Army of Crows
In Hungarian, we call a group of crows an army of crows. Like a “murder of crows”. I always think of them as an army though. They are always in groups, they even work together. Once, in Silverton, on a rainy day, I watched as a crow took a half-eaten, wrapped, hamburger from a garbage bin. The crow had trouble opening it alone. Another one flew down and joined him, and together, as a team, they opened the wrapper. A few more joined them by then, and they all took a bite of the now opened burger, then flew away. Smart birds. They knew how to work together. They knew how to share.
An army of crows was watching me as I walked to the bus station. They were sitting on the power lines, on the light poles, on the trees, on the roofs of the neighboring houses, on top of the old, deserted synagogue. Not one of them made a sound. I felt their eyes follow me. Their darkness added to the thick fog made the world around me seem surreal, like a black-and-white movie.
No one spoke, though we all knew each other well. Some newcomers nodded, in a barely perceptible greeting, but nothing broke the heavy silence. I could feel the tension, exacerbated by the weight of the all-encompassing fog, by the presence of the crows. I have never felt this way before in my hometown, around people I knew and who knew me since I was a child.
Everyone heard the news of the fights. The day before, Romanians were fighting Hungarians in a neighboring city, a city with a mixed population of half-and-half. It was a real fight, neighbors and friends physically hurting each other. The same thing was happening in a few major cities in Transylvania. Once again, people hurting each other because they were different. In this case, different only meant that we didn’t speak the same language. This simple fact was enough to spark a fight.
I read a study once about how people tend to divide themselves. Sometimes the most trivial thing, like choice in clothing, might spark this distinction. We need to fight someone, but we also need allies. So we divide and hope to survive. Then someone else conquers us all.
Thing is, I never expected it to happen any longer. True, in school, the boys had called each other mean names referring to each other’s different nationalities. But that was boys being mean, they would call each other names about anything. Sure, if I had a Romanian speaking teacher, I had to know twice as much as others to get the same grades. I was used to it, I felt that it made me a better student. Growing up as a minority wasn’t always easy, but it didn’t bother me, it was a way of life. I never experienced or heard of open fights, especially involving decent grown-ups. Both nationalities lived together for centuries, at least in my hometown. If you asked a person who their best friend was, chances were he or she was of the other nationality. My own best friends were Romanian.
But this fight wasn’t about personal feelings, about individual people. A few months after the fall of communism, after the Romanian Revolution, things seemed to be the same as before. There was no improvement to our lives. Rumors started circulating about the new government being another bunch of communists. To stop the rumors, those in power used the age-old tactic to get people fighting against each other. They might forget the common enemy; they might forget reality. It worked. Romanians believed the story about the Hungarian minority trying to annex part of their country to Hungary.
Did you ever notice how those in power use fear to manipulate people? Terrorists use fear to manipulate others. It works. Fear is such a strong emotion; most people forget to think when they are afraid. In this case, they forgot that they were still hungry, they forgot that only a few months earlier they stood together like brothers in front of the tanks, protesting against communism, against dictatorship, and asking for a better life. They forgot that they were not afraid to ask for freedom of speech, for free choices, when they were together.
Everyone was getting frustrated because it all seemed to have been for nothing. They were looking for a culprit and the new government gave it to them: Hungarians, the largest minority group living in the country.
I was the only minority in that bus station that morning, and everyone knew it. Everyone knew me. In a small town like this, we all knew each other, we all looked out for one another. But on this surreal morning, filled with crows, it didn’t seem like it. I was actually scared, in my own hometown, for the first time in my life.
On the bus, things got worse. Commuters from the neighboring towns were also there, and on this particular morning, every single one of them was Romanian. They were talking in angry voices, worrying about the future of their country, of their own future if the Hungarians wanted to take over. Those from my town joined them, now that they were more in number. Two men sitting right behind me were shouting about killing all the Hungarians, so there would be no more problems with them. They knew very well who I was, they were directing their angry comments towards me. And not one person disagreed. Not the clerk who has been handing me my paycheck every month, not the lady who used to sit by me every other morning, not the old man who used to be so nice to me.
I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, but I didn’t think that I wanted to go to work anymore. I was teaching in a small village, with all Romanian population, and I was teaching their own language and literature, among other things. It seemed like a scary combination on that day.
A few crows seemed to have followed me, but it was no army of them here. I had this surreal feeling that the birds were looking out for me. I didn’t need an army of them in this tiny village. Trying to navigate the puddles on the dirt road, carrying their milk and bread, the villagers greeted me with a smile as usual. I started to relax. Life was back to normal. As the sun was peeking out from behind the heavy clouds, I almost felt that my early morning commute was a bad dream.
