Sunday, July 28, 2013

Visiting privileges

A dear friend of mine has been a second-grade teacher in Detroit for the past year. Her working life is far more difficult than mine ever was, for all the obvious reasons. But she's brilliant and talented, and she had a bunch of awesome ideas to expose her students to the wider world. One of these ideas was for her friends to send postcards from wherever-we-were to her class, allowing them to see and dream about far-away places they might visit one day. So I sent a bunch of postcards from Europe and on Friday went for a visit, bringing pictures along with.

I learned that second-graders are very wiggly, especially when they've already been in school for seven or eight hours. Like my German students, when reminded of what they were supposed to do, mostly they did it. Usually they then forgot, and I can understand. It's no fun to sit still and be quiet and attentive for hours when all you want is to be somewhere else.

I learned that second-graders are very curious in the best possible way. I brought a dozen or so pictures along to show them - cats in Corsica, the Porta Nigra in Trier, my school - and they had questions about every single one. They also had questions about the things that adults, recognizing the "main point" of a picture, never think to question. What's that fence doing to the side of this historical building? (Hiding construction equipment, it turns out.) Why did that man get banished into a clock that now sticks out its tongue at you every hour? (He stole things and played tricks, which led to several minutes of attempts by the students to catalog what exactly it was that he stole.) What is that statue standing on? (A pedestal.) Why? (I have no idea, because I'd always just accepted that statues stand on pedestals.) Maybe I shouldn't just accept such things. Why exactly is it that statues stand on pedestals? I'm sure it has something to do with a uniform base and such, but is that all?

I learned that second graders sometimes forget what you've told them as soon as the words are out of your mouth. Are there restaurants and zoos in New Jersey? (I don't know, I've never been to New Jersey.) In New Jersey, do people like to go to the zoo? (Uh...I don't know.)

Saturday morning we went to Eastern Market, an enormous farmer's market selling everything from produce to spices to bread to succulents. You could do your whole week's worth of grocery shopping there. It smells amazing, as farmer's markets always do.

I concluded the visit with the Detroit Institute of Art, which has an amazing collection of artwork including (in my friends' words) "that culmination of centuries of art and innovation: home decorations" . The DIA houses Van Gogh, Islamic calligraphy, African masks, and American (both North and South) carvings, among hundreds of other works. The masks were especially interesting, both in their size and their displays of community ideals.

Detroit on the whole may be going through a hard time, and I don't want to make light of that situation. But I was privileged enough to see some of its very bright spots: its art, its produce, and its future. And question the entire point of pedestals.

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