Thursday, November 24, 2011

Versions of Virgins

Ever stand in front of a group of people, all of whom are listening intently to you, and say the wrong thing? Today while teaching my high school class about how to evaluate internet sources, I responded to one of them by saying, “yes, exactly, sometimes you need to check a different virgin.” They laughed, and I closed my eyes for a second, grinned, and repeated, “version. A different version.” As I searched for the thread of my thoughts, my mind stumbled a moment, and I realized this is the exact kind of moment where it’s so easy to get sucked into a whirlwind of recriminations about Freudian slips instead of just continuing on. I wanted to sit down on my teacher’s dais and laugh and laugh. But instead I kept going, and either they all forgot about it or they’re telling their parents about it over dinner right now.

To test their ability to properly evaluate sources, I had them google “September 11th Conspiracy theories” and check different websites for facts. Then I made em all line up at the blackboard, ranging themselves along the spectrum of “utterly convinced that 9/11 was actually an alien invasion” to “the US government told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” to the American people. They had to explain what websites they visited and why they gave them credibility. Then sat back down for a long discussion, jumpstarted by my use of Abraham Lincoln’s quote that “most of what is written on the internet today is misquoted.” Actually, it was kind of hard to get them off the topic of conspiracy theories, but I managed. One girl mentioned the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, made by “you know, that famous fat man, I can’t remember his name.” That’s what I call Michael Moore, too.

Once again, Islamophobia came up—I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how often American prejudice towards Muslims has made its way into the conversation. Norway has a large Muslim recent immigrant population and is grappling with difference for the first time (probably ever), and so the sensitivities that an American feels are echoed here, without the practice at political correctness that Americans have down pat. But I think part of my discomfort is an uncertainty with how I feel. One part of me wants to make it incredibly clear that Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are very different from the Muslim Americans who are just as much citizens of the US, just as patriotic, just as much people, as anyone. The other part of me wants to fight with all my strength against the incredibly anti-Israel, dismissing-terrorism-as-political-flummoxery that Norway seems to engage in so gleefully. I have to sort it out before I figure out how to talk to the class about it, but while I stumble through words about how “Muslims were also killed in 9/11,” there’s a Somalian girl who sits on the left side of the classroom and shrinks into her hijab when we mention Muslim terrorism or American Islamophobia.

I gave them a pep talk at the end. They’d been worried about a recent journal assignment based on a film we’d watched to talk about their responsibility, as Norwegians, to global democracy. “We’re just high schoolers,” they said. “Yeah,” I told them, “but you are some of the smartest high schoolers in Norway. People will listen to you. If not now, later. So start thinking about this stuff.” Hopefully it made a dent.

We talked turkey in my adult class today. I made them write essays from the perspective of the Native Americans upon first meeting Europeans, which I think may have been useful since the textbook didn’t get beyond the preschool version of “and then Squanto gave us food and we all sat down for a cheery meal wearing stupid hats.” No smallpox blankets in that storyline.

I’m going to be a guest lecturer at another Katten class on Tuesday. Apparently the oldest high schoolers are doing presentations on different states, and I was asked to come in and model it for them using Ohio. I’ve decided I’m going to wear a plaid shirt and braids. If I could find a cowboy hat, I’d do that too. Now’s when my pictures of incredibly fat people at the Ohio State Fair, in front of signs saying “deep-friend kool-aid,” will come in handy. I've been saving them up for just this moment.

The teacher I’m lecturing for told me how stressed she was with her class before the English one. It’s religion, and apparently they’re starting monotheism next week, but Judaism was taken out of the course plan and she doesn’t know how to teach about Christianity and Islam without it. So now I’m going to be a guest lecturer there, too. I’m going to have to change out of my plaid shirt and braids, and into a tilboshet and cute blue hat. Touting my many personalities, sorry, no, I meant identities.

Speaking of, today in the masters’ thesis workshop we read a guy’s work on the masculinity and Jewishness of Robert Cohn (which all the Norwegians pronounced Norwegishly “Cune,” instead of the “Cone” that anyone who knows a few Cohens would automatically move towards) in Hemingway’s Sun Also. I was pretty well distracted by the delicious language the guy had used in writing it up—can we introduce “smudgeoned” and “indignated” into the regular vernacular? Then I spent the next five minutes wondering why in hell the guy down the table from me was talking about countertops. Took me that long to decipher his British accent into “counter types” and understand his ideas about the text.

It was a bit of a disturbing session, as somehow I’d always just given Hemingway dramatic immunity from scrutinizing the anti-Semitism in his book too closely. He’s such a good writer, my brain clicked off at the bit about Judaism. I’ve examined his gender ideas many a time, but somehow this has never been allowed into my consciousness. The writer of the thesis had the usual Norwegian diffidence. I want to stand up at that table sometimes and shout “just say it! To hell with the critics, what’s in your brain?” I have only two shots left; two more sessions and the semester's over.

I now have a reflector band to put around my arm when I go on walks at night. It’s pretty dangerous; I feel automatically safer with it on, and am sure I’m more careless as I cross roads (I think my mind thinks my reflector band repels cars). Also, whenever I see someone else with one, which is all the time because let’s face it this is Norway and they take the dark pretty seriously here, I want to hold my arm up and bump fists or something in a gesture of solidarity. Which makes me think—let’s get some human rights insignia on there, or mothers against drunken war, or something— and make some political use out of these things rather than just advertising for Aker Solutions. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


  1. a) let me tell you about my friend in grad school who stood up in front of her class and wanted to say "I'm just going to stand here and gesticulate until you quiet down." But instead she said she was going to stand there and ejaculate. Oops.

    b) although Norwegians seem to conveniently think that they have never had any experience with difference before recent Muslim immigration, I don't think that is actually the case. aka Sami people, residential schools, cultural genocide...

  2. Yael is perfectly right about the Same population.
    The story about Norwegian democratic evolution is long and painful. Hence the Quakier emigration to America 150 years ago.
    Or Jews and Jesuits being barred out from the kingdom till 1849.
    The famous Henrik Wergeland alone crusaded successfully to open the gates of Norway to the Jews. His name was held highly until the Norwegian anti-Israeli-ism started in the eighties.

    Norway stated importing people from Pakistan at the end of the 1960ies. We "needed" them for cheap labour.

    Because Norway's foreign politics have slowly been turned around, so has the curriculum of the schools.
    I'm shocked to learn Judaism isn't a part of the monotheistic course plan.
    The first of the ten commandments is gone.
    How can that happen?

    When I grew up we had a subject called Bible History from 2st grade. It began with the story of Abraham, Isak and Jacob.

    I know there are strong forces to make Norway a secular state. They have been steadily working for four decades.
    May they never succeed.

    How wonderful that you are in Bergen just now. I think you are needed.