THE FIRST YEAR, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
The poor prospects of life in Hungary in the fifties had concerned both ambitious students and their parents. Continuing studies after high school depended not only on exam results; on the contrary, especially not on those but on the so called “class origins” of the aspirant. It was critically important what kind of family background, from what “class” did the student come from. The reigning communist government decided who could make it to the universities, colleges. They were trying to educate those who were politically acceptable, so that their future would be assured. While in the West, academic achievements and financial means determined one’s continued education, continuing on to higher education never seemed like a life or death struggle as in the East. The young refugees of 1956 believed exactly this in order to lay the foundation of their new lives. The time spent waiting for admission in refugee camps, the time needed to learn the languages of their adopted countries stole years from their lives.
As back home, the freshmen in Canada were excited starting their academic studies. The seniors, according to tradition, were busy with the initiation rites. The various sport competitions were under way, particularly among the rival schools, as everywhere in the world.
After finding his course schedules, Peter had to find the various lecture halls, spread out in a wide area of the university. Getting to and from lecture halls in the 10 minute breaks they had between lectures was not much, so he had to choose course with an eye on schedule conflicts , as well as being interested in the topics. Appropriate text books for the chosen course were available in the university book store, at fairly steep prices when comparing these to the salary of a hospital orderly. There must have been cheaper ways of finding text books, but the excitement, a definite feeling of elation, and a good degree of anxiety about the immediate future deprived him of getting the best information. His English was still hesitant and full of errors, and he knew it. And there were so many new expressions, concepts that the new students had to grapple with. Anything that had to do with schooling was virtually a new concept. From the grading system to the special student “lingo”, there was little that he understood at first. He took time to learn the system of higher education, and a system in another continent, exercised in a strange language, until he had found the resources that could help with his studies.
Both the anxiety and the elation he felt of just being there, had its reasons. A manual laborer, one arriving in just over 2 years before, who hardly speaks and reads the language of the land, who from one drab and unassuming day to the next intellectually demanding one, in spite of every difficulty felt happy and satisfied. These momentary joys were, however, short lived, as soon as he had rationally looked at his prospects. He felt as if he were an impostor as he was contemplating one of the other course offered in front of the long wall listing the course, schedules, names of lecturers and requirements for each, having great doubts about his chances for some of those courses. He had absolutely zero Canadian high school background, never set foot in any of those schools.
The students milling about him were at the height of their excitement as they were selecting one or another of the numerous English literature courses, all promising rewarding learning experience, and most requiring prerequisite studies. In their cases, there could not be any question about their readiness for advanced English literature, indeed 80 % would choose one or two of the several offered this leading to an Arts degree. But how could Peter or somebody in his shoes with similar disadvantage dream about advanced studies of Shakespeare or Chaucer?
Fortunately, all English literature courses were “strongly” recommended and not compulsory. But the other course groups caused just as big of a dilemma. One foreign language course was compulsory for all Arts students, and this being officially a bilingual country it was rather easy for the English speakers, they chose French , and it is assumed, those living in French Canada, they chose English, it they were smart.
But what could a foreign student choose, who had not learned, ever a formal course in either language? Besides, at the University of Toronto, students could not choose English as a “foreign” language, it being the native tongue.
So English was not being thought as a language, were it but true! And taking French, as most chose in Toronto, required years of high school French, thus unavailable for Peter.
Once more he had checked through the language courses offered and the prerequisites and felt that he would have problems here, when his eyes caught the most improbable item he would have ever imagined among the languages listed!
In 1959, at the University of Toronto, first year students could choose to learn, from scratch, Russian language and literature!
