Prose: Imagining Jutta


I’ve been teaching in Poland for 10 years, so I think I have the right to say a few things about Polish education. I do so not as an American with some pretension that our model is better. Let me teach for 10 years there and I’ll have a different critique (I got out after two). But I chose Poland as my teaching habitat and I must say the woods are a little dry here.

Let me explain—

Meet Jutta Molak. She’s in the 8th grade, a pallid girl with ponytail whose pastimes include catching up on homework and studying for exams. We have been having private lessons for 4 years now. On Monday it’s me, Tuesday the French tutor, Wednesday it’s math, and Thursday she has piano. She hates the piano but may tell her mother when she’s 37. Friday’s she is off, which means she has time to study.

She lives in a refurbished block in Mokotów where I assume other school-aged children live, but that remains an assumption. Even in the brightest of weather, I don’t see many kids riding bicycles. I imagine them all like Jutta, sedentary, indoors, elbows on tables too tall for them.

Jutta is a frail girl, but growing like bamboo. I’m starting to witness her transformation from girl to young woman. She is bright and having just turned 14, already world-weary. She enjoys that I invent lessons upon arrival and entertain big topics like love, war, the minimum wage, race, aging, gender roles, marriage, love. Well, Jutta is not too keen on that topic—she has yet to move on from the 8 year old’s attitude towards “boys”, that they are basically primitive, intrusive, ignorant, loud, and stinky. I told you she was bright.

At the moment, Jutta is reading Sienkiewicz’s Potop. The mention of the title releases a sigh as thick as Sisyphus, seeing his boulder roll back down the hill. At 900 pages, it does not really sit atop Jutta’s couch cushions, but rests within them like a small child. I am a middle school English teacher. I have taught 14 year olds for 10 years and would never dare assign them a novel over 320 pages. Why frighten them from literature for good? Okay, Huckleberry Finn is an integral part of the American heritage, and it’s over the word count—but I studied that book in high school and even as a post-grad. Some things can wait.

8th graders are not only fed the tomes of Sienkiewicz, written in the slow developing idiom of the 19th century, but also more digestible American classics like Catcher in the Rye, which however includes complex material for the early teen—scenes with prostitutes, pimps, licentious English teachers, and existential questions over where ducks go in the winter. I teach that book to my 11th graders and they love it, or hate it, but have PLENTY to say about it. The content is relevant to their experiences. Jutta skipped over the prostitute parts and didn’t remember anything about the ducks. It didn’t matter anyway. For the test, she just had to remember that Holden attended Pencey Prep and failed out of 3 schools before that, not 4. That was an actual question.

“Any essay to write?” I liked to begin our lessons with questions about her week at school. It gave me much fodder for essays like this.

“Like you know about one of the themes?”

“No. Why?”

Jutta’s voice squeaked as the pitch rose and fell back down over the monosyllable, so that ‘why’ had two sounds—‘whyy?’

“Why? Isn’t it important what books mean?”

“How am I supposed to know what they mean? The author doesn’t say.”

“You never talked about it in class?”

“Not really. I mean, the teacher talked a lot and we took notes.”

“Did the teacher like the book?”

“How should I know!”

“Did he get animated at all? Were there parts he got excited about?”

“I can’t remember. Was there a part about nuns?”

“Yes, two nuns. Holden liked them a lot. He had breakfast with them at a diner in New York. He thought they were intelligent. And nice. And honest. You know, all those things Holden likes.”

“I thought he didn’t like anything.”

“Ah, so you do understand something about the book. Well, he liked the nuns. And he liked his sister Phoebe.”

“I remember her. She gave Holden her Christmas money and it made him cry.”

“Why did he cry?”

“I don’t know! Because he didn’t have any money.”

“Did the teacher speak at all about Holden’s relationship with Phoebe?”

“They were siblings.”

“I know that, Jutta.”

“And he snuck into her room and brought her a record, but it was broken into a thousand pieces.”

“Did she like the record?”

