Gratefulness 40 Years in the Making

Cześć w chłodniejszy poranek z Krakowa,

What I have said is “hello on a cooler morning” from the sort of intellectual capital of Poland, the former capitol city, Kraków. It is actually by 7th time to this city of a little over a million people. With sites like Wawel Castle, the picture at the top of this post, Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of the city, Oskar Schindler’s factory and the second oldest university in Central Eastern Europe, each day is a living, walking-tour through 8 centuries of history (or more), but the importance of Kraków as a trading, political, and religious hub begins in the 13th century. Each time I return, I am amazed by some source of beauty and what seems to be of significance that I might have missed on a previous visit. My trip to Kraków comes on the heels of 5 days in Moscow, a first time for me to be in Russia, and before I begin another Polish language immersion for 7 weeks. In 1980/81 I traveled to Europe for the first time, allowed the opportunity by the yearly interim travels of Dr. John W. Nielsen, and the generosity of Harold and Dorothy Wright, who unexpectedly and through no deserving on my part, paid my way to participate on that class, appropriately titled “Auguries of Loneliness.” There was so much to learn on that trip and part of it was health things, which I now know were a precursor to what has happened since.

That trip was more than merely reading Hemingway and Mann for me; it was infinitely more than traveling to places I had only observed or pondered in our Humanities art or religion lectures. It was a life-altering experience; it was an awakening to learning how to learn. It was a realization that America, in its youthful arrogance, was much more a product of millenniums of progress than we might care to admit. From sitting in a pub with a shot of aquavit and an elephant beer to walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, from listening to the music of Buxtehude, the Danish/German organist at the Cathedral in Lûbeck, to tromping through the snow in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, my life was going through a daily transformation that provided an astounding foundation for the person I am today. When I went to Europe as a sophomore student at Dana, I was not a typical sophomore, I was 25 years old and I had already spent time in the Marine Corps. As I have previously noted, if it had not been for a couple other veteran students (Mike Keenan first comes to mind because we both ended up on 4 North Holling as freshmen), I am not quite sure how that first year might have gone. Yet, as a person beyond the typical college age, there was so much to learn both intellectually and academically (and they are not the same), but I did not realize what that even meant at the time. It was more than memorizing and then regurgitating what I had studied. It was so much more about synthesis and integration and understanding that we are products of our historical and cultural background. That is what professors like Drs. Nielsen (all three of them), Olsen, Brandes, Bansen, Jorgensen, or Stone would teach me. That is what Hum events, a student church council, and choir tours would engrain in me.

This summer I am back to Kraków for yet another visit. While more of them have been in the role of the Pope and bringing students, this one is again (for a second summer) about being a student and taking a Polish language immersion class. It is about preparing for an event that is still more than a year away. I have been invited to teach technical writing at the School of Polish Language and Culture at Jagiellonian University. The university is the second oldest in Eastern/Central Europe and the alma mater of Nikolas Kopernikus (Polish spelling), and Pope John Paul II. It is overwhelming to consider that I am walking in the same hallways as such people and being offered the opportunity to teach in the spaces. I am reminded in a world that has become increasingly nationalistic that the faculty of this university were all imprisoned when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Jewish Quarter in this town is next to Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the town of Oświęcim is nearby (you know it by it more infamous German name: Auschwitz). After education, travel and cultural immersion are, I believe, the best way to spend one’s money.  Through the immersion of being in that place, the cultural experiences and learning the language of the other helps one begins to understand how they think and what they value. That realization came from sitting in Bodil Johnson’s German class for me. It came from the struggles I remember in Dr. Delvin Hutton’s Greek course.