Nearly 3 years after the 1956 Revolution and Freedom Fight in Hungary, in spite of the accumulated hatred and contempt against the Soviet dictatorship, and the much hated compulsory Russian language in all schools and all levels of learning, now had to be accepted, even cherished in order to reach his goal and graduate from this university! It was not easy to befriend the thought of voluntarily learning Russian,again and really learning it, not like back home when most everybody out of sheer hate had sabotaged this task at every step. Now Peter, through free choice, (how on earth will he explain to the folks back in Hungary?) had to accept Russian, as an everyday preoccupation, along with the other “foreign” language, English. This very thought had caused the immigrant days of grief in addition to the many new concepts and changes in his life those days.
Never could he have imagined that after escaping to the West, from the Soviet imposed totalitarian regime with its obligatory Russian language rammed down the throat of all students, that he would once again cultivate Russian and especially doing it with diligence and earnestness! But there was a good side to this. The language was being offered for total beginners, which meant that Peter who had been exposed to it for many years, never mind that his level of knowledge was fairly low, was still familiar with the basics, including the totally different Cyrillic alphabet. That meant one less subject that he had to worry about.
Psychology, economics and political science, these were, curiously separate in a “capitalist” country, philosophy, zoology and mathematics made up his course palette, in addition to Russian. He found out only a little later that one of those courses had to be his “major”. So logic suggested making that Russian, to which then Russian and Slavic literature was added for good measure. This latter was, fortunately, lectured in English, with most of the works being read in translation, English. He had welcomed, actually, classical Russian literature, as many of those great writers were among his favorites, and happily such modern greats as Pasternak, Babel, Solzenitsen and others were also listed in his course outline. He was eagerly looking forward to the promised discussions on the post 1917 Bolshevik revolution’s effort to popularize “socialist realism” in literature , as an essential tool to achieve socialist goals. A dictate, indeed, which was imposed on any creativity by force. The frank and open discussions of these trends in a free society promised to be a real treat to someone coming from the other side of the political divide.
The weight of the humanities courses he chose to study, beside Russian, threatened mostly his faulty and weak language capability. This became evident right on the first day when he took home the textbook of political science, 1 A.
The textbook for the study of the Canadian government, with its rich historical development in Canada’s not quite 100 years of existence, spread over several hundred pages. Its heavy legalistic text and seldom used everyday expressions, made it difficult reading. Forever remained in his memory that afternoon, when on his day off from the hospital, he had to write a précis for the next day on this first chapter of that book, spread over 17 pages. With his English-Hungarian dictionary, it took him more than one hour to translate and understand the first page!
And so it went on for the next several pages. From all this effort, he had to summarize the essence of the chapter in a written assignment of not more than 2 pages!
He remembered, as dawn was slowly breaking in the early September morning and falling asleep, that after a few hours of sleep he would start again, the work which had really amounted to no more than a translation assignment, given to a dilettante.
Practically all his courses gave him similar grief, understanding, retaining and showing proof of accomplishment, as was demanded. In spite of the everyday language frustrations he felt encouraged by the progress he was making, that within short he would be speaking and writing on the level of university students.
However, the 40 hour night shift at the hospital, from midnight to 8 am, took away precious time from studying or from resting. The nurses working on the ward had been watching him with great empathy, when the young orderly reported for duty for the graveyard shift, loaded with books. In general, the nights were not very busy, although all staff had certain routine work every night. At times he could study for hours, or if he was particularly well liked by one or another nurse they would even let him sleep some on one empty stretchers on wheels. In these instances he could, after a warm shower in the hospital, turn into a regular university student and appear in classes in reasonable shape on the following morning.
But there were chaotic nights also at the hospital when several crisis situations could develop with one or more patients at the same time, when every doctor, nurse and orderly on duty were rushing from room to room, when neither studying nor sleeping was possible the whole night. While on mornings like these he was capable getting ready physically and getting to classes, but often he had slept through lectures with half open eyes, when he would not understood the lecture even if had it been presented in his native tongue, let alone in English.
