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2007 03 17
Toronto Culture and Multiculture Part IV: Sitting with the Gypsies
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I was so stupid. Sitting with the gypsies and failing grade one. In a way it was all my fault what happened. The entire misunderstanding was my fault. That entire, horrible misunderstanding.

No way was I looking to mouth off asking too many questions. I was just trying to understand. Why this, why that, why not do it different. Why not do it how I thought was better. Wasn’t mouthing off. Kids didn’t go mouthing off behind the iron curtain. Just wanted to understand by authority what reason things were to be done that way. So stupid – me never realizing things weren’t done by authority any reason. Never realizing how most everything was done entirely by reason of authority behind the iron curtain.

So there I was, sitting with the gypsies, failing grade one. Not smart. Not good. The good smart ones sat fronting each row. They were the ones getting all perfect grades. Also kept order. Like orderlies, I guess. Snitching the rest of us was officially their job. Didn’t bother with me, though. Not back there with the gypsies. I was beneath their contempt. Too far back to see, nevermind snitch on.

Sitting with the gypsies didn’t make me one, either. The gypsies didn’t speak much Romanian – and I sure didn’t speak Roma. Even if I had, I don’t think they would have spoken to me. Yet, even had they spoken to me, it wouldn’t have done me any good. No conceivable incantation could have meant I’d get away unbuttoning my collar, slouching back from sitting at attention and join with them just marking time. Their immunity to the pecking orderlies wouldn’t have translated for me.

Official orderlies didn’t bother me. The wan’na-be orderlies did. The sore and persecuted ones seven or eight seats back from the front – one or two ahead of me. No hope getting up front for them. They’d have lied, cheated, stolen and killed indiscriminately to get ahead a couple seats, though. And that meant if my fountain pen smudged one line in my notebook, I got reported. If I squirmed a tad from sitting at attention, I got reported. If I even creaked my bench funny – yeah. Reported.

Got so I didn’t much have to sit at attention or fear creaking my bench any more. Because many days, I wasn’t sitting. I was standing. At attention, by my bench. Except when everyone went for recess. Then I’d get to sit back a while. Just me and Tovarisha Diriginta – Ms. Director. I’d put up my hand and she’d go on with whatever she was doing. About once a week, if I managed keeping my hand up all recess, she’d look at me with her marble eyes.

“Is there something you would like to say?”

Stupid me, there always was. Some objection. Some idiot question. How to make things better. Which, of course, just made things worse.

Finally, one day late that year, the waste hit the fan. Tovarisha hadn’t looked my way for weeks. Another recess ended. It got to be too much. My arm hurt and I couldn’t bear lowering it empty handed in defeat no more. Got to be too much. If I had to put my arm down in defeat again then rather down the throat of that orderly girl returning from recess. Put it down her throat and see how far down I could reach. Had I been thinking, it would have been along lines that if I was gon’na do that kind of time, better go ahead and commit some crime. But it got too much and I wasn’t thinking. As everyone was returning from recess I got up, grabbed my books, advanced two benches – and sat.

And then there was silence. Nobody went reporting to Tovarisha. Just all stared amazement at me.

Seconds passed. A minute. Another. Tovarisha looked to see what everyone was staring at. And she didn’t much react. Almost like she’d been expecting it.

“It’s just an animal,” she said. “Doesn’t know better.”

She came around, grabbed my ear and led me back. Not back among the gypsies. Four or five benches further. All the way back behind empty benches, where nobody sat or could be conceived to sit. So I became nobody.

Didn’t seem too bad at first, being outcast. Even the out of school drubbings stopped. Only the gypsies craned back my way once in a while – like they couldn’t believe what an idiot I was and almost pitied me. Seemed alright, at first. I wasn’t to speak or be spoken to – and it seemed a relief. But not for very long.

One particular day, it became imperative to use the facilities. What to do, absent voice and mobility? Nothing. Endure. And so I did. Most of that vividly particular day, I endured. But not long enough.

Afterwards, I was sent for a bucket and mop. The custodian returned with me. The bucket had been heavy and I’d wound up making another mess in the hallway. Anyway. Everyone stood in a circle while I was cleaning. Like visiting the zoo right there in the classroom. With Tovarisha, eyes of marble, tour guiding.

“See? That’s what happens when animals get out of control. We must teach it to not soil itself. Teach it to not soil our classroom. Teach it to not soil our school. Teach it to stop soiling our splendid socialist society! Teach this animal better!”

