Monday, January 12, 2009

Clinging to Guns and Government

One thing I like about teaching English is learning so many aspects of another culture from the students. For example, last week one of my students gave an hour and a half dissertation on the history of the Berlin Wall. Time's up! At the end I was not only ein Paar Euros richer, but I had an insider's perspective on what it was like to grow up around the Berlin wall, to be rounded up as a teenager by the Stasi and driven home in a paddy wagon for "ice shoeing" (with the ever-popular "special metal ice shoes") in the dead of winter in a garden in a restricted area near the Berlin Wall. To be in this area you had to have a special pass, with very good reason to be there, but my student and his friends had neither. The image of the secret police's evil minions benignly rounding up wagons of 14-year old boys and driving them home, or calling their parents to come pick them up, is priceless.

Today we had a rather dynamic and twisty conversation about government, guns, religion, celebrity, and their respective points of intersection. Regarding the latter, his prime targets are Nicole Kidman ("'Hate' isn't a strong enough word"), Kylie Minogue ("She got better after she got cancer") and Arnold Schwarzenegger ("a joke").

