hear what it passes, but as best he can tell the industry is consolidating into large firms, and cutting back and retrenching, loading up to do once again what it did before. The enclosed corporate campuses, he suspects, are now closed off. Programmers are turning up in his classes, looking to start a new career.
Though business is down, real estate has only leveled off. Almost none in the class live in Monte Vista, including the instructor, because none can afford it. Though the homes are modest, they are still going for $700k and up. Some just buy them for their lots, raze the houses, and put up stucco palaces. It amazes him anyone has that kind of money. Life, however, is not that much cheaper farther out.
The school itself has been immune to all the ups and downs only because it has been struggling all along, an island desert surrounded by a sea of money. Prop 13 and tax wars in Sacramento have been taking their toll for some time, and in the fourteen years he has been there, the college has undergone a series of budget crises and hiring freezes, hard times and flush, one reason he is still a part-timer, along with fifty others in his department. Its many buildings, flat and spread out, whose form barely follows function, are in various states of disrepair; the physical plant sputters. Support services keep getting cut, or are perpetually temporarily funded. He wonders how Monte Vista might compare with a similar school in the Soviet Union, or now in Russia.
But enrollment is up, the campus active with a roil of students day and night. Hard times bring people back to school. The ride down has been exhilarating and put everyone on his or her toes.
His students this quarter still liked the Cassidy essay, again because it was upbeat, and they have not lost their faith in the real world, in spite of all the signs. They have been upbeat themselves, and again did well on their papers. But the English instructor wonders how long their mood will hold.
He understands, however, they are not being wholly sentimental about the world outside the classroom because it is the only one that will give them a paycheck. He also realizes this, that if they are going to make it there, they will have to take what they get, do the best they can, and not complain.
But to land almost any kind of job, they first must get a degree. If they want to transfer to one of the state’s universities, they will need a decent GPA because competition there is stiff and those schools have been tackling financial concerns of their own. Before his students can get a degree, they must jump over the many hurdles of requirements, which have grown like everything else the past years in what seems a general trend of complication.
Not least of which, they have to take several composition courses. English is not a favorite with his students. For most writing is hard, and not just non-native speakers. Nor are they convinced they will need what he teaches when they graduate. The English instructor sometimes wonders if they are not right, in spite of all the talk.
Yet while he sympathizes with them, he still believes in what he does.
Besides, what are his other options?
And he likes his students and where he teaches. They are the ones who most need the power of mind his instruction can give them, which, if not in work, might yet pay off somewhere else.
The English instructor is not unsentimental himself.
So he bolsters the impartial face and gets back to the purpose. The first step in summary is to look closely at the text and see exactly what is there, which is what he asks them to do.
The details they find, however, disturb them, and the discussion heats up once more. Illegal aliens attending crowded schools, getting driver’s licenses or riding around without; blacks and Latinos competing for welfare and social services—these do not sit well with any of his students, nor can they see them in any context.
What about the Korean stores? another asks. They got looted and burned, too. Someone mentions Latasha Harlins, who isn’t in the text, the black girl who, a year before the riots, got shot and killed by a Korean worker in a liquor store. Others counter with gang threats to the store, general crime among blacks in South Central.
Silence from the Asians, but behind which the instructor suspects there is much thought, tempered by greater discipline and reserve.
Someone else mentions Latino distrust of Asian employers, the possibility of exploitation, which are in the text. Also in the text and also raised in class is an editorial in a Mexican American newspaper that sees blacks as perpetrators, not victims. Latinos had their stores looted as well, and suffered other violence.
What ostensibly was an issue black and white has spilled over into other colors. Instead of finding causes his students look for groups to blame. In this, the instructor knows, they are not alone either. And as has happens elsewhere, the discussion gets tied up into a knot of innocence and guilt where it is difficult to find either.
Where they stand together is in their outrage against preferential hiring, Angelenos giving domestic work and other unskilled jobs to Latinos over blacks because they trust them more. It violates the students’ sense of fairness, universal, as well as disrupts the adjustments they have made growing up together, and perhaps touches some dormant nerves, perhaps reinforces some suspicions. The author did it himself, they point out, which makes them distrust the text, what Miles is trying to do.
But they have only strayed farther from his purpose.
The English instructor looks back at the Russian student, hoping he might yet speak up.
Several things make the Russian student stand out and have stirred the instructor’s interest. He is tall, and older than the other students, though he is not sure how much. His boots, jeans, and denim jacket, which he wears every day, do not quite fit the standard of casual dress, nor look like they were bought in the U.S.
He is fairly certain he is Russian—he has a Russian name, Sergei. What strikes the instructor most is that, while he has seen Russian Jews freed during glasnost, who fit in, did well, and moved on, as well as recent immigrants from the outer countries when the Soviet Union split up, Sergei seems wholly Russian, his first. In fact he looks like a Russian soldier in some Cold War movie, tall, strong, committed, and only slightly Slavic, who has transcended his ethnic heritage in the service of a higher cause.
This is the main attraction and the reason he hopes he speaks, that he represents a part of the instructor’s past. The instructor is old enough to have Cold War memories, and while he took pride in American conquests in sports arenas and is aware of Soviet abuse—required reading while he was in school—he also, like many others, stood in awe of Soviet achievements. It was the Russians, after all, who got us wondering if we were as smart as we needed to be. And, like some, he had sympathy for a country that at least tried to build a society on social ideals, even if they didn’t work out. The Russian student should be old enough to have studied problems with our system. While the world has gone our way, not without cause, the instructor does not believe capitalism has moved passed criticism, or that capitalism and democracy are synonymous or even necessarily compatible, or that our country wouldn’t benefit from a few more ideas.
The Russian student, however, says nothing and still stares back, but the twists in his face have torqued another notch.
Also he didn’t turn in the first paper.
Miles indeed tells the story of a Latino youth he calls Rodriquez, whom he hired to make repairs on his home then later took under his wing, helping him with school and legal matters. When he graduated Rodriquez found work in construction, but then turned to drugs and crime, and, at the time of the essay, was in jail. This most upsets the students, raising the pitch of their outrage and distrust. They were taught to follow laws and not ask for handouts. They have adopted the mold of the good citizen, no matter how well it fits, and don’t know what to make of someone who broke it.
