gall and gumption

Monday, March 12, 2007

From the Mailbag

Bob, one of my small but select readers, is studying Russian because he loves Tolstoy. His relationship to Russian grammar is like one of those long love affairs with a beautiful and difficult partner who won't quite let you just leave but who makes you work like hell for the smallest favor.

In my four-hour sessions with Albina, a young, earnest university lecturer, I, an English professor who has been teaching half my life, am not one of those cheerful, bright students who never misses a trick; who has revelations at each clever explanation the teacher offers; and who never slumps his shoulders in despair at the unexpected twists, back flips, and booby traps of Russian grammar.

No, in spite of Albina's talent as a teacher, in spite of how well she has assessed my deficiencies, and in spite of how well she paraphrases simple Russian into simpler Russian, I wince and shake my head, about to weep with frustration when she asks if now I understand about reflexive verbs.

Only a foundering student would resort to philosophical questions at such a moment. And so I think, "What is 'understanding' anyway? Is it knowing? Is it a blurry image? Is it being able to distinguish colors or shades? Depth? Is it having a vague idea?"

At best I have a vague idea, but I don't think I understand, and after a several-moment pause, during which my teacher patiently waits, I admit I'm still in the dark: "Izvenitiya, Albina! Ya yesho ni punimaiyu!" ("I'm sorry, Albina, I still don't get it!")


Bob is a marvelous teacher, who wins the trust of his students and gets extraordinary things out of them. Teaching comes to him without effort, he has so many good ideas, and he respects his students' intelligence. He teaches at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, and it's like a first stop for immigrants who are making their way into American life. Probably half of his students speak English as a second language, some of them it's their first language but as far as writing goes it might as well be a second language. One reason -- probably the main reason -- why he is such a good teacher is that he knows what it feels like to learn.

I so know the feeling Bob describes here::

One day Albina tells me it's because I'm creative that I want to know why, for instance, the numbers 2, 3, and 4 are not plural in Russian grammar. I want to know why "to laugh" is reflexive but "to cry" is not.

I want to tell her it's not that I'm creative, it's that when I notice discrepancies in the few little things I do know, I feel frustrated because I realize, "Oh, no, there's something else I'm going to have to learn."


I felt the same resistance when I was learning to edit equations. But there was, at least, a "why" in all of it. And I was working with this editor whose way of explaining things was so clear and thoughtful that "why" became a whole interesting conversation in itself. Then all these intimidating details became easy. But in Russian, or in any language, there is not much "why." You have to have a strong desire to learn something to put up with this kind of frustration and bafflement. But it's so good for you!

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