Learning to See: The Little School

Little SchoolThis week, we read The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival with our students in the Casa program (as part of our ‘contemplatives in action’ course). It is Alicia Partnoy’s beautiful, heartbreaking memoir of her time in La Escuelita–one of the infamous detention centers used by the Argentine dictatorship to hold and torture those deemed to be ‘subversives’ or ‘enemies of the state.’ Alicia is a colleague of ours at Loyola Marymount University, a native Argentinian and a strong supporter of our new Casa program in Córdoba. She is also one of the ‘disappeared,’ one of those who survived. And she has written what has become recognized as one of earliest and most important accounts of that experience to emerge. Jennifer Abe, one of our faculty co-directors in the program, has been using The Little School in her  LMU classes during the past several years, often inviting Alicia to speak to her students about her experience. Every time, students are shaken by the sheer force of Alicia’s account, by the realization that such things are still happening in our world (Abu Graib, to mention only one of the most awful recent cases in the history of the United States), and that they themselves are being invited to reckon with and respond to this reality. Yesterday was no different. Except in one important respect: we all felt the power of reading The Little School here in Argentina. One of the questions we have carried with us as we planned for and then embarked upon this new Casa program is how we would engage this particular period of Argentina’s history.  Of course, the history of Argentina cannot and should not be reduced to those terrible years between 1976 and 1983. And during our time here in Argentina, we are making an effort to understand and enter into and respond to the entire life and history and culture of this place. Still, the events of those years, during which many, many thousands of Argentines were killed or disappeared (almost 30,000 persons between 1976 and 1979–the worst years of military rule), have a particular claim on our attention. And, thanks to Alicia Partnoy’s courageous memoir, we have been given one way to begin engaging those events seriously and thoughtfully. I want to focus my attention here on the work of the students in engaging Alicia’s work, for that is where the life of this program can be seen most clearly. Yesterday, students were invited to read aloud from and comment on a passage of the book that had captured their attention or moved them. One by one they did so, each of them giving voice to a particular moment in the memoir that, for them, proved unforgettable. It was really something to hear Alicia’s text given ‘voice’ in this way, through a multitude of voices, each one distinct, each one giving expression to the text in a slightly different way. Earlier, we had listened to a recording of Alicia herself reading aloud from her book, en español. That was also beautiful to hear, the musicality of her voice bringing the text to life in a way that only she could do. Still, here were our students, inhabiting the text in a way that only they could do. And I felt a growing sense of amazement as we moved around the circle, each student reading in turn, each one of them allowing the work to flow through them, out into the world. The life of the text taken up into and extended through the imaginative life of its readers–in this case, this little band of students in the Casa de la Mateada program in Córdoba, Argentina. This communal reading of the text also contained many silences, as we struggled to take in and respond to the immensity of what we were hearing. And the students’ comments and observations were also encircled by much silence, as they paused to search for words to express what they felt and thought: a searching out of language to express what could not, perhaps, be fully expressed. The hesitations were, I think, born of genuine humility, rooted in our shared sense of the power and honesty of Alicia’s witness. We wanted to honor her testimony by taking care with our own responses, by speaking as honestly and truthfully of what is in us. And by acknowledging the real limits of our capacity to understand, enter into and grasp what we were reading and hearing. Such humility is necessary, I think, to all genuine learning. Yet it is also important to recognize the changes that can occur as a result of one’s encounter with such a work, and the new understanding that can emerge. It is still too early to say all that happened to us from our reading of The Little School. But one thing seems clear: we cannot look at the world in quite the same way as we did before. Indeed, the book is, among other things, a sharp reminder of the importance of learning to look more carefully at the world, of learning to see. Of not being afraid to look, or to see. Every page of Alicia’s book contains images of La Escuelita: things she was not supposed to see through her blindfold but which she did see because of a tiny, imperceptible opening: the plastic sandals with one daisy, the blood on the tiles, the scraps of bread placed between her toes and passed to another prisoner, the path to the latrine. These is a dark humor to this. It is her nose, the size and shape of which she has long struggled with, that gives her access to the world: “My nose allows me to see. No I haven’t suddenly become metaphoric. Indeed, it’s thanks to my noise that I can see. What happens is that its shape keeps my blindfold slightly lifted. Portions of the world parade before these small slits.” “I crouched above the latrine and I saw–from under my blindfold–Pato’s tennis shoes. He was watching me. I also saw my dark red dress, and I tried to cover my legs with it. I spotted my slipper with its plastic daisy on the dirty floor caked with urine and excrement. There was a nice breeze, and if I didn’t have my nose facing the latrine I would have breathed deeply. Birds sang and I heard the sound of a train.”  Ordinary moments in a day, degradation mixed with surprising beauty. She lets all of it stand, witnessing to her experience of this place. But she also strains to see (and describes) what cannot be seen with eyes alone: her own fear and anxiety, the courage and simple kindness of her fellow prisoners, the unrelenting cruelty of her guards, the alternating feelings of utter despondency and unexpected hope. And she acknowledges, in one one of the most haunting passages of the book, what she can no longer see at all (but so longs to see): the face of her daughter. Even the memory of it has been lost to her in that terrible place. Learning to see. In The Little School, this becomes an essential moral task, a way of affirming that one is still alive, still human, especially in the face of the most aggressive efforts to destroy all traces of that humanity, to reduce human beings to something expendable.  In this context, the work of seeing, and bearing witness to what one sees, becomes a fundamental responsibility that one is called to fulfill–not only for one’s own sake but also for the sake of all those who cannot speak or bear witness themselves. I am beginning to understand such seeing as one crucial expression of contemplative practice–something that is at the heart of our work in the Casa program and which has always been central to the Ignatian spiritual tradition. To seek to become what Jerome Nadal (an early companion of Ignatius of Loyola) described as a ‘contemplative in action’ means opening oneself deeply to the work of seeing and bearing witness to reality as it presents itself. Not turning away or hiding from that reality, but seeking to behold as carefully and fully as we can the whole mysterious reality of the world unfolding before us. In all its beauty and yes, its unspeakable horror. Reading Alicia’s book with our students yesterday, I found myself recalling another faithful witness who has become important to me: the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. In one of his essays, Milosz reflects on his own understanding of what it means to see: “‘To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. ‘To see and describe’ may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved thanks to the mystery of time must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were by wrestling the past from fictions and legends.” This, it seems to me, is a wonderful comment on precisely the kind of seeing that one encounters on nearly every page of  The Little School. It is a way of seeing that we ourselves are called to emulate, in the life of this program, and in our lives more generally. We have only begun to embark on this work together here. But I feel so encouraged–by Alicia’s work and by our students’ open-hearted response to it–about the prospect of learning, little by little, to give ourselves over to this important work here in Argentina.

Douglas E. Christie, Ph.D., Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada

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