It happened only days after that. Less than a week, anyhow. A group of them from my class cornered me in the building I lived. By the huge, black cast-iron entry door. My hand was forced into the hinge. The door was shut. And the group vanished like they’d never been there. Which, of course, they hadn’t been. Not officially.

Found out, later, that throughout some twenty minutes the entire building heard me screaming. Can’t recall that part. Don’t remember anything but flashes. Alarming snapshots from some pitch of darkness place I’d never been – because it couldn’t have been me trapped there. How far from reaching the door handle was. My grandfather’s face. So many stairs to the second floor. How my thumb was hanging. How my thumb and arm were bandaged in place. And then a murky kind of twilight, a dim and endless boredom when entertainment was peeling dried blood off my arms. Like glue.

Months later I was able to twitch my thumb. And it was back to school. Grade two.

Not the end. Were this short story tall tale, it would be. Protagonist hears last nail hammered in his coffin. But there’s more point to this tale than woe. And it’s not that I’ve enjoyed peeling glue ever since. Or how I loathe buckets and mops.

Second grade was different. I was different. Couldn’t conceive questioning. All was obedience, no questions asked. Not by me. Not ever.

Started out sitting with the gypsies again. Soon enough, Tovarisha rolled her marble eyes at me. My obedience was impeccable, though. Impeccable to tiniest detail. It was her questions answered by my posture at attention – rigid as exclamation marks. Rigid as blades and cast-iron spikes facing her eyes.

My grades went from failing to perfect. I was moved up, one seat at a time, until I was second in row. Tovarisha announced that, should I continue sustaining such heroic progress, it was just a matter of time until I’d be first – in row, in class, an example to all.

My immaculate socialist rebirth was stained but once. There was this sad little man. Came around once every month to teach us art. He’d been inappropriately kind to me in first grade – got himself rebuked by Tovarisha. Never failed me when he should have. Justifiably should have. Art was one subject I ought to have failed. Couldn’t even get stick figures right when time came to drawing. Never could and still can’t. In any event, he was no longer sad when he came round our second grade classroom. He was pathetic. Stooped and trembling. Cringing.

We were to draw the school-yard. I did my best. But the art teacher insisted I hadn’t. Took my drawing and tore it.

“Why can’t you ever follow instructions?” he demanded while grabbing my ear and. pummelling me around some.

I didn’t bother trying to answer. Didn’t bother explaining that following instructions no questions asked didn’t mean I could figure drawing from sticks. He was nothing – I wasn’t there to answer his pathetic questions. Besides, I was more interested how come that orderly girl left class without permission.

Once the art teacher calmed sufficiently he took my grade-book, marked in a large 4, and returned it. That got to me. Standing at attention, staring at the row of perfect 10s culminating in a 4. I looked up from my grade-book, thinking, “This is an animal. It doesn’t know any better.” And I saw Tovarisha standing in the doorway. With the little orderly girl at her elbow.

And Tovarisha called out that pathetic art teacher into the hallway. Closed the door. We heard the shouting anyway. Both were shouting for a bit. He was much louder, initially. As I now realize hearing in hind-sight, hysterical. Soon, it was just Tovarisha shouting. Nothing more from him but a single sound. Sounded like a moan.

He came back in. Not trembling any more. Shaking. Injured like any other animal. Stood swaying a moment, searched and found me through watering eyes. Advanced. Tottered groping at my bench. Grasped my grade-book. Rummaged in his pockets. Pulled out a razor blade. Opened my grade-book and scraped at it with the razor. Placed razor back in pocket, cast about, found my fountain pen, made entry in grade-book, put fountain pen and grade-book down and stumbled from the room.

Never saw that pathetic art teacher again. Didn’t matter. His final entry in my grade-book answered every question I’d ever asked. Not that I was asking any more – but when I saw what he’d done, there wasn’t anything left to asking. Because grade-books were official documents. Had to be triple counter-signed – grading teacher, Tovarisha and parent. Forging signatures or altering grades once entered – totally illegal. Yet that pathetic art teacher had scraped away his original entry. Using razor blade much as I’d once used a bucket and mop. And his final entry in my grade-book was a perfect 10.

And the answer to all my questions – whether or not asked? Why like this and not like that? Why this way and not that? First and foremost and always: fear. Over, above and prior to all else, fear. Reason, as needed, might cower beneath and far behind. Far enough behind to ensure absolute, reflexive, blind flinching obedience. Otherwise, should reason dare questioning authority, reminders were ever crushing close at hand. Reminders how like animals those disobedient were subject to physical rupture, emotional shatter and spiritual fracture.

