Friday, December 12, 2014

The Library as Refuge

The Library as Refuge
(Biblioteka kao utočište, Školegijum 10. 05. 2014)

Let's take a look at a library in an elementary school in Bosnia and Herzegovina - an ordinary school library, like so many others in this country, a library suffering from a shortage of reading matter, again like many others, though let's leave that particular issue to one side for the moment, along with other deficiencies like cataloguing and classification. Rather, let’s look at those kids sitting there in library - the students who've opted out from Religious Education class.

Not surprisingly, they’re not studying their Bible or the Koran. Most of them are reading some work of fiction or popular science. One girl, a fifth grader, says to me, “When I explained to the R.E. teacher that I didn’t want to attend her class any more she yelled at me, in front of everybody. She said if that's what I chose to do, terrible things would happen to me.”

“What did you do?” I asked her.

“I told my mother all about it. I said that I wasn't going to go any more, no matter what.”
Another student sitting next to her added,“She swore at me when I said I wasn't going to go either.”


Sic! is a literary theory and criticism magazine started up by students from Sarajevo a couple of years ago. I was delighted to come across a publication like this, produced by Bosnia's first genuinely post-war generation, in the sense that finally here is a group of young people for whom all the doors are open - a group to whom everything is possible, accessible, achievable. We had to wait a long time for Mirnes and Haris, Sic!'s editors-in-chief. And there's a question that I've always wanted to ask them which is, did you use to attend religious education classes in elementary school?
It is generally accepted that young kids, especially during their early schooldays, aren't yet capable of understanding abstract ideas. They're liable to interpret the horrendous stories that are part of the religious narratives literally, and they get re frightened and even traumatized by them.

Having spent the last six or seven years witnessing at first hand the absurdity of various aspects of the elementary education system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I consider myself reasonably well placed to offer a few observations on the subject.

No child is “Communist garbage”, which is the description one of the teachers, dressed in full religious garb, used to the father of another child at the school I mentioned earlier. The woman received barely a word of reprimand. Recalling the days of my youth, when I changed jobs even more frequently than those legends Carver and Bukowski, I'm reminded of a girl from somewhere in Eastern Europe with whom I worked briefly as a waiter in a luxury restaurant in the United States. Despite a solid command of English, she found smiling and chatting very difficult. After a few days it was obvious to anyone that she wasn't really suited to the job. More than anything else, a waiter needs to be friendly and communicative and able to interact with the customers. Even saying “Good evening” appeared to cause her a great deal of pain. Rare as it was to hear her talk, it was rarer still that we saw her smile.

I see a parallel with the religious teachers I've already referred to in Bosnia and Herzegovina , along with a reminder of the image of the bull in a china shop. We can't dodge the questions, what is religion? and what is Communism? But when is the right time? In kindergarten perhaps? That's been tried already. Maybe with time they'll come up with the right answer, (for themselves?) as long as we can manage to hold our tongues for long enough. But isn't it possible to protect kids from having their heads filled with mental garbage, or from threats at least, during their early school days?

It's a dilemma: do we speak out when really we shouldn't have to or do we stay silent, even though everything we see makes us want to scream out loud.

Or do we just sit and wait for the paycheck and travel allowance?

You. Miss - you who called a kid’s dad what you did, aren't you a mother too?

Another of my colleagues, if that's really the right word to use, said to me: “Tell all the kids coming to your library they have to go back to their R.E. classes”. I was almost speechless. Somehow , nevertheless, I managed to reply, “If a child’s dad has told him he's not to go, who am I then to tell him otherwise?” I got the words out with difficulty - I could barely manage to say what I was saying.

And so, turning to my other, real colleagues, I say to them: “Listen, people, Albania is leaving Bosnia behind, and countries in Africa are too. Do we have to risk destroying the solid foundations of the past just because we got ourselves into a mess in the nineteen-nineties? Are we going to appoint more and more religious teachers as our public elementary school principals? Are we going to keep trying to mix what can't be mixed simply in order to appease one more furious ranter and raver, cursing because a student has told him they'd rather skip his kind of class?”