It had occurred to him once or twice that his fellow students may be even jealous of him thinking that he perhaps had a wild night when he was caught dozing in the classroom. The fact was he never once discussed with anyone in the university environment, student or teacher, that he lived a double life, working at night and trying to study during the day, never discussed his private life. He could not explain it then and it is till mystery today, whether it was a sense of shame or a notion of pride the reason why he had never spoken of his private life in school. In fact, there were very few students whom he may have befriended, and occasional words with these were for school work almost exclusively. Perhaps his heavy accent and the perceived stigma of an immigrant, or the loss of precious time that would have been sacrificed, it is difficult to say which held him back from any socializing. The fact remained that in this first year at U of T he was persona incognito. He was seen in the libraries or the student cafeterias to the tune of a head-nod, but friendship and mainly friendship of girls was missing in his life.
As the neighbor to the South, Canada, too, became the land of immigrants. However, the arrival of the masses went on through hundreds of years, so there were always the early arrivals, even first, second and third generations of these immigrants, and their successors. There was a definite distinction between early and new comers, especially if they opened their mouths, and declared when they may have arrived in the “new” country. In addition to the “arrival” time, there were other sociological differences between the English speakers in the English speaking provinces, or the French speakers in the French speaking province, and the “other” tongued immigrants. While the English, Irish or Scott immigrants, even with little schooling got fairly good jobs on account of their language skills, a well educated non-Anglo European professor could go to clean houses in his first years.
However, the “other” language immigrants had usually less schooling , coming from the poorest countries – or the most prosecuted- in Europe and emigrated for reasons of survival. This group of immigrants was always the bigger, so anyone with a heavy accent was considered to be less educated, cultured. This was that certain stigma that every non English speaking immigrant was confronting every day.
The university, college years, in every society, played a great role in the lives of students as they developed into adults. While they are studying their chosen profession, they are spending their best 4 or 5 years in each other’s friendly company. They usually had opportunities to develop in other fields than the chosen professions, in the fields of culture, arts and many sports. Those who had to earn their living while studying had little time left for these rewarding and exceptional opportunities. So Peter was very limited outside his daily hospital routine and language handicap to engage in most of these enriching activities.
Right away, in the first days of the school year, the somewhat older student had caused a small stir as he appeared in jacket and tie. Nobody had any doubt that he was a foreigner in 1959, when there were few foreigners and minority students at U of T. The majority of the students were of white, Anglo-Saxon background, or white immigrants’ children born in Canada. The first years Arts students had formed massive classes. For example the economics class had more than 200 students, and was held in the biggest lecture hall of the university. Asking questions, clarifications during lecture was next to impossible. The lecturers communicated via postings on the walls in the corridor. This was education in its most impersonal way. Anyone could come, or come late, or not at all, attendance lists were not kept. Because of its impersonal, mechanical style this had become Peter’s most neglected, least interesting subject. He had mostly nodded off during the lectures that started at 9 am. The presented material seemed dry and boring.
His most successful course became the one that was forced on him and everyone else in the old country, the one that had to be also chosen due to the “foreign” language requirement, Russian language and literature. There were 10 or 12 lecturers on the newly formed Faculty of Slavic Studies; mostly Polish and Ukrainian post war immigrants to Canada. There was not one ethnic Russian speaker among them. Almost all were seeking historical authenticity and understanding vis a vis the Russian language and the political reality of the Soviet Union. So it happened, that Peter’s Russian teacher was an Englishman, graduating from Oxford, who for a mysterious reason had fallen in love with the language and got a job in this Canadian university. His real public school education and particularly his superior British accent did not disturb him at all in developing an excellent grasp of classical Russian. He thought it well, too. But the most favored of all these teachers was the lady professor from Poland who was a graduate of the famous, pre war Krakow University and now was teaching Russian literature.
Accordingly, all the lecturers on the Faculty spoke with some kind of an accent, which felt so comforting to self-conscious Peter. At least here he did not have to be embarrassed because of his linguistic shortcomings. His fellow students on this course were all Canadian born, but mostly from Ukrainian, Polish, Slovak immigrants so they have grown up with accented English in their houses. Their parents’ tongues were close to Russian, were brought up partially in these languages, but they did not know the Cyrillic ABC, so they had to start with the basics. There were practically no students with a Russian background in the fifties in Canada.
Peter had a great advantage with the language, however inadequate, that was forced on him in Hungary, but still knew more than the basics. While the other students were learning reading and writing in Russian, he could be spending time with other courses. They were learning proficiency in the Russian; Peter was trying to learn English so that he could understand the philosophy, psychology and the other subjects.
The first year students taking Russian were no more than 14 of the 40,000. He had managed to get closer to some of these in the first few months, but they also knew little about the mysterious Hungarian quickly disappearing after lectures. He was always absent from the frequent weekend dances, concerts and guest performances, and nobody missed him.
They had most probably believed that he was not interested, and perhaps felt above these events, that he was a snob.
Within a few weeks there was already some degree of accounting for the learning material presented in all courses. Other than the Russian language material which was going well, the literature part afforded opportunities to excel in class, even if some of his written material had plenty of errors. The lady professor was particularly accommodating with regard to spelling mistakes in his assignments. During her lectures she had often initiated discussions in class by calling on Peter first for a point of view or comment that set the stage for a debate with the others.
Probably that was the only area in his studies where he could claim some degree of competence compared to his fellow students at the university in 1959. This knowledge, literary background and political maturity that would have prompted the professor to call Peter into her office one day, acknowledging his contributions in class and encouraging his work because she thought he had signs of talent and ability in the field of Russian-Soviet literature. This good work could further be helped , eventually, with a Rhodes scholarship, and if Peter may have such ambitions she could find support for this in the Department of Slavic Sudies.
The first year student was in seventh heaven for this early sign of encouragement. How strange is the way God works, he begins to study Russian reluctantly and out of sheer necessity and a gleam of hope for his future flashes before him! This was so welcome, yet he knew that he will have to excel in all the other courses as well. Indeed, there were ominous warnings from the lecturers of the other subjects. One of his early précis in political science was signed with this cautioning: “I will let this go through now, but your English will simply have to improve if you want to pass this course by year’s end…”These kinds of remarks did not help at all for the student struggling with work, sleeplessness and language frustrations daily. On the contrary, they had embittered him. Then there was the impatient lecturer who had returned one of his papers because “he could not read his funny handwriting.” It was a fact that those in grade one in 1944, amid the worst part of the war, had received a haphazard and inadequate first year of reading and writing instructions, with all the daily changes in routine, teachers and aerial alerts. Their teachers may have changed weekly, and so did the methods of teaching to write. Peter’s handwriting belonged to the worst in class, and he recognized early this liability. He was envious of some of his classmates who had handed in carefully prepared, even typed documents as their assignments, fetching of course much better grades.
It was interesting how much impression the course in philosophy had on the new student. He had little knowledge of the scientific study of wisdom before, and was eager to know all that Professor Schonleber had to teach them. He read and tried to understand most of what the prescribed books had to say. He noted the Aristotelian thesis that one must philosophize, and if someone states that this is not necessary, than that has to be philosophized, that is discussed, so in any case philosophy is essential. Once so understood, then the Descartian notion that cogito ergo sum was more comprehensible.
This new, discovering phase of Peter’s life, his first steps in the field of human inquiry and study seemed noble and uplifting compared to the near past and the bleak presence of his present daily life. Every nuance of his body desired new knowledge, authors and their work. The library of his college with its thousands of volumes, the small writing-reading desks, the winding labyrinths in the stacks which provided all necessary conditions for reading, contemplative study, were happily discovered. How happy he was here! How much more time he would have liked to spend here, than was his. He could forget here the frustrations of the past, the disappointments. He was informing his family back home about this far away university, its structure, culture and the possibilities in the far future…that was surely to come his way. Who knows, he could even become a teacher of Russian someday, although all this seemed pretty remote just then, a few weeks into the first half of his first year