“Why would she like a broken record?”

“Because it’s so Holden. And she loved him. He bought her a record she loved and he broke it. Doesn’t that sound like something Holden would do?”

“I don’t like him.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Why?”

“Because he just complains about everything! And he can’t do anything right. Because he fails out of school and doesn’t care what his parents think.”

“Aha, now this is getting interesting. Is that why kids go to school? To please their parents?”

“Well, ye-es! And their teachers.” Jutta giggled at the end of statements she didn’t quite believe.

“Or maybe you go to please society,” I said. “And get all your passing grades so that you can fit into society. Because there’s only one society, and if you don’t fit into it, then where are you?”

“I don’t know. You’re lost.”

“Exactly. Like Holden.”

“Well, he should just fit in!”

“Aha. Why?”

“Well, he wouldn’t have so many problems.”

“You think people who change to please others don’t have problems?”

“Well,” she took a while before answering wisely—“they don’t have to change themselves.”

“But in Holden’s case, it seems like he has to. You know, become like Stradlater and Ackley and all those other prep schoolers, and he’s not like them at all. He’s more like one of the nuns.”

“Then he should just go become a nun!”

“You think his parents would be happy with that?”

“Probably not.”

“What do you think they want him to be?”

“A doctor or lawyer or something. But what’s wrong with that? He’d have money and people would respect him.”

“But he wouldn’t respect himself.”

“Well why not?”

“Because he would be doing what others think is best for him, not what he thinks is best for him. And he doesn’t even know what’s best for him.”

“Then if he doesn’t know, he should just stick with what others know.” She giggled.

“You know what we’re talking about right now?”

“What?”

“A theme. To fit in or fit out.”

“That doesn’t sound like a theme to me.”

“Why not?”

“Because the theme is coming of age. The teacher talked about that.”

“Oh, so the theme is announced by the teacher? I thought it was something the reader discovered.”

“The ending is discovered!”

“And how did the book end?”

“I forgot.”

“Great. Probably because you’ve got 500 pages of Potop packed on top of it. So, we’re back to Phoebe and Holden. When he was in her room, you remember that?”

“Ye-es.”

“He told her he was going to run away.”

“And become a nun?”

“No—but something close. Just live in the country and get a job and be a nobody.”

“What an idiot. You don’t even need to go to school to do that.”

“Exactly. So, he told her his plan, or fantasy, and she worried that he was going to leave her. At the end of the book, he’s supposed to meet her after school. She surprises him by dragging her luggage behind her. She packed a suitcase, ready to join him on the adventure. Isn’t that sweet?”

“They’re both stupid.”

“Or innocent.”

Jutta digested the comment with a sealed smile. Or smirk. Something in between. She liked being challenged and was searching for answers. Some of them hers, some of them others’.

“So,” I continued, “Holden scolded her and told her nobody is going anywhere. Including him.”

“Why did he change his mind?”

“Maybe seeing Phoebe with her suitcase woke him up. Maybe it made it real and when it was real, he realized it was stupid. Like you say.”

“So Phoebe helped him.”

“A lot! And here we have a second theme—Phoebe to the rescue—how a little sister can save a lost older brother.”

“That’s a theme?”

“It’s certainly something you can write about. Would you like to?”

“No thanks. I’ll stick with the tests.”

“Why do you think Polish teachers prefer tests for literature, rather than essays?”

“Because they have to test on things that they know are right!”

This time I had the wide smile, or smirk.

“You know, like what happened in the book, and when,” she continued.

“Facts.”

“Well, plot-points. And characters.”

“Like Holden’s brothers. Do you remember them?”

“There was D.B.…”

“What do you know about him?”

“He was a screenwriter. In Hollywood.”

“Did you know why Holden hated him, or at least hated what he did?”

“Because he hated everything!”

“No, not the nuns and not Phoebe. See, we have to break this down. It’s complex. It’s human.”

“Ugh.”

“So do you know why?”

“No.”

“Because he thought DB was a prostitute.”