Stories have a point, or should, the instructor reminds them, and they have completely missed the point of this one. Rodriguez provides an example of a Latino who could not be trusted.
The Latino students fall silent now, perhaps because their group has been singled out. Silent maybe from shame, or maybe because they do have something to say but don’t know how to say it either, or maybe still are not convinced they have the freedom to do so.
“You’ve left out a key detail. Over half those arrested during the riots were Latino. The verdict didn’t fall against them.”
The instructor waits for his students to put the pieces together. The answer to him is utterly obvious, in fact stares them in the face throughout the essay, yet nothing comes.
He scans the class to look at what his teaching today has created, a class divided, tense, confused, and angry, and possibly in a few cases even hurt. He has taught the essay several times before, but not with this result. In another place, with other people, the results might have been more severe.
Still he waits, but the silence and tension only build. He tries to think of some way to pull them out, but despairs anything he says now will have any effect.
“Peanuts,” the Russian student says at last, picking up a note from the text.
“Please explain,” the instructor asks, relieved.
“Everyone fighting for peanuts.”
“There’s plenty of money in Los Angeles.”
“Not for them.”
The instructor waits for the continuation of his argument, but the Russian student stops. So he takes over himself and tries to bring in the rest of the class. There are times when the instructor feels he should not let the thread slip away. The Russian student shows no objection.
“What happens when a lot of workers compete for a few jobs?”
Wages go down—supply and demand they understand.
They make their best guess.
“Look at the text. When you come here with nothing, you’ll take anything you can get and be happy to have it. But how long can that last?”
He places himself dispassionately before the words on the page, not because he doesn’t care about them, but precisely because he does.
Rodriguez, the text tells them, was fluent in two languages, had a high school degree, and was a skilled worker. Yet he was only getting four or five bucks an hour putting up drywall in condos that probably sold for a million, without much chance of making more. His sisters worked in a sweatshop.
“How far does five bucks an hour go in LA?”
They know the answer.
Then he asks them to imagine what Rodriguez saw around him, the expensive flash—the cars, the homes, the clothes—then calculate his distance from those.
“Multiply Rodriguez’s case by thousands, tens of thousands. What happens?”
He doesn’t wait for their reply but goes straight to the point so it will not escape.
“If Rodriguez had been on the streets of South Central that night, he might have been looting with the others. Miles isn’t defending his behavior, but at some point we have to factor in human nature.”
Then there are things they will not know, so it’s his job to fill in.
“We’ve seen this one played out with almost every group who’s come here.”
Look, he says, at the Irish in the 1860s, poor, excluded, and crowded in the slums of New York, then told to serve in war.
“Their riot turned the city upside down.”
Now putting himself before the text of history itself.
“As for blacks, Miles explains.”
When the Industrial Revolution geared up, they could have been offered jobs in the factories and moved up from there. Instead America called to Europe. Then they finally get a toehold in Los Angeles, only to see it slip away once more.
“Over a hundred years of falling down will spoil anyone’s spirit.”
And he has backed off so effectively that he is near the point of indifference.
“Besides, this is supposed to be the land opportunity. It is the value that defines us. We have to consider what it means when our practice and our values do not meet.”
Which does strike a chord with the class, and the instructor allows a pause. He is moved himself, not because of opportunity, which to him seems mechanical and limited, but because of what might lie behind it, what that might mean. But he backs away from this feeling as well, because he has one more task for them to do.
The class has been with him all the way, following, understanding, and while he has not resolved their differences, he has brought them together and earned their trust.
The Russian student has nodded here and there and hasn’t taken his eyes off him. But the twists in his face have tightened into a mask of incredulity, or maybe indignation, or maybe something else. It is a face that is hard to look at, even harder to read.
He can’t reach everyone. The English instructor perseveres.
“If we don’t understand why the riots happened back then, there’s a chance something similar could happen again, elsewhere with different people, even here, now, with us.”
They are skeptical.
“At any rate, we need to learn to look beyond the specifics of a situation and focus on what is essential.”
Which brings him to his major goal today, one of several around which he has designed the course and that he presents to them as politically neutral. Later in the quarter he will ask them to check evidence and dispute assumptions. But that will take outside research. Today he wants them to go beyond summarizing a text and explore its implications, using what is presented in the essay and what they can figure out themselves.
“The way we define causes will determine the quality of our solutions.”
If Miles is right in his analysis of causes, and he emphasizes the if, how might they solve the problems he raises? More is at stake than preventing another riot. They have in the text and inside their heads and hearts, he tells them, everything they need.
He breaks them into small groups for discussion, after which each will be asked to give its answers to the class. Chairs scrape, circles form, they set themselves to the task, not without expectation.
It is a difficult exercise, he knows, with no clear solutions, but it gives them a chance to define priorities and work out the best possible compromises. Also it puts them in a position of authority, giving them the power to make large decisions. And it might encourage them to consider who they are, who we are, what we all care about, or should, what defines us as a whole. At the very least, it should get them thinking.
The instructor knows he is not being completely neutral. After all, he is the one who selected the text. He does not believe politics is everything, as some in his field do, whose writing tends to be particular, exclusive, and, quite frankly, hard to follow. But politics is part of our lives, and certainly a large part of life in California, the general theme for the course. Its effects can be hugely consequential, thus are worth looking at, especially in a country that elects politicians who do not believe we need government.
He also knows some debate impartiality, who even claim reason itself is a mask for base motives. The English instructor understands the arguments and cannot refute them, but does not know where they leave him. Writers have been trying to bring society together for centuries, and they have must have been referring to something outside themselves. There are physical facts, there are forces, there are common desires. Surely something can be assembled from these.
If not, what are the other options here?
Talk in the groups falls off quickly, however. He waits for a second wind, which does not come. So he brings the class back together to give their reports, hoping more discussion might grow from these.
Their solutions, however, are quick and lead nowhere. Leave, don’t come here, a few joke. Immigration restriction some offer with urgency, which brings protest from others, neither side fitting within clear ethnic lines. Raise the minimum wage, another suggests. It would stall the economy, the business majors counter. They are thinking about present times, which is what the instructor wants, but they can’t come up with a larger scheme that might become a plan of action. For most the problem is hopeless.
