Sunday, February 28, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.16: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 16

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Teacher - Inside the USSR

My father spoke Russian. That's why he was able to teach it. However, holding actual conversations with Russian speakers of various ethnicities and accents gave him different results than in class.

"Was she even Russian?" he wondered aloud when someone gave him directions in Moscow. He had said the same thing in Leningrad about the street directions he'd received there. "That sounded like a different slavic language."

At one point, he had a brief conversation with a Polish man who spoke Russian. That man had been lost and asked my father for directions. Naturally, my father couldn't help. They lingered to talk for a moment and shared common exasperations about the language they were using.

"He had a terrible accent. I guess I do, too," my father said as we got on our tour bus. He repeated the phrase again years later. "I think we understood each other better than anyone else we talked to."

Despite the relative innocence of our tour with high school teachers and their students, the Soviets restricted our itinerary sharply. They made only two cities available to visit, Leningrad and Moscow, with parts of them off limits. They assigned handlers to travel with the groups of students. They brought in KGB agents to trail after us and make sure we didn't engage in spycraft. My father once or twice suspected that the agents might be casually helping the tour. Certainly, there seemed to be plenty of kind Soviet citizens who helped students who got lost or who berated Russians when they were were rude to the students. There were helpful strangers to make sure everyone got on the bus or to stop the tourists from trying to buy snacks in the subway station and prompt them to run, quick, and get on the train with everyone else.

When we had breaks between tours of statues and basilicas, my father struggled with the Soviet transportation systems like everyone else. He had always loved the trolley cars in Baltimore, so at one point he decided we should take the trolley in Moscow as sort of a comparison. He lined us up at the stop after taking us on a walking trip for ice cream. It was going to be a straight ride back to the hotel.

The trolley arrived. I leapt aboard and pulled my brother with me, his hand in mine. Behind, I heard a shout. To my father's surprise, the crowd would not let him follow. They pushed him out of the way and boarded the trolley until men were hanging off the outside. There truly was no room. Finally, one Russian man saw what had happened and that my father was struggling to get on the already full car. He grabbed my father by the arm and pulled him in. A wrestling match ensued between the man and the other passengers. The fellow barked something at the others. Although some of them barked back, they allowed him to pull my father inside the trolley car. He gave my father a push into the aisle in the general direction where I'd been carried by the crowd.

"Sometimes I do wonder about that guy," my father said later. "Was he an agent we hadn't noticed or was just a helpful person? Well, anyway, I'm glad he was there."

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.15: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 15

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Teacher - To Moscow, With Love

In 1973, politics spilled over into teaching, this time for the better. The Nixon administration began a series of discussions with the Soviets. The leaders of both countries made peace offerings to ease the Cold War tensions. The Soviet Union offered to allow tourists. The United States offered to send some.

That, in a compacted telling, is how the US decided to send its first high school trip to Communist Russia. It was a package deal that included four high schools from around the country all traveling together. Students taking Russian language courses qualified. There weren't many of those, of course, but my father taught two levels of Russian at Northwood High plus an option for independent study. He and his students applied and got picked.

The slightly odd part is that my father elected to take his family.

"When will we ever have this chance again?" he asked.

My two-year-old youngest brother wasn't allowed. My mother didn't want to leave him behind and pointed out, "What would I do, really? I don't speak any Russian. I don't know any of your students."

That left my middle brother and I as the ones to pack bags and trundle onto the 747 bound for Helsinki, Finland.

There were no flights between the US the USSR. The Soviets wouldn't allow Americans to fly through their airspace. For the trip, the high schools had to take a FinAir jet from DC to NYC to Helsinki. Then they drove by chartered bus to the Soviet border.

At the border, the Soviet guards gave everyone a hard time. They alternated between stern commands and bureaucratic lectures. Everyone stood in eight lines with two customs agents at the front of each line. After a while, my father got his turn. The Soviets spent a while making sure the passport picture was his. He spoke Russian, so he insisted that it was. They laughed at his young, beardless visage from 1960 and held it up next to him to show the difference between it and his bearded, middle-aged face. After that, they searched his bag and felt satisfied. My father ushered me forward. The guards chuckled. Behind me and to my left stepped my younger brother. They noticed him and, for the first time, they started to laugh.

At this point, the guards made a big show of not inspecting our bags. They opened mine but they waved their arms over the contents as if casting a magic spell. When my younger brother tried to give them his bag, a smaller version of mine, they brushed it off. One of the men returned the bag to my brother and tried to pinch his cheek. He saw it coming. With a shout, he dodged it.

For whatever reason, that made the guards laugh even harder. They waved us through like we were comedian celebrities. In less than a minute, as our group took our positions beyond the border, the two border guards got back to shouting sternly at tourists and demanding to feel their toothpaste tubes.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.14: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 14

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Teacher - Buying In

The first few years as a teacher are usually tough. But by the time my father started in Montgomery County, he had six years of experience. After a year on the faculty at Northwood High, they offered him the math resource teacher position, equivalent to being the dean.

