Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The wall

I meant to post yesterday, but my husband was on a quest to buy a new microwave and monopolized the computer the entire evening. We'll call it the triumph of consumer capitalism.

Twenty years ago I walked into my middle school history classroom and took my seat at a desk, just like every other day. But my teacher, who had been studiously helping us plod our way through a semester's worth of official Washington State history, did not call us to order and launch into his lecture. Instead, he waited quietly for us to settle down, leaned back on the edge of his own desk, looked at us meaningfully and weighed his words for the impact he hoped they'd have on a roomful of kids too young to remember Khrushchev.

"Do you know what happened yesterday?" he asked.

"The Berlin Wall fell," we answered. We weren't so ignorant. Our parents watched CNN, and we payed some attention. We knew that yesterday we'd witnessed news on a different scale.

"Do you know what that means?" he continued.

I'm not sure anyone had any meaningful answer. I know I didn't. I only grasped the importance in an abstract way. I knew that a city had been unhappily divided and would be so no longer; I knew that all over the world, the notion of "us" and "them" so salient for my parents' generation was disappearing and that "we" were winning.

I figured that some day I would want to remember where I was when I'd heard the news. But did I have more than the foggiest notion of how the two Germanys had come to be? Could I have found Berlin on a map? I'm not sure. I was twelve years old, and Seattle was a long way away from anywhere that seemed to carry the weight of history.

My husband was a year out of high school and suffering through pre-college preparatory classes. He followed what was going on with the euphoria of an eighteen-year-old just awake to the larger world, and at any moment he was ready to jump on the next train to Berlin. Instead he stayed home, and studied the news more religiously than his math textbooks.

I, however, two decades older and an ocean closer to the event, am struck by how little I understood at the time. I felt and still feel like I sat down in a theater during the last act of a play, and at the conclusion of the last scene, was still trying in vain to decipher the main characters.

Much younger, during one of the Reagan/Gorbachev summits, I remember watching a television news report in my grandmother's living room.

"I like him!" I said, pointing out Gorbachev. ("...better than the other guy," I may even have added, indoctrinated as I was by my staunchly Democratic parents.)

"You can't like him," my grandmother said quickly and categorically.

"Why not?" I asked, surprised.

"Because he's the bad guy."

I didn't buy it. Even in elementary school, with no real knowledge of geography much less geopolitics, I knew enough to feel certain that my world would be safer than my parents', or that at least I wouldn't face the same fears and dangers. November 9, 1989 confirmed this, and as the wall fell, a weight was lifted from my generation's shoulders. Even if -- does anything feel real in middle school? -- we grasped it only partially.


Alexander Yarchak said...

I'm Alexander. I'm from Russia. It was pretty interesting to read your post "The wall". You mentioned our soviet leaders Kchruschev and Gorbachev. I remember Gorbachev very well. I was 18 yo. 20 years ago Gorbachev was my hero. I didn't understand many things that happened in the world. But I don't like him now. I figure out that Gorbachev wasn't strong leader of great country. He destroyed powerfull country USSR. He separated many people in the USSR. But it is only my opinion.
Thank for your post. I learn English and I found that your post very helpfull for me and very very interesting to read. I'm not confident English speaker but I will be read your posts in future. You use many American idioms in text that I had met in text of teacher from California.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Alexander - thank you for your comment! Your opinion of Gorbachev is interesting, and corresponds with what I'd heard was the negative public opinion of him recently in Russia, although he's still widely regarded as a hero in western Europe. It will be interesting to see what the generations born after the wall think in another 20 years. Thank you for reading!