He looks at the Russian student to see if he has an answer, but Sergei still stares back. His expression has not changed.
The instructor has several answers in mind, which to him are readily apparent, even simple. He doesn’t wish to lecture them, though, which would accomplish nothing, but rather wants to leave them thinking. Something will come out of the effort, if not with this text, then with others later in the quarter. Besides, the class is almost over and it would take him some time to explain.
Also he is discouraged.
But that afternoon he begins to doubt his answers are that simple, or even if they’d work. It also occurs to him that if his students struggled with the text, it may not have been because they didn’t see what was in it, but because they saw it too well. What surfaces from beneath these doubts is the expression on the Russian student’s face, which now approaches something that looks like hate. If so, he wonders what lies behind that.
But these thoughts are interrupted when he backs out of the parking lot and hears a loud clicking on the pavement, then feels he is leaning. When he gets out, he sees his right rear tire is nearly flat. In it, a large machine screw, flush to the head. For the first time since he bought the car, he has to change the tire, the spare an undersized wheel whose design he has always questioned.
It takes a while to find a gas station that makes repairs. When he finds one, the mechanic tells him the hole is too large to plug. He’d have to replace both back tires, but is not going to pay their prices, yet doesn’t have time to search for a discount store and have new tires put on before it closes. So he keeps the spare and leaves early for his class in Hayward to avoid rush hour traffic. The yellow label on the spare warned him not to exceed 50 mph, so he drives 45 to be safe. It didn’t tell him, though, how long he could use it. Thirty miles up and back—he might be pushing it.
The San Mateo Bridge is crowded, however, yet the cars still speed past the limit and honk behind him in blaring anger. Slow down, he thinks, and the world presses down on you. From the bridge he has a view of what he has long since stopped looking at in his own push to keep up with the traffic, with his schedule, but sees now because of his speed, an open, empty sky. Beneath it, the spread of suburban growth from Oakland over to Fremont and beyond, more dense and farther up into the hills than he remembers, which, like the traffic rushing towards it, seems urgent, menacing, and pointless, a suspicion that does not go away as he returns late that night, when there is little traffic.
This hour is one of few he has to himself, a time he usually spends in quiet reflection, thinking back on his day, often with satisfaction, as well as looking forward. Driving back across the bridge, however, he worries about the spare and its limits. He still feels like he is leaning on the road. The suspicion gradually is replaced by another that begins to materialize when he drives into his neighborhood in Santa Clara, packed itself with modest houses, like those in Monte Vista, but less kept up, where the people are more vocal and sure of themselves, at least at home, and with townhouse and condo complexes, at one of which he lives, where his wife and daughter will be asleep because both have to get up early, his wife a biology teacher at a nearby high school, his daughter a fifth grader at a primary school also close, the suspicion becoming more distinct as he drives past the park with the skateboard pits where he makes his turn, where teenagers are still out, some attacking the slopes in loud scratches, others standing in a group beneath a light, smoking, talking about what he can imagine, or maybe not.
“I think the Russian did it,” he tells his wife.
“Why I think he would put a screw in my tire or why I think he is the one who did it?”
But she turns and goes back to sleep before he can answer. He has a full day ahead himself, yet lies awake, pondering answers to this question and others raised today.
The Russian student stands before him at ease, but the way a soldier might without letting down his guard, or if not a soldier someone used to similar work. He’s smiling, a slight upward turn, but the instructor sees it is not a smile he wears but a flexible part of his stance, coolly set to shift into a next move.
Sergei is much taller than the instructor thought, six feet six or more. And stronger. And older, mid-twenties, maybe even early thirties. His hair, short and parted, is a light off brown that might be turning, and there are faint creases in his face, though these may have come from experience, not age.
The instructor is tall himself, and this is one of a few times in his career he has physically looked up to a student. He realizes now he has other reasons to approach his inquiry with tact.
For the second paper he asked his students to redefine the California Dream. There are many different versions of the Dream, discussed in several essays in the anthology, and he encouraged them to select ideas from these, as well as add their own. Dreams, he told them, may not come true but still they guide decisions, and the California Dream has helped determine the kind of state we have. For many it is the reason they have come here. Think about your audience, he asked them, and what writing can accomplish. If they were not happy with where the state was headed, their essays, if convincing, if read by enough people, might change minds and alter its course.
His only condition was that they think their ideas through and try to come up with workable solutions. Some dreams don’t stand up to inspection. And even good dreams, if incomplete or poorly defined, can lead a state astray. He asked them to consider the paradoxes James Rawls raises in his essay “California: A Place, A People, A Dream.” The more of us who come here for its wealth and its resources, the sooner these run out; who come for its environment, the more we spoil it; for its freedom, the greater chance we cut loose from each other, from ourselves.
The papers weren’t very good. Most chose opportunity but just listed industries in the state. Some touched on diversity, nature, and community, but fumbled with these and didn’t have much to say. The papers that attempted freedom were horribly scattered. What he most wanted to see was what the papers most lacked, conviction and some kind of spirit. Rawls gives them something to think about here as well, because, like Cassidy, he praises California for its inventiveness, in fact argues that its paradoxes and dreams form part of an ongoing dialectic from which the state recreates itself and moves on.
The Russian student might know something about dialectics. He didn’t turn this paper in, either, however, and the instructor decided it was time for a talk. So he asked him to meet after class, outside, by a fountain the school turned off years ago.
Of course he doesn’t plan to mention the tire. He has no hard evidence and doesn’t know what pursuing it would accomplish. There is much he has to put aside in the service of his profession. For a similar reason he decides the missing work is a matter best approached slowly.
Does the Russian student mind his asking where he is from?
The instructor understands Saint Petersburg is a beautiful city, though doesn’t know why he says that. He’s never even seen pictures.
“Is copy. Built on swamp.”
The instructor understands many famous writers lived there.
The Russian student does not seem interested in literature.
Perhaps the instructor’s curiosity gets the best of him, because he asks him about changes in Russia he might have witnessed the last ten years.