"Well, no one else wanted it," he told other grown-ups when I was a child. "I think they offered it to everybody before me. It's extra work. And the extra pay isn't much, a lot less than my hourly rate. But it's not so bad. My principal asked me to do it. The type of work suits me. I get a budget. I get to make the class schedules. If things work out, I give myself classes I want to teach. Even if things don't work out, I can make sure I get a class that's fun."

This was probably the year that he started hiring minority teachers to get them into the county system.

"I found that I had to go back to the University of Maryland," he told me later. "Math was just something I hadn't studied much. Suddenly, I was teaching it."

By the time I was aware of him as a teacher, around 1971, I could tell that he was good. It was a strange realization. Even in elementary school, you get a sense for the good teachers wherever you meet them. You notice how everyone reacts to them. I could see how his students got excited by his ideas. They liked to talk with him. The other teachers found him intriguing.

It was weird, as a child, to realize that he was very good at what he did.

He was starting to realize it, too. Although he was the head of the math department, he taught psychology, philosophy, and Russian language classes. He enjoyed himself enough that he studied the math for the teacher retirement system like he was going to spend his career in the classroom. He found that it made sense to "buy in" his years as a federal teacher for the army. So he did.

Besides heading his department, teaching other subjects, and buying extra seniority, he allowed other teachers to nominate him as their union representative.

"What's wrong with these people?" he asked about the union. The union job meant extra work, too. He had to go to teacher conventions in summer. He engaged in unpaid battles with county or state administrators. That much, he'd expected. But he had to fight battles within the union, too, and those were the ones that dispirited him. He didn't mind the struggle for better work conditions but he felt that the petty fights over prestige within the union or even within the teaching system were a waste of time.

In two years, he convinced another teacher to take the union representative job. My father settled back into teaching four subjects. That was enough.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.13: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 13

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance as a Teacher - Overseas

When we were growing up, my father built a photo collage about six feet tall, three feet wide. I helped him put together the frame, the cardboard backing, and the photo pasting. That is, I was often in the same room. Since I was five years old, my help amounted to staying within sight and not stepping on the photographs as he pasted them. I'm not sure I succeeded entirely.

For years, I felt in awe of the collage. It was twice my height and wider than I could stretch my arms. My father hung it on the wall next to the stairwell.

On most days as I galumphed up and down the stairs beside it, I saw pictures of myself in Germany or of my parents on bicycles in Europe. There were pictures with relatives and others with friends. Oddly, there were also photographs without any of my family or relatives. They were small, square shots with rows of colored people in them, often colored and white people walking arm in arm together. Even when I was eight and had acquired a bit of context, I didn't understand those pictures of civil rights marches. My parents had gone to be in them. My father, as always, tried to document what was happening.

Even now, those poorly-exposed photos, fond memories for my parents, are blurry partial-recollections for me. Young black women in white dresses; four or five men seen from behind, one taller than others, his hair cut short to the shape of his head; a man in a suit raising his left arm with a small crowd in front of him.

The collage didn't survive moving between houses. My parents sorted the prints into cardboard boxes. They misplaced the boxes, or threw them out, or left them in forgotten corners of our basement where rescue cats peed on them. For my part, I didn't understand how the photos marked the end of an era for our family. After I was born, the civil rights marches continued, of course, but they went on without my parents.

Sometimes that's the reality of having children. I can understand that my mother may not have wanted to risk getting hit or hosed down by police while she had an infant in her care. In any case, my parents had started spending time overseas with their teaching jobs. The presence of children put an end to that too, in time.


At first, my parents kept their careers as civilian, federal employees of the US Army. Only my mother flew to Maryland for my birth. A few months later, she returned to my father in Germany, this time to his posting in Hamburg.

"I did start to like teaching," my father said of his time at the army bases. "You could get up in front of a class and tell jokes and everyone felt compelled to laugh."

His students enjoyed his lectures. They talked to him at length after classes. He got to explore subjects he liked: philosophy, psychology, and the Russian language. The head of the faculty pressed him into teaching math as well. He hadn't paid much attention to the subject in college, only enough to get through calculus, but he found that he enjoyed talking about it. It felt to him like philosophy but more rigorous.

Meanwhile, my mother started pressing for a return to the United States. She was lining up better paying jobs in Maryland, ones with union benefits like parental leave. She was tired of moving from post to post. In Maryland, they had bought a home in 1961. But they barely lived in it before they accepted jobs in Europe. Their realtor had offered to rent it out for them, so the mortgage kept getting paid, and it was still theirs.

They returned to that house in College Park in the summer of 1966. That gave them a month to decide on their new teaching jobs.