In school, all my colleagues were Romanian natives, but they treated me like every other day. We discussed the events, treating it all like some funny twist that would blow over by the end of the day.
My first few classes were spent as always, the kids were their usual selves, misbehaving at times, but not out of the ordinary. As the day progressed, I even forgot about that gripping fear I experienced in the morning on the bus.
The day was almost over. I was looking forward to getting home, though not to the bus ride back. I had only one class left to teach, Romanian language and literature, for eighth graders. I was teaching these kids their own mother tongue. On a normal day it was never a problem, but on that ominous day, I sensed trouble as soon as I entered the classroom.
One of my students, Ilie, whom I only saw twice during the whole school year, was sitting in the back. Next to him was his friend, who never took the time to read anything or pay attention in class, although at least he showed up in school. They looked at me with an evil grin as I entered. I started teaching as usual, but as soon I turned toward the blackboard, I heard someone chant:
“We don’t want a Hungarian teacher!”.
I knew who it was, I recognized the voice, though I only heard it once before. I wasn’t sure what to do, I had no idea how to handle this. I was shaking inside, yet I didn’t want to run to the principal. It was my very first year of teaching, I was barely older than these kids, I had to somehow stand my ground. The kid was twice my size, loud and rough. Physically fighting him was out of the question. After my experience on the bus that morning I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had the urge to leave everything and run.
I kept writing on the board. I was trying to figure out what to do, while my back was still turned to them, while they couldn’t see my fear. Finally, I turned around and looked at him.
“Did you say something?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied in a menacing voice, then repeated what he said before, looking right into my eyes, defiantly:
“We don’t want a Hungarian teacher! Right?”, and he looked at the rest of the class.
No one replied him, no one moved. He looked at his friend.
“Yes.”, his friend answered in a barely audible voice.
One of the students asked me if he should go and get the principal. I told him it would not be necessary. They were kids, they were my students, I couldn’t let them know that I was scared. I asked the class if anyone else felt the same way. No one volunteered, though I felt that they weren’t sure what to think or what to do. I waited a few seconds, then looked at Ilie and his friend:
“No one else seems to feel the same way,” I said. “But if you feel so strongly about it, you are free to leave the class. Take your quest to the principal.”
His friend was apologetic, and mumbled something that I took as “no, it’s ok”. Ilie looked around to his classmates, and repeated his slogan one more time, though with less conviction. Finally, seeing that no one joined him, he stood up and stomped out of the class.
The incident left me shaken, I wasn’t sure how I could resume my class. Once again, one of my students came to the rescue and, very , asked me about the issue. They knew I was Hungarian, and they always wondered why I chose to teach them their own language.
Good question, I thought. The simple fact was, I wanted to study languages and literature, and that was the best, if not only option. I also considered it a challenge, I wanted to prove that I could do it, even though I wasn’t native in their language. I didn’t tell them that. Instead, I concentrated on my admiration of some of their poets and writers, on the beauty of their language. “Was it hard?” they asked. Of course, it was. I told them about some of my college experiences, about the fact that I needed to know more to pass any exams than if my native tongue was Romanian. Yes, I was qualified to teach them.
I took the opportunity to I talk to them about friendships that didn’t know language boundaries. I explained to them how we lived side by side for centuries and how normal people didn’t have issues with each other because of language differences.
We didn’t finish the lesson we started. Instead, I tried to make them understand how we all, though different, were always capable of living together, being friends, supporting each other, regardless of language barriers. Did I succeed? I don’t know. I’d like to see where some of my old students are today.
They did ask me about the political situation of the day, as well. Did Hungary want Transylvania back? Were Hungarian natives living there try to annex Transylvania to Hungary? As far as I knew, none of it was an issue. Then again, I didn’t know for sure. I knew one thing: no matter where the place belongs , it should not affect the way people feel about each other.
The crows weren’t sitting on the power lines or rooftops when I finally got back to my town. Though I saw a few of them scattered around, they did not make an impression on me. Things seemed to be back to normal. As I was pondering the fights, and divisions among people, I also realized something else. We might take forever to learn, but we still learn from our mistakes, from history. Passing the deserted synagogue, I realized the even though we did not learn to accept each other, at least we have a better grasp on ways to handle these differences. No one got hurt during those fights. After punching each other in the street, the same neighbors sat around on their porch and apologized to each other, tending to each other’s cuts and bruises. We can learn from our past mistakes. There is hope for humanity.
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