The instructor did not mean youth in the country. What he is curious about is the economy and quality of life since the change. What he doesn’t ask for, but wants to hear, is criticism of consumerism, to which, he’s heard, Russia has given its soul.
The government then. Don’t people vote?
The Russian student does smile now, as if he’s told a joke. The instructor senses he’s being ridiculed and decides it’s time to get to the business at hand.
About the papers.
“What about papers?”
The instructor informs him he is not in the habit of flunking students. It will be hard, however, to give him any kind of grade at all without seeing his work. He will take the papers any time.
The Russian student does not reply.
He will at least need credit for the course when he transfers and works for a degree.
“I have degree.”
He will need English for a job if he stays here.
He looks off sharply.
Or is he planning to return to Russia?
He sharply looks off elsewhere.
May the instructor know why he is here?
Are there no articles in the Russian language?
His head jerks back and he stares, his face a bolt of anger, giving the instructor a start.
Then he relaxes, then he smiles, or doesn’t.
Then he leaves.
It takes a moment for the instructor to regain his composure. But he has been in similar situations before—it is a very public school—and this talk, too, he begins to put aside.
Later, however, it occurs to him Sergei was lying about the degree, or if he had one he didn’t get it at any institution, a suspicion that grows when, walking to his car, he sees him talking intently to two other students, younger, much shorter, both with buzz cuts, and who appear Slavic, maybe are Russian as well. All three stare at him as he passes.
The suspicion seems confirmed and at the same time radiates out in all directions when he gets to his car and sees that someone has taken a heavy object to his windshield and to the ones of the cars on either side, radiates out in a crazed, widening pattern, like the cracks that spread from the point of impact at the driver’s head.
A security officer comes out, but tells him there isn’t much they can do without a witness. The instructor cancels his class at Hayward so he can find an auto glass repair shop. In the meantime the windshield will have to be something else he puts aside. Vandalism, though not common, still occurs, and while the school is a busy place, much goes unreported.
That night, when everyone is asleep, he stays up wondering what the Russian student might do next. He also wonders why he really wanted to talk to him.
When he sleeps, his dreams shatter, and several times he wakes.
One morning, before class, the instructor reads in the school paper that the trial has begun for the Monte Vista student who last winter, lunchtime, showed up in the cafeteria with two backpacks filled with pipe bombs. The bombs spilled out of one and he was stopped. There was much debate as to whether or not he would have carried out his mission otherwise. His motives were incoherent. The only details that surfaced were that both his parents worked long hours and no one knew anything about him.
The instructor talked about the incident with his students last year, in case they might have been upset, yet they didn’t seem to be, or didn’t show it, but reacted as if his behavior was just one of those things, belonging to the order of things that can happen and that they did not question. Still, nothing of this magnitude had ever occurred at the school, or in the city, or, as far as he knew, Silicon Valley. It made the national news.
This attempt has nothing to do with the instructor’s car or the Russian student or what he might do next, yet still seems to be part of the pattern he saw in his windshield, one he hadn’t noticed before but once he did has spread farther out into the world where other things can happen, its presence so pervasive, its logic so direct, so forceful and perhaps inescapable, yet a pattern of a filigree so fine, its design so unreasoned, that it may not matter what anyone does next or why.
The Nasdaq continues to fall, with no end in sight. The Valley talks about little else.
The Russian student continues to show up, in fact has not missed a day, still sits in the back corner, still doesn’t speak, and still hasn’t turned in any papers. No word from Security, but nothing else has happened yet. Perhaps he had his say with the car and was satisfied. Or maybe he is preparing for what he will do when the instructor flunks him, who will have no other choice. In the meantime, all the instructor can do is wait.
And think about the pattern.
But now the quarter is three-fourths over, and he is consumed in the process of teaching, the managing of the onslaught of words and the steering through their misdirections, so much so that it is difficult to think what any of them mean. The reading of texts, the divining their intentions, the following their suggestions, the reconstructing and testing their support, the seeing past their shortcomings and errant forays. The preparing for class to present the texts, plans that may or may not hit the mark, the talking after when they don’t. Whole weekends spent wading through his students’ papers, their half-hearted stabs, their serious plunges, their partial successes, their partial failures, their lapses from grammatical grace. Also the dealing with whatever the departments and divisions and administrations of his three schools give him to read and respond to, the maneuvering through their intentions, their falls from grace. On top of all this, the hours spent fighting traffic to get to each school on time. What most strains him more, however, is the effort needed in class to keep his students motivated at a time when they themselves are pressed by their other classes and whatever else is going on in their lives.
Every quarter has this phase, but winters are the hardest, when the continual rains depress spirits and bugs go around. This winter is even harder, and he can’t think of any local causes. A handful of students usually drop the first few weeks. So far he has lost eleven of thirty, several of them mid-quarter who were doing well, or well enough. With those who remain, discussion lags, time creeps. By the end of the two hour period the instructor is exhausted.
While it may look this way, the instructor knows the attitude they show is not resentment. He feels for them, and wishes there were some more considerate way they could learn that would not be so stressful. But they, he will come out of it, something will have been accomplished, and everyone will move on, as has happened every quarter for over sixteen years.
Yet nights, coming home from Hayward, crossing the San Mateo Bridge so many miles above dark waters, he still reflects on the day but now can only see his own doubts about his efforts. When he tries to look ahead, he can’t.
He has stayed at Monte Vista because the school is closest to home and part-time work has for the most part been assured. But he’ll never get a full-time job there or at any of the schools in the area. He’s known this for some time, but hasn’t allowed the fact to settle in. He applies every time there is an opening, but has never had an interview at Monte Vista and only one at one of the other schools where he’s taught.
The hiring committees’ reasoning must go something like this: If he is a part-timer there must be something wrong with him. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a part-timer. Similar arguments have been made in the past as to why the poor are poor. While they may not actually think that way, the results are still the same. He’s talked around, and the informal word at Monte Vista and elsewhere is that if a school doesn’t take a part-timer the first three or four years, odds are they never will. Monte Vista itself has only hired a few from the hundreds who have passed through the fourteen years he has been there.