The point? Merely this. Simple-minded as my not realizing how intolerantly totalitarian life behind the iron curtain was, it is yet simpler minded – and more hazardous – not realizing how relatively tolerant, multicultural, free and democratic life here in Toronto, Canada is.

But for isolated flickers, state society governance has and continues to be by might – not by right. Might made right in the past. And increasingly, it does so again. Might, however, is not established by tolerance. Precisely not. Might is established by totalitarian intolerance to opposition.

What matters the specific character of totalitarian intolerance? What difference whether opposition be exterminated by communism for putative class enmity, by fascism for putative inimical inferiority, by fundamentalism for putative heresy or infidelity to God’s truth? It matters naught. Reason ceases signifying when intolerance turns totalitarian. There’s no reasoning – or questioning – when truth is re-written at gunpoint.

Not so here in Toronto, Canada. Building from cultural foundations in principled tolerance, we demonstrate to the world that right makes a greater might. We serve by example to the world truths and possibilities of multiculturalism and democracy elsewhere remaining unrealized.

Toronto hockey might let us down. But Toronto cultural diversity is unmatched. Toronto multiculturalism isn’t just world class – it’s a beacon to the world. And so, increasingly, is the freedom and democracy of Canadian society a light in the darkness. Wasn’t so until quite recently. But it is so becoming. We haven’t changed – not in any way radically – but we seem to have in the eyes of the world. Because the star-striped backdrop we’re inevitably seen against has turned inside out like over exposed negatives.

United States used to be the bastion of democracy. Now, it’s on a rampage. Since becoming the sole super-power and since the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, the United States has taken to overpowering. Taken to super-powering. More like an angry bear than the eagle far above – striking swift and deadly effective only when it must. So taken by super-powering, the United States becomes lost to it’s own founding democratic principles. There is no imposing democracy. Like a garden, democracy is cultivated – and, when absolutely necessary, defended. Democracy, like a garden, must be preserved and defended from coercion. No conceivable way can it be established by offensive – military or any other kind. Only by defensive. Democracy means cultivating free say in human life – precisely not coercing, ever, other than vital defence. To stop coercing.

Canada will not replace the United States as the bastion of democracy. But contrasting as a free and democratic beacon – illuminating what cultivating democracy in all reason demands? Increasingly.

Rooted in tolerance, we cultivate our free, democratic, multicultural society as a garden grown increasingly dramatic – and not only by contrast. Just one problem. We fail to appreciate the source and significance of the very principle of tolerance we are culturally rooted by. And this lack of cultural self-identification – this cultural self-disrespecting – means worse than Toronto living in no one’s imagination. It means worse than Canada living in no one’s understanding. Not only do we fail appreciating who we are – we fail guarding what we stand for.

The conquerors in history, the mighty of the world – they make no apologies. Not when they win. Totalitarian intolerance? Absolute oppression? Genocide, even? Too bad. When they win, they win. And since might makes them right, they require no reason but overpowering force. Since might makes them right, victory becomes self-evidence their gods are stronger, their destiny more manifest, their ideology more justified, their ways more precedent.

Not so with us. Rooted in tolerance, we do eventually grow mightier than the mighty of the world. For they live by the sword. And die by it. They rise and expand, they decline and fall. As they gamble the fortunes and misfortunes of war, we cultivate consistently. And so long as we stand adequate guard, so long as we cultivate our garden just long enough, we ultimately win simply by default of not losing.

But that’s the problem. We tend to forget standing guard. We tend to forget defending the garden we cultivate. Why? Because we don’t appreciate our own tolerance. Not in principle – we’re too materialistic to understand principles. More importantly, because the very principle of tolerance rooting our culture and guiding our democratic, multicultural ways leaves us prey to guilt. Debilitating, easily invoked guilt. It’s because we’re so committed to tolerance in principle that charges of intolerance, however spurious, get us wheeling – cartwheeling – right off the edge of reality.

We must start appreciating, understanding, even celebrating who we are and what we stand for. We must ask some better questions about the meaning of our tolerance and where, in principle, our tolerance comes from. Lest we fail guarding who we are, what we stand for – and decline, stumble and fall instead. We owe it to the world as much as we owe it to ourselves.

[Peter Fruchter is a part-time faculty member in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent. Toronto Culture and Multiculture is an ongoing series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.]

[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 03/17 at 02:58 PM

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