“Wha-at?!” The twin noted monosyllable, and the giggle. Jutta was clearly interested. “How can that be! The prostitute was Sunny—she was a girl!”

“Yes, a young girl. God, I can’t believe you read this book when you’re 13.”

“I’m 14!”

“You just turned 14.”

“Well, it’s not hard. It was easy.”

“Yea, the words are easy. But not the experiences. D.B., he was a prostitute—according to Holden.”

“Did he wear a dress?”

“No, that would be cross-dressing. Prostitute is different.”

“I know what a prostitute is.”

“But you don’t know how I’m using the word—Holden thought DB was prostituting himself as a screenwriter. You can use it as a verb.”

“That sounds gross.”

“It means he was exploiting himself.”

“What does that mean?”

“To exploit is to get use out of someone, or even some place, without any cares over what is right and wrong. You know, ethics.”

“Uh-huh.”

“He thought DB was wasting his talents. Screenwriting was an easy way at money—like being a prostitute. But he thought he could use his talents to write something of value, like a novel or something. Like literature. Holden was rather high-minded.”

“High-minded, and wants to be a nobody?” she smirked.

“Exactly. You’re starting to get it.”

“I’m not getting anything.”

“What about his other brother?”

“Alley?”

“Yeah. Did you have to know anything about him?”

“He died.”

“Yes, that is important.”

“When Holden was 13. He died of leukemia.”

“Anything else?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember how Holden felt about him?”

“Well, he was upset that he died. Anyone would be.”

“Do you remember Allie’s baseball mitt?”

“That wasn’t on the test.”

“Too bad. You had to know Allie died of leukemia, not cancer. But nothing about the baseball mitt with poems on it.”

“Poems?”

“Alley wrote poems on his baseball mitt.”

“Why would he do a stupid thing like that!”

“Because he liked poems. He liked to read. And when you play baseball, sometimes you’re standing in the outfield for a long time and nothing is happening. So to pass the time, he read the poems. Cool detail, huh?”

“I think that was a waste of time.”

“Well, that’s ok. It’s nice to hear your opinion. What do you think Holden thought of it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You did read the book, right?”

“In like a week!”

“Really? Wow, I give my 11th graders three weeks.”

“What, are they that stupid?”

“You think taking your time with a book means you can’t read? Do you think reading is an Olympic sport or something?”

“No-hoh!” she laughed-said.

“First one to the finish line wins!”

“Well, why not? Three weeks is kind of slow.”

“I like to break the book into parts. And I like to talk about those parts with my students, like what we’re doing now. Can you imagine how many conversations we can have like this about one book?”

“If you talk about everything? Like a thousand.”

“So I need three weeks, see.”

“Your students must hate you.”

“How do you feel about your teacher and his tests?”

“Well……..”

We were engaging in conversation and it was clear that Jutta was enjoying it, and even enjoying the book. A school book to enjoy—what a revelation. Conversation, she later said, was “easy—you don’t have to worry about being right or wrong.”

“Do you think it’s easy knowing what you think?”

She got stuck here, smirking, chewing, wriggling in her chair. It was a moment I like to call emptiness, when students suddenly realize that they don’t really know what they know (or like what they know). That their perceptions are limited and to a great extent, conditioned. To take them back into emptiness is to realize just how vast (and empty) the mind is. The person is. Had Jutta begun that process at all? Had school helped her in the process, or only reinforced the boundaries?

“Holden had two brothers, D.B. and Allie, and you’ll probably forget their names infive years.”

“In five weeks.”

“Right. Along with all the other knowledge you’re learning for someone else. But what about the knowledge that’s most relevant to you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s a good start. So let’s stick with D.B. and Allie, but not just what they were and what they did—but what they meant to Holden. What they mean. Which brother did Holden seem to value more?”

“Well, Allie.”

“Why?”

“Because he died.”

“That’s all?”

“Well, we value everything more when it dies.”