He suspects he has run afoul of the many factions, which change from year to year and about whose existence he has been uncertain. And he has seen a succession of five chairs and three deans, each with his or her vision of what the school needs, each vision different, following the current trend, but in which he never seems to fit, all of whom must wonder why he hangs around. At any rate when there is an opening, the schools always get hundreds of applicants from whom to chose, fresh young faces, and this may be another problem, that he now appears to be too old.
Part-time employment is the same everywhere, and his only shot would be to apply all over the country and go wherever he could get a job. But he can’t leave. His wife has had her own school exigencies to contend with and has finally gotten permanent status, while his daughter has made friends and settled into school.
Sometimes he wonders why such obvious exploitation is tolerated, given the nature of his profession, but really knows better. The temptations of supply and demand, though not always voiced, work behind the scenes and when they appear are given other names. Silicon Valley itself, who prides itself in its flexible workforce, depends on contract labor, a trend that has caught on throughout.
But if he takes a global view, he knows he cannot complain. Others are much worse off in this country. He should be able to piece together a career and keep teaching in the years to come. He just won’t make as much. He does, however, wish he had a more stable base to stand on, at least the security of a stronger contract. His only lasts a quarter. And some benefits—retirement will be tricky. He has also begun to wonder how much longer he can keep up his load, its pace.
What he most needs this winter, though, is to restore some larger perspective that might help him orient himself so he can believe in what he is doing now and finish the quarter intact.
Because he has been looking farther out, and discovered his situation is nothing compared to what it might be in Russia. Like others, he stopped paying attention when the Soviet system fell, save to see the news clips on the McDonald’s and boutiques and nightlife in Moscow, the catching up with us. Nights, when wife and daughter are asleep, he has been staying up reading about what he has missed. The silence of the Russian student is ever on his mind, and he’s looking for a way to make him speak by trying to imagine life there himself, and, after a few books, wondering how he might survive.
There are gangs in Russia—gruppirovki. From what he’s read there seems to be nothing but, bottom to the top. With the Soviet rush to industrialization after World War II and the subsequent rural migration to the cities, they first appeared in the vast, sterile Soviet housing tracts, where, well armed and relentless, they continue to define their identity and harass those who do not accept it, claim territory and fight turf wars against rival gangs. The gangs diversified with the economic loosening up and took off in ’91 when it was decided to let the market rule. Heroin, gambling, protection rackets in the open markets, black markets. The black searchers, who scavenge the mass graves of Germans who fell on the eastern front, cashing in on Nazi insignia, a healthy trade.
Or they provide small businesses real protection—“roofs”—from other gangs, the only way they can do business. Or they man the ranks of the Mafiya, who have branched out into oil, banks, and real estate, controlling 40% of the Russian economy, according to one statistic. Or the ranks of the legitimate oligarchs, if this distinction can be made, who control most of the rest, both of whom, with privatization, have found ways to buy up state enterprises cheap so they can skim off the top and plunder assets, both of whom need protection as well as assassins for the ritual killing off of competition in the open, on busy streets. Sergei’s own city has become a center, earning the reputation of Banditsky Petersburg.
With the buying up and skimming, the fall in production by half, the flight of money and resources abroad, the crash in ’98. As for those who lack protection, two-thirds in poverty by one calculation, hyperinflation wiping out buying power and savings and pensions.
With the spread of gangs into the economy, the corruption of the government and police, the buying off, the looking the other way. And more killing. In Saint Petersburg Galina Starovoitova, a deputy in the Duma, was gunned down, three bullets to her head, one of six to suffer a similar fate. The investigation remains stalled; suspicions run in all directions, the government itself at the front. With the killing, the backing down by other deputies, the loss of hope for change. Starovoitova was a reformer, and reform’s last chance, some despaired.
All this time, the territorial wars in Chechnya, its violence, the retaliations, the losing sight of motives. The massacre of Chechen villagers at Aldy, the piling up of unidentified Russian soldiers in refrigerated boxcars, the mothers searching them to find their sons. On the home front, the soldiers returning, lost without their guns, looking for employment.
At least the instructor has a context for the Russian student’s behavior, given the life he must have had and the kinds of decisions he had to make, which helps him put aside what Sergei has done, though it does raise the level of his questions about whatever else he might do next.
What else can the English instructor conclude?
Causes are easy to isolate and define, but solutions are hard to imagine. What he has found to be essential is opaque.
He knows he has not read the whole story, that much about Russia and its people, in their favor, has gone unreported. Many qualifications are needed, as well as some foresight. Russia is in a period of transition that should not last forever. Order will reassert itself in one form or another, although, considering the text of history, this is not a given.
What he questions is why Russia has been allowed to fall so far so fast, so hard, why no one has come to help. The arguments before promoting economic shock therapy, the sudden dive into the free market touted by our advisors in Washington and embraced by those in Moscow, are as unconvincing as are patent the reasons after why it failed.
One thing he cannot do is repel in horror. Much of what he has read is familiar and comparisons are invited. We have fought disputed wars and had our own assassinations. Our own move to the market was rough, the effects of which still linger. And we have had our gangs, bottom to the top, and inequalities, and, of course, have suffered our own civil abuse, for example, what happened in Los Angeles in ’91. Still, what we have gone through pales before what Russia has endured.
But there is little solace and no insight provided in deciding our behavior is not as bad.
Much of his life the instructor listened to Cold War comparisons, decades of conversations pitting us against them, one ideology against the other. Now he realizes the debate is finally over, perhaps for good, but with what result? The only conclusion he can reach, when he considers what has happened in Russia and the way talk has gone here since, is that if the Cold War was a battle of ideas, no one won, but rather both sides have stopped thinking about what they are doing.
As for himself, instead of finding perspective he has lost it, and the only certain effect his night reading has had on him is that when he tries to sleep he feels exposed and unprotected.
Still, one can shore oneself up in this country and he is safe. What he most realizes, nights driving back from Hayward, trying to reflect, is how much teaching has absorbed him for so many years. What he most wonders is what else has happened that he has missed elsewhere in the world, and here, what else lies waiting, unseen, overlooked, or ignored, how far the pattern spreads.
Days in class, his greatest strain has been that he can’t persuade himself of the reasons behind what he is doing because for months he hasn’t found anywhere to ground them. Perhaps they slipped away without his knowing. Or maybe the reasons never were there, and he and others have been deceiving themselves all along.
