She said to me: “Who do you read?”
Like that. Like it was assumed that everybody has someone he reads.
We were at a cocktail party, the kind of thing where in my country chit chat might have centered around whether j.lo and Marc Anthony have a chance. Here, literature was the topic.
“Bukowski’s my man,” I replied.
“No,” she said, “I mean classics.”
“Classics?” I said. “What could be more classic than writing: ‘Love is a fog that burns off in the first light of reality’?”
She wasn’t impressed.
I thought about “classics”, trying to remember what it was I was supposed to have read in 10th grade. I fumbled through the Rolodex of mis-spent youth and uncovered a name I thought would get me off the hook.
“Steinbeck,” I said (trying to pronounce in such a way to cover my uncertainty over whether the last part was “beck” or “back”).
I felt pretty satisfied, conjuring up a name from as far back as the ‘30s. “What classics do you like?” I asked.
“Homer,” she said.
I laughed, thinking she was referring to Homer Simpson. (I might have even said “Doh!”)
Homer. 8 th Century B.C.
I grew up in a place where “Homer” was the first half of an eponymous musical and comedy team featured on something called the “Grand Old Opry” (no, not “Opera”, but, significantly, “Opry”).
Homer and Jethro dressed in baggy workers' clothes and floppy hats and sang hillbilly music and essentially made fun of country-living American southerners, of which I was one.
The American public school system I grew up in might have mentioned the Homer that my friend reads. But if I ever read “Iliad & the Odyssey” it most likely was the Cliff-notes version – that most famous of American down-sizing that is to literature as paint-by-numbers is to Michelangelo.
The cocktail party conversation took place five years ago in Yerevan.
She was in her late 20s, and read Homer.
I read this week’s story about changes in Armenia’s education system and I remembered that conversation. And I think of similar ones I’ve had over the years here, often around a table of friends who were educated in the Soviet system. They are so much smarter than me. And not just because I am from Alabama. Typically, these friends speak three languages and know much more about my history than I know about theirs.
So why, now, do the leaders of education in Armenia – who, themselves, benefited from an education system better than the one they are proposing – feel compelled to adopt a system arguably weaker than the one that made these people smart?
I suppose the answer is that too many here still believe: "If it comes from the West, we want it". More specificially: "If somebody will give us money to change, we'll change".
Armenia wants to become more European, more Western. Too bad, if the conversion comes at the expense of traditions that should not be thrown away merely because of the perceived taint of socialism.
The World Bank is giving $45 million to implant a system that is likely to be inferior to what could be, if this baby weren’t thrown out with the bath water. Too bad the money couldn’t simply be spread out over teacher salaries to those educated to teach, but who lack the will, or the energy, because their poorly-paid profession forces them to take second jobs (and bribes).
And it will be too bad if, a generation from now, a guy like me can feel just as smart as those he meets at cocktail parties here.
By the way: The girl in her 20s who reads Homer? She moved to America and found a good-paying job. There’s probably some lesson there . . .