“That’s true.” This was the first time in the conversation Jutta didn’t giggle. “Especially when we find those things beautiful. And Allie was about the most beautiful thing in the world to Holden.”

“Just because he wrote those poems on his baseball mitt?”

“No, that was just one anecdote. But it shows why Holden was so attached to him. He seemed untouched by this world, designed totally for people who “play the game”—who exploit others and themselves—prostitutes, like D.B.”

Jutta was thinking. It was beautiful.

“When you get older,” I asked, “do you want to find out your talent for life, or just take the easiest road in front of you?”

“I want to be a veterinarian.”

“Okay… I wouldn’t call that a prostitute. That’s noble, helping animals. Holden approves.”

“Well, I’m going to do it for money.”

“But you love animals.”

“Yes.”

“And you want to help them.”

“I guess, as long as I get paid!”

“Jutta, you’re terrible. So Allie…”

“Allie…”

“He didn’t get a chance to grow up and become anything.”

“He died.”

“He died. He died young. How did this affect Holden?”

“Well, he was sad.”

“What did he do?”

“Something. Agh, I don’t remember!”

“He punched all the windows in his garage, destroying his hand.”

“Really? What a stupid thing to do.”

“But you said it was normal to be sad.”

“It is, but not to punch all the windows!”

“What does it show?”

“That he’s sad.”

“He’s more than sad. Come on.”

“Ok, that he’s an-gry.” Sometimes two-syllable words were also broken—into two.

“That’s better. Why?”

“Because his brother died. Because he was just 11 years old and beautiful. I don’t know, he lu-uved him. Most 11-year-olds don’t write poems inside their gloves. Most don’t read poetry!”

“Exactly. So what does this show about Allie?”

“That he’s weird?”

“Jutta…”

“What? It is weird. And dangerous! What if the ball is hit towards him and he’s busy reading a poem! He’ll just get hit in the head and die.”

“Do you think it was fair that Allie died? Do you think Holden thought it was fair?”

“Of course not! It’s not fair for anyone to die young.”

“Especially someone like Allie, who was…”

“Ally was really smart and different. And he was not a prostitute. He wasn’t going to waste his life. He read poems in a baseball field. He was, I don’t know, like an angel?”

“Sure! And D.B.?”

“He’s the devil?”

“Well, devilish perhaps. Living in Hollywood, selling his soul for money. Whereas Allie is reading poems in a baseball field. Angelic. You see the contrast? I think we have a third theme…”

“So if D.B. died, Holden would be happy?”

“Well, that’s a different book. Actually, if it was D.B. who died, I don’t think there’d be a book.”

“Why-y?”

“Holden’s having a hard time growing up,” I said pointedly. I sensed where we were. “He’s stuck. Or frozen, isn’t he? Or he wishes he could be, but life just keeps going and you really do have to grow up. You have no choice—”

“What if you don’t want to grow up?” she asked.

“What’s wrong with growing up?”

“Ah, there’s so many problems,” she sighed with a wide gesture of the arms. “You have to work and you have to pay all the bills and when the toilet breaks you have to fix it.”

“That’s it?”

“And you have to buy a house.”

“With just you in it?”

“Sure, just me.”

“All by your lonesome.”

“Well, I’ll have a dog.”

“Nobody else?”

“I’m not getting married!”

“No kids?”

“No way, ne-ver!”

“You know, you sound a lot like someone I know.”

“Who?”

“Holden.”

“No way-ay!”

“Do me a favor Jutta—will you promise me that you will read the book again, when you are a little older? Say 17? Even 19?”

“Read it again?!”

“Yes, again. But not like it’s the 100 meter dash. Leisurely, in a comfy chair, no tests to worry about. Just 30 or 40 page chunks, like a meal. You don’t want to overeat a good book. Look what can happen to you—“

I pointed to Potop, deflating the family couch.

“Just read it to enjoy it, can you do that?”

“Why do I have to wait until I’m 17 or 19?”