He still puts on the impartial face and tries to charge it with conviction, but the emotion is not there. His only solution is to pretend there are reasons and see where this takes him. He can’t think of any other option. Yet still there is doubt, and the only way to counter it is to reinforce the impartial face. But his students continue to struggle with the texts and his instruction, maybe even suffer to some degree. They all look stressed and are losing whatever heart they have left. His only recourse is to reinforce the face more and call this conviction, but the more he reinforces the more he doubts, the more the class struggles and loses, the greater the strain inside him, the less he sees behind the mask. The English instructor feels he is a fraud.
The last half of the quarter he has had his students read Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, a book that takes on the ongoing debate about our decline in literacy, why Johnny cannot read. Rose frames his argument in a democratic context, the changes in education the last years, the opening up of our colleges to others in our country who previously had been excluded, many of whom now sit in his class.
For their third paper, he took his cue from “Entering the Conversation,” the chapter where Rose discusses how he overcame his own obstacles while in college, getting through tough courses by being taught the terms of their disciplines, the major figures and their ways of thinking. The instructor asked his students to consider the same, but enter the conversation of some field that meant something to them, a possible career, a major, a side interest, a private desire. He wanted to give them a chance to think about something they cared about and bring them closer to it. The chapter went over their heads, but the papers were not bad.
For their last paper, coming up, he has asked them to summarize and respond to Rose’s major concepts. Throughout the book Rose redefines writing, what it is, how it should be taught, why we do it, and upon what it should be based. These ideas are what the instructor would like them to grasp, and he has invited them to disagree, if they are so inclined, or take Rose’s views one step farther by considering what they might mean to them. His first goal in this paper, as always, is neutral, to train them to grasp complex thought, then try to think beyond it.
The instructor is not hopeful. The terms of writing and education are unfamiliar, and Rose’s references to culture, high and low, past and present, look strange. Some of his analysis is rather thick. They have not been asked before to think about why they are in school or why they write or what writing is, nor see the point in asking such questions. Throughout the book Rose attempts an answer, that writing might empower them, and this is the instructor’s desire, that their efforts with his book might leave an impression, so that at least when they leave class they will think about and question the other texts they read in school, rather than just accept what they say and repeat it.
More, he would like them, later in life, not to believe just what they are told to believe, nor just do what they are told.
What he wishes most, and his strongest motivation, is to see what kind of world they might create if they were so taught.
His students do not believe him. The instructor cannot muster strength to change their minds because he has lost heart himself. The last weeks the hours in class pass even more slowly, all his energy going to walking them through the text, the students growing quieter and more withdrawn, the strain inside him tighter. He is afraid he will lose more students. They must not think the quarter will ever end.
Yet he has had success with Lives in the past, and it was well received. The problem may not just be the text’s ideas or terms or references, not just his students’ skepticism about what the instructor wants them to do. One day, while discussing a later chapter where Rose relates his own experience teaching Vietnam vets, he reads aloud two quotations that Rose once read to his students. One by Aimé Césaire,:
In the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretch is tortured, in whom I too am not degraded and murdered.
The other by Karl Jaspers:
There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world.
And he asks his students the questions Rose invites.
How are the two passages similar?
How are they different?
What do they mean?
Not much response. They don’t understand the passages and he has to explain them both, word by word.
Or maybe they do understand, but just don’t believe them.
Or maybe their message is unfamiliar because they haven’t heard it before.
One night he falls into restless sleep that turns into a fitful dream of a circle of men surrounding another man in its center, the circle growing larger, spreading out in gray confusion, then contracting into sharp contrasts and tight precision, then spreading out again into confusion, the dream a moil of arms and legs thrusting, or recoiling, his perspective in the dream shifting back and forth without ever settling.
One moment he is moving in the circle.
The next he is Rodney King.
Exam week, several matters are resolved, bringing various types of relief, in varying degrees. Corrections are made accordingly.
Talking to a colleague, he learns he is not the only one who found a screw stuck in his tire. The school is refitting the gym and construction trucks have been trailing parts and debris throughout.
The windshield culprits are finally caught, high school kids skipping class, who live in the neighborhood nearby, where they cut a swath. Some wonder why they did it, given their parents’ economic standing. Others argue money is the cause.
The pipe bomber manages to find a way to hang himself before his trial is over. He leaves no note. Theories circulate once again, without conclusion.
And nineteen students show up for his exam Friday and all should pass.
Including the Russian student, who, with his exam, drops four papers on the instructor’s desk. Then he stares at him, as before, with a sneer.
“Thank you for your passion,” he says.
That the instructor can only read as sarcasm, but which he gladly takes.
Then the Russian student leaves.
That night, instead of turning in early—it has been a long week after a long quarter—he pulls out Sergei’s papers, not without apprehension. The instructor is still haunted by what he might yet have done, but didn’t, but which still may come out in words.
He reads them in the order given, in case there was an order intended. The first is his summary of the Cassidy essay. The paper is brief and choppy, but logically arranged, and shows the skeleton of Cassidy’s ideas, more completely and with greater precision than the papers by the other students. Obviously he is intelligent, though how much so the instructor cannot tell.
Just as obvious, he does not know English well, as his vocabulary is limited, though essentially correct, and there are many second language errors and oddities. He must still be thinking in Russian then translating when he writes. The instructor can feel the presence of the other language asserting its control. He probably rushed the paper to get the battle over quickly. Then again, he may have only gone where he felt safe, in which case the paper could have taken him a long time as he fought our syntax, the way we stack and suspend phrases and connect them to the body, and our words, their many shadings, all our idioms, the cells that give writing life. He must be much less confident speaking, which explains his silence in class.
He also shows familiarity with economics, perhaps other disciplines as well. But he seems detached from what he is saying as he reviews the many facets of California’s economy, the causes for its rise, Cassidy’s argument it would stay on top instead of fall once more, again because he is not close to our language.
Or perhaps he does not care. There may be a purpose in his distance, and it is not detachment the instructor feels, but skepticism, or opposition, or even distaste. Whichever the case, the way he writes approaches style. Though Sergei makes no judgment, as he was asked not to do in a summary, the short sentences fall with force and finality, like verdicts on our system. Or maybe against any system, and they fall bluntly, like decisive actions carried out, the style of a soldier—or a thug.
