Time is Relative

Of course, as a responsible teacher, I get to my classroom at least fifteen minutes before we’re supposed to start. I want to have the room set up to welcome the students and I like a little time to ground myself and review what I’m going to do. This morning, when I walked into our space, the chairs were askew and the room was in a bit of disarray, evidence of the karaoke party that took place last night. I’d left the party on the early side to phone home, prep for today’s classes and enjoy the bathtub in my room, but by all reports at breakfast, those who stayed had a great time.

I straightened up the chairs, put out small packets of tissues on the floor, got my laptop plugged into its European adapter, and wrote a quote-for-the-day on the flip chart, in English: “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” —Meister Eckhart

The circle was ready and so was I–at five before ten. At ten, our scheduled starting time, the first participant straggled in. A few minutes later, another, then another. Someone came in and put some very lively music on the speaker system, five minutes after we were set to begin. I started to laugh. I made a voice recording of it because it was incongruous and funny to me–the music was a riot–but I couldn’t figure out how to upload it to Facebook—sorry you can’t hear it because I think it would make you smile, too.

The first half of the group who arrived, seeing the bewilderment on my face at their “late” arrival began to educate me on a norm here called, “the academic quarter.” I thought they were talking about the quarter system used at some Universities in the states—like UCSC Santa Cruz—13 week quarters with exams at the end. But no, “academic quarter” here means that when a university class is scheduled for a particular time—everyone—from the students to the professor—know that it really means it will start 15 minutes later. No one shows up on time.

I got a lot of good natured teasing about this. One woman, from Romania said that the Italians are much worse. “When you go to a meeting with them and you’re supposed to start at 10, maybe it starts at 11.

A woman from Croatia piped in. “In Slovenia and Croatia, it wouldn’t be like this. Ten is ten.”

Then they told me I had to write a blog post about it—so here it is.

And now it’s 10:20, time for class to actually begin. Our subject this morning is writing from photographs. Before the workshop, I gave the participants the following instructions, which were translated and sent out:

“Gather some old family photographs to bring in. The people in the photos can be dead or alive. If possible, include a photo of someone you’ve lost—to death, estrangement, distance or other cause. If you have pictures of yourself at younger ages, bring those, too. If each person can bring 4-10 photos, that is ideal. Physical photos are definitely preferable to digital ones, but if you only have digital ones, bring them on a device that can be passed around. If you have no access to personal photos, make a list of photos that were lost. You can also bring historical photos that represent the time or place you are exploring (pictures of the main square of your home town, for instance), pictures of the home where you grew up.”

And as I sit here writing this blog post, they’re following my instructions for different ways to use photos as writing prompts. So far, they’ve written a straight physical description of one of their photos.

Then they wrote, “What doesn’t show in this photograph? What’s not in the frame? In your memory, or your imagination, travel outside of the actual photograph and describe the setting beyond the limits of the physical picture. Describe the time, place, location or season when the photo was taken.

Right now, they’re addressing the question, “What happened right before or after this photograph was taken?”

In a few minutes, after a group debrief and our coffee break, I’ll have them do this one: “Write in the voice of a person in the photo at the time the photo was taken. Write in the first person.”

And later on, this one: “Choose a photo of someone you’ve lost…write about that person—or write a letter to that person, saying things that remain unsaid.”

And finally, “Think of a photo you wish you had. There are several ways to do this:

1. Write about an actual photo that you’ve lost, have never seen, or that is in someone else’s possession.

2. Imagine and write about a photo photo you wish had been taken, a moment you wish had been captured on film. The photograph you create in your mind’s eye could be based on a real event or on an event you wish had happened.

3. Describe a photo of something that you hope will happen in the future. See that snapshot in your mind’s eye. Describe the photo and through your description, letting us know what you cherish about that moment.”

I love the quiet in the room as women focus on their photos and their notebooks. And when they share with each other, the sound of unfamiliar language in quiet conversation as they discuss with a partner what they’re discovering. This is the joy of teaching—as true in my classroom in Santa Cruz as it is in Bali or Scotland or Peru—and now here in Serbia.

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