“Because I want to make sure you uh, well—I think it’s important to have some experiences under your belt… to know a little more about boys and girls.”

“You may as well not assign it. Never!”

“Things change Jutta. People change. You change. You can’t stay frozen in one place forever.”

“Holden did!”

“Holden tried. And Holden failed. He had a nervous breakdown and he was in therapy.”

“He was in therapy?”

“You didn’t catch that det—oh jeez, just promise me—you’ll read it again at 17 or 19… or 24! Read it again and write me an email, telling me your favorite parts, and why you chose them.”

“Can’t I just take a test?”

“That would be too easy.”

“Ugh. Ok! But you have to promise me something too.”

“Oh great, I like this. The teacher-student interchange! What.”

“You have to read Potop?”

“Oh God, no.”

“Pleeeeeeese?”

“It won’t fit in my bag.”

“That’s not fair! I agreed to your rules but you won’t agree to mi-yine!”

“Well, I don’t like yours. So I need to lean on the conventional teacher-student relationship—I’m older, I have more degrees, and I set the assignments! That’s why I sit behind my shield—the teacher’s desk. I got it with my diploma.”

“Mr. Krasner, you don’t have a teacher’s desk. We’re sitting at the same table.”

She had me there.

“How about a chapter. Can I do one chapter?”

“Then it won’t make any sense! Nothing happens in one chapter.”

“How about a different book. I mean, I’m choosing Catcher because it’s relevant to you, you know, personally. Can you think of anything that might be relevant for me?”

“Hm… I was just hoping to torture you a little bit—”

“I think we can start our lesson now…”


But it’s finished, isn’t it? Jutta unwittingly passed on the key ingredient of Polish education—you will suffer!

Am I embellishing? Yes…this essay was invented as a teaching aid. It was inspired by an actual lesson where I helped Jutta with a presentation on John Lennon. She produced 8 slides containing all the pertinent facts of Lennon’s life, beginning with the Quarry Men, moving swiftly through the Beatles (and the 1960s) and arriving at his death at the doorstep of the Dakota building. Nothing about what Lennon meant to his culture. Nothing about his peace activism, or his bed-ins with Yoko Ono (of course she would avoid that!). She did include a bullet-point on the song “Imagine”—when it was made and that it reached #1 on the charts. Nothing about the lyrics themselves—and what they might mean.

When I encouraged Jutta to add another slide on the lyrics to “Imagine”, she said: “Why? They won’t care. They just want to hear that I can speak without mistakes for five minutes.”

My heart sank a little. I showed the lyrics to Jutta and we engaged in conversation, much like the invented one above. To say Jutta is not a dreamer. But she giggled a lot. It’s hard to tell. Perhaps I’ll write about it another time—when the spirit moves.

Where do we get our imagination? I started at the same place as everyone else. I don’t think it developed much in school. Nobody seemed interested. But it did take a giant leap through the aid of books, and poems, and songs, and all the rest—literature. And talking about literature. Literature that was relevant to me, personally. After all, it’s not the books and poems and all the rest we need to know—not really. It’s the person for whom they were written.

Who is she?

Jutta is a frail girl with the eyes of an overworked accountant. She is charming, sharp-witted, and deflects unconventional views like they were tennis balls. She likes debate but gets most wriggly on the subject of lu-uv and other post-puberty complexes. But you’ll never hear her untangle these complexes, and thus herself, at least not in school. She is rather trained to say what teachers want and expect to hear. She is rarely inspired though she gets sixes up and down the report card. She can read classics like Catcher in the Rye in seven days, and epics like Potop in three weeks. She can speak without any grammatical missteps for five minutes or more. She can recite John Lennon’s life like it existed on a timeline, but say nothing meaningful about “Imagine”.

Oh, she has plenty to say about “Imagine”, if you only ask her. And be patient. It takes a long time to get what you are after in this kind of dialogue. It takes time to realize that what’s out there is much more interesting than what you’re after. But don’t worry—put your faith in the kids, and they will take you there.

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