Still, the instructor’s reading of the Russian student begins to shift.
Next is the summary of and response to Lives on the Boundary, where he hopes to move a little closer into Sergei’s heart and mind, but is disappointed. His summary of Rose’s ideas is just as brief, though reveals the same reach, the same control. He follows implications and manages the critical passages, much better than the other students. His response is largely restatement, however, without exploration or personal thought. As in the Cassidy paper, his peremptory sentences march in step, yet their force moves in the direction of agreement and he seems to have genuine interest in education and society of some sort, their potential. The instructor senses he wants to go farther, but does not know what else to say. Or perhaps he does not know how to say it because he hasn’t yet found his voice, the modulating and proportioning needed to set the right curve between heart and mind, the texturing of words to make them stay awhile in our heads before we release them.
It is possible what the instructor saw all quarter as anger may only have been frustration, which may also be the reason the papers came in late.
But he still seems distant from what he is saying and stops short of any engagement. Behind his words the instructor can see the sneer, in his syntax sense further battle, maybe because he doubts not the truth or desirability of Rose’s ideas, but doesn’t believe they can be brought into effect. Because they are too ideal, too remote? Or because of the blockage of society, ours or his or any kind? The instructor cannot pin his politics down, if he has them.
Or is he fighting within himself, against what he finds there?
As he reads the paper the instructor’s own doubts about his teaching only deepen, inside and out.
But at least the Russian student put up a fight. And maybe he said all he thought needed to be said, the way he meant to say it. His words do last a moment after the instructor puts the paper down.
The third paper is the second assignment, “Redefine the California Dream,” where he most encouraged students to open up and take a chance, which no one else did, but Sergei does. Instead of discussing California, he talks about Saint Petersburg, instead of the Dream, the insomnia of the city’s white nights. Against sunny beaches and transparent skies above the Sierra, he sets the flat, gray waters of the Baltic beneath flat, gray Russian skies, like slate, like lead. Against a landscape of wealth and desire, a plain of oppression and isolation. Against the paradoxes of plenty, the paradoxes of nothing. It is as if he read Rawls’s essay and bounced off.
The paper itself is built of terse, separate parts without transition or connecting thought, no purpose ever directly stated, any implied intent escaping through all the gaps. He begins without introduction by quickly reviewing the city’s beginnings, which the instructor does not know. He wonders if Sergei did so for his benefit, if the paper was motivated in part by their disjointed conversation over a month ago, perhaps in reaction to an impression the instructor might have had, maybe to show he has read a bit and given it some thought. If the instructor is part of the audience, though, his part is small, and as he reads the paper he sees it disappear.
Saint Petersburg is a city built from scratch the early years of the eighteenth century as a fort against the Swedes and a center for the backward Russian sprawl, Peter the Great’s look to the future, to enlightenment.
Someone said Peter I wanted a window on Europe. Petersburg is not window but mirror framed with thousands of columns. Like all people who look in a mirror, he did not know what he saw.
The land was marsh, which had to be drained and reinforced with timber, divided by the branches of the Neva, whose banks had to be shored with stone, its currents bridged. Peter conscripted labor from across Russia and brought them in, often under forced march. Tens of thousands died of disease and exposure; the city rests on Russian forests and Russian bones. Tsar Peter saw no contradiction.
Still, it is beautiful city.
Then European architects were called in to bring Western vistas across the flat, open space, but created instead a low-lying architecture whose classical influence looks more stark and repetitive than proportioned, its ornament little questions, Sergei claims, lost between the water and the sky.
Dostoevsky called it the most artificial city in the world. Poet Joseph Brodsky said it is place where you can think clearly. Both are right.
Later the Industrial Revolution, later Lenin and his revolution, his architecture. But Lenin moved the capital to Moscow to get away from the Tsars, and, according to Sergei, not to look into the mirror.
Saint Petersburg is also a city prone to floods, one in 1824 that killed hundreds and injured thousands, the inspiration for Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman,” whose plot he reviews. Yevgeny, a poor clerk returning home at night in a storm, sees the home of his fiancé washed away by the flood’s destruction. Wandering in despair, he comes upon the bronze horseman, the statue of Peter the Great on rearing horse, his lifted arm pointing Russia the way. He curses the architect of the city and his creation; the statue comes to life and chases Yevgeny through the streets, breaking his spirit, lost to his death.
The storm is a storm. It doesn’t mean anything. Peter I is Peter I. It does not matter if statue comes alive or Yevgeny imagines this. What matters is he is afraid.
Sergei also notes Peter and he have about the same height, a comparison that makes the instructor double back from the direction he thought he was going. Gogol’s clerk of “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s underground man also find their way into the paper, but the instructor is not sure who is looking back.
While he never mentions himself again, Sergei’s presence is apparent throughout, positioning the material and implying a relationship to it. But it isn’t clear if he is trying to locate himself in space and time or move outside of both, and the self the instructor attempts to posit takes on many opposing faces.
Appearing seemingly at random in the paper, poetic impressions of the city in its seasons, but which might prefigure an intellectual stance. He describes the white nights of summer, when it is darkness that is brief and faint, the persistence of pale light on the spectral facades of the buildings, the moment of reddish tint that remains in memory after the sun rises and full light is restored. He quotes Brodsky:
On such nights, it’s hard to fall asleep, because it’s too light and because any dream will be inferior to this reality.
Along with the impressions, strings of sentences of epigrammatic cast, left hanging in the white spaces of the paper:
What people call Russian soul is nonsense, but so is everything else.
Historical materialism makes no sense because there is no matter, nor forces, only ideas about matter and forces.
The people are not people.
Dialectical materialism is tautology. Dialectic is all there is.
There is no synthesis.
Synthesis does not matter.
History is series of deflections.
Capitalism is practice without ideas.
Communism is ideas without practice.
Gangsters have no ideas, but at least are honest. This should be respected.
Whose first effect is esthetic. Their implications are not pursued, but the sentences could be extended to construct a point of view. Then again, they could be used to disassemble one. Or they might only be ejections by a nihilist, setting himself apart from any.
