At the end of Easter dinner last weekend, my Ukrainian-American grandfather looked over his dessert plate and cognac and asked, with little preamble, “you were studying Arabic language. How come you did not follow that? You could be a diplomat, work for the U.N.”
Leaving aside the Taylor Mali echoes, it was a strange moment. My grandfather, called dido in Ukrainian, fled Ukraine in the 1940s before he could be swept up by either Germans or Soviets. He was in the Ukrainian resistance before that, helping others to get out. In his sixty or so years in the U.S. he worked his way up from butcher to city health inspector, while organizing fiercely for the Ukrainian democratic/nationalist cause within the immigrant community – the ongoing work of keeping Kiev safe from Moscow. This now ninety three year old workhorse has harvested tomatoes from his own backyard garden every year that I’ve been alive, fundraises for the Ukrainian community in Kazakhstan, and was on “the Twitters” long before I joined up. Last fall, after a lifetime of voting red, he wrote op-eds in two languages urging the Ukrainian-American community not to vote for #45, to see him for the pro-Moscow scam he was.
My head spun for a moment thinking how to answer. Yes, I studied Arabic in college and studied abroad in Morocco. As a kid who came of age when September 11 happened, I majored in Muslim Studies in an effort to understand some of the history and culture that had been twisted, obscured, and vilified in the decade since 2001 – actually learning some Arabic felt like an important part of knowing my stuff.
The path that brought me to teaching was a crooked one from there, and sitting across from dido it seemed too convoluted to explain. But another image that had popped into my head might just do it.
Well, I started with a redirect, in some parts of New York speaking Arabic would be really helpful for schoolteachers. Or Spanish, Russian, Haitian Creole, or Chinese. We wish we had enough teachers with those language skills!
My other grandfather, I continued, came to the U.S. when he was twelve. He didn’t speak any English, but his teachers didn’t understand that. So they put him, an adolescent, in a second grade classroom with seven and eight year olds. The adults teaching him thought he was stupid. Today, teachers do better. They have the training to know how to teach a kid who knows a lot but needs to learn English. This way, we don’t have artists and writers and engineers and community leaders sitting silent in the wrong classrooms, growing to hate school and missing the chance to build their own passions and nurture their own talents.
I teach, I told my grandfather, so that the adults we have twenty years from now are well-informed, compassionate, and ready to fight fair for what’s right. (After previous rounds of conversation about the current state of American politics, this seemed to strike a chord.)
So maybe I could have been a diplomat, using polite words and subtle negotiating to work for the greater good (Tea Leoni certainly makes it look glamorous or at least rewarding on Madam Secretary). That’s not to say teaching doesn’t call for its moments of tact and preternatural calm. But part of what I love about it is the unruliness, the mess, the commitment not to a status quo (no way!) but to a future outcome. It’s exciting to be in that and about that every day. Besides, as my grandfather would know, I don’t have the cool of a diplomat — my teaching, I hope, will have much more the tone of principled, scrappy resistance than establishment diplomacy. And I think deep down, he’d like that.
We’ll see, though, if I can’t still work in a few Elizabeth McCord wardrobe moves.