I remember the day I received a message that Dorothy Wright wished to speak to me in Parnassus. I walked from Holling to PM and trudged up the to the second floor late afternoon on a rather blustery fall day. Dorothy pulled me aside to sit at one of the tables and told me she had known my grandmother. If you have read this blog with any frequency, and one post just recently, you know that my grandmother was (and is) my hero. Dorothy and she were acquainted somehow (I think Eastern Star). She inquired about my going to Europe with Dr. Nielsen for interim. I had attended the interest meetings, but because I was paying my own way through college, there was no way I could afford the $1,500.00 the trip would cost. When I informed her that I had decided not to go, she asked if finances were an issue. I told her (somewhat lying) that it was one of the issues. In reality it WAS the issue. Then she informed me that she and her husband, Harold, were willing to pay my way. I was dumbfounded. I asked her if I could think about it for a day. She said, “Certainly.” And I was allowed to go. I do not think my feet touched the ground all the way back to Holling Hall. The Wright’s generosity changed my life. Through that interim class of 1980-81, both the places and some of the people, I was transformed into a person who wanted to be a sponge and learn everything I could. I have often noted that trip is what encouraged me to believe I could eventually go on an get a PhD and (want to) become a professor. This past year, through the generosity of yet another amazing woman, I was able to endow two travel abroad scholarship funds where I presently teach. One is in the name of that latest benefactor and the other is in honor of Harold and Dorothy Wright.

I was in Blair one day in early June for only a few hours. I did stop to see Dorothy, who is still alive and quite well. I wanted to thank her in person for what she had done for me almost 40 years ago. We, as Dana alumni, speak regularly about what was (and is) called the Dana Difference. Harold and Dorothy Wright are a prime example of that difference. They reached out to a young man who was not a typical student, but who was, much like many others, trying to figure it all out. If it were not for an incredibly brilliant man, who began at Dana and obtained his PhD from Oxford, and his willingness to do all the tedious and laborious work to arrange such interims, 100s of students would be less culturally aware than they are. Dr. Nielsen’s insatiable passion for teaching others both in the typical and the global classroom is still affecting me. He set the bar high for those who want to emulate what he did. There is a bit of an irony that 46 years ago to the day as I write this, I was taking my first plane ride to MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego, California. Certainly my time in the Marines would shape many of the attitudes and practices I still hold today. However, there have been so many plane trips since then. Dr. Nielsen took me on my first trip to Europe. This trip is my thirteenth, and has included five days in Moscow to visit the Russian student I had in class this past year. While it was only a layover, I was also in Finland for the first time. Beginning next week, I will be taking Polish (a second immersion class) 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. The plan is to do the same next summer. While I will teach the fall of 2020 in English, I want to be able to communicate on a normal level with my students in Polish.

Slavic languages are inflection languages meaning that the endings of the words are changed to reflect how the word is being used in the sentence (a quick example in Polish is the word for cheese. Ser is the word for cheese, but to denote something with cheese it would be serem). It has not been difficult to understand the grammar for me, but there are seven cases instead of four and there are sounds that our English-speaking mouths are not used to creating. There are also sounds that my 60+ year old ears have some difficulty ascertaining. That is part of the fun. While I can say simple things from my first foray into the language, it is my hope that the summer course will create a more profound foundation usage of this language, one that overlaps Czech, Slovak, Russian, and Ukrainian. Grammatically there is a lot of similarity, but the Latin versus the Cyrillic alphabet creates an additional learning curve. I am also grateful to my Bloomsburg colleague, Dr. Mykola Polyhua, who has been so gracious in creating the foundations and relationships I now have here. Gratefulness is not something that occurs once and disappears. It is something that becomes part of who we are. It changes us, and allows us to hopefully change the lives of others. What I know as I am into my 60s is I have learned so much, and yet there is still so much to learn. I was thinking about it as I walked the streets of what is called Stare Miasto (Old Town) today. If all goes according to plan I will turn 65 when I am in Poland next year for a six month trip of more language and teaching. Some ask me when I am going to retire. It is one of the questions I guess people feel compelled to ask as they see my white whiskers and grey hair. I have no plans, at least presently, to do so. I am so blessed to be able to do what I do and love doing it. Again, the very fact that I can say any of that is because of Harold and Dorothy. Their generosity changed my life. I had no idea that a requested meeting in Parnassus would be so life-changing, but it has been exactly that . . . and for that I am grateful beyond words. As I work at the table in my little Air BnB, I am still astounded by the fact that I am able to be 4,400 miles from my home doing what I love to do and having a job that allows and encourages me to do so. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where I teach and direct a Professional and Technical Writing program, has been so supportive of my work and continues to be so. It is yet another place to which and whom I am grateful. I feel undeserving of such blessings, but somehow, I have been blessed beyond measure. I hope to be half as much a blessing to others. My thoughts about a sort of paying it forward as they say. Somehow this song came to mind.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Michael Martin

 

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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