Essays, it occurs to him, are fictions, in which writers efface themselves, pretending they are not there, perhaps even believing it. Ideas are an essay’s themes, used to produce the illusion of substance; facts are the details the story teller selects to give the impression of reality. Its plot is the progression of its argument, which, as in fiction, moves to the consummation of some desire, or the destruction of another.
But the instructor has no idea how the paper makes him feel, or what has been created or destroyed. Nor can he decide if Sergei rushed the paper just to get the words out, or instead spent much time placing them and paring down, then wonders about the difference. Yet however hard it is to locate the Russian student, he never leaves the paper, and what the instructor most thinks about, perhaps the paper’s strength, is what he most avoids.
The paper ends with the siege of Leningrad, some two and a half years of Nazi shelling and aerial bombing, of massive death, of hard winters endured with little food or heat.
The people of Leningrad did not survive because they hated Hitler or because they loved Soviet Union or even Leningrad. They survived because they did not want to die. Living is finding ways not to die.
Which is the thought the instructor takes into the final paper in the stack, “Entering the Conversation.” The remaining traces of his suspicion vanish when he learns Sergei is the son of doctors and is going to be one himself. What takes the place of his suspicion, however, is much more difficult to bear. The paper is a harsh read.
Instead of talking about the medical profession, he reviews the health system in Russia and the state of its health. Under the Soviets, the system was essentially free, available to most, and somewhat functional, though largely in controlling mass infectious diseases. If not good at treating individuals, it at least took care of the people. The system declined, however, as the economy stalled and state money kept going to defense. When the market took over in ’91, the system and its standards kept falling, the disease prevention program the first to go. Facilities remain underfunded and in need of much repair; advanced treatment is farther beyond the reach of most. State doctors, still underpaid and more overworked, have taken to prescribing drugs over treatment and prevention, the ailing clinics to charging fees, neither of which many patients can afford. Or to trying to treat without drugs even when needed, again because of the expense, and because many are not available. And some doctors are taking kickbacks from the pharmaceutical firms for their prescriptions, when they are. What is bad in Saint Petersburg gets worse farther out.
As for the country’s health now, he goes into the specifics. The return of infectious diseases—tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, polio, typhoid fever, and typhus. Surges in alcoholism, in heroin addiction, and, with the needles, hepatitis and AIDS, which the state denies. The slow and quick deaths from these. The quick deaths from cardiovascular collapses, five to six times higher than in the West. From violence in the streets, from the war, and from suicides, on the rise as well. The slow deaths from malnutrition and depression. Infant and birth mortality up, fertility down. In sum, a life expectancy for men at 57, a population in decline, more people dying than being born. WHO ranks Russian health 127th out of 192, Sergei flatly states.
The paper is still sparse, but much longer than the others. Yet he keeps the instructor moving start to finish as the clip of his sentences unloads in relentless progression. And he maintains control throughout, coldly logical in his categories, rigorous in his branching structure, and deadly precise in the details of his support. If this paper is skeletal, it is because a skeleton is what he shows.
Nowhere a note of outrage, or a slip into despair, or even a measured sympathetic response. The instructor tries to imagine faces, the looks of desperation and suffering, but cannot. Where Sergei is distant in the other papers, this one has been stripped of all emotion. There is no voice. The only effect his writing might have on a reader is to make him or her take a breath, which is what the instructor does.
Then again, distance may have been his emotion, and his voice.
While he breaks down and compares both systems before and after—their policies, their organizations, their hierarchies, their local parts, the bureaucracy and other problems running between bottom and top—what the paper most lacks is what was asked for in the assignment and what the material most cries for, analysis, in this case of cause and effect, along with some kind of assessment. Against the diseases of the social body the instructor discovered in his night reading, the Russian student has set those of bodies, and they are diseases of the spirit as well. The two are directly related. Connections should have been made, motives dissected, values raised and defended, and, finally and necessarily, judgment brought to bear.
Yet their absence is so glaring that it suggests intent. Perhaps he does not want to allow his readers to escape into obvious conclusions. Or perhaps what is obvious is not essential to his purpose. What he has accomplished is show a pattern, which he has seen closely, tracing it through all its cracks. But also he has contained it. What the instructor, as a reader, has accomplished is move through a pattern, and come out whole.
He takes another breath.
There is some brief biography at the end, but largely to credit sources. Much of his knowledge came firsthand from his parents, who still practice in the Kalininsky district, north of the city’s columned center, in a neighborhood of block housing and real estate scams and homeless, of closed military plants and alcoholics and unemployed, of children and teens working the streets. They have been working in the same clinic for over thirty years, through all the changes and all throughout the decline, in what Sergei calls “dumb plodding.” The rest he got from med school, Pavlov State, and his own reading, recent, while here. But he doesn’t have a degree because four years ago he dropped out. After that, he had what he calls a “nothing period,” then, last year, he left for California.
Again the instructor tries to place Sergei and answer questions left untouched. What, growing up, could he have seen in his parents’ faces as year after year, before and ever after, demoralized and wore them down? Was that what he reacted against in anger and led to his dropping out of school? And, or, was it what he saw on the streets of Saint Petersburg and gave in to, their urgency, their temptations, their traps? Or did he just wear down himself? What could he have done those years off, given his options? The instructor can only see three routes, violence or dissolution or despair.
His previous paper, however, suggests other options. As for his parents, “dumb” can mean silent, and “plodding” perseverance. They may have been exactly the words he intended, which best explain what he has come to understand about them. And about a “nothing period” nothing can be concluded. Nothing is nothing. The instructor should trust the writer’s assessment and leave alone what the writer does not provide. Besides, he has made enough wrong guesses about the Russian student this quarter.
The paper may have another purpose, which may also explain why it and the others were late. Sergei is not trying to take a stand but rather make a decision, because in the last sentence he says, in a few weeks, he is returning to Saint Petersburg to finish his degree, and plans to stay.
The English instructor, to the extent he is part of his audience, contemplates contrition for all his misinterpretation, which also may have surfaced in class throughout the quarter, but is certain the Russian student would only stare him down.
Late that night, still awake, he realizes that when he thanked him for his passion, he was serious.