Sondra Perl went to Austria in 1996 to teach English to two American and nine Austrian teachers of English. Her students were enrolled in a cross-cultural literacy program that is part of a master’s degree program sponsored by the City University of New York. Initially, Perl saw herself as an agnostic, assimilated American Jew who hated everything German, an attitude she had absorbed from her mother as a result of the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry. By the end of the term, these assumptions had transmogrified into something else.
She was to teach writing and literature. As a teacher, Perl knew that she had to hold to the principles by which she lived and taught: everyone in the class is welcome and everyone’s story matters. Her goal was to treat each person’s work, each person’s words with respect and to teach her students to do likewise. At first it was difficult because the students were used to a more authoritative style of teaching, of topical assignments. She promised that they would learn to write with feeling and without self-consciousness by the time the course was finished. But when she introduces the concepts of taking an ethical stance in the teaching of literature and that a teacher should not try to pose as someone who is completely objective, her students are puzzled. Meanwhile, in the back of her mind she is seeing these lovely students as the children or grandchildren of Nazis; she wonders how they will react when she tells them she is Jewish. The class has started to become uncomfortable and strained. Perl decides to read what she has written, as part of the exercise. It is a confession about how the more she walks on the land, the more her mind fills with images of the Holocaust…but she doesn’t feel she should write about it because that is not why she is there. One of the Austrian students urges her to make her fears public. By the end of the semester, Perl has come to terms with her feelings and to a reexamination of her own Jewishness, while the students have learned to write honestly and fearlessly, and they all become friends. Not only is this an honest, interesting, well-written book (there is a lot of lively dialogue and it reads almost like a novel in parts), it is also a handbook on how to write and to teach others. Sondra Perl is professor of English and urban education at Lehman College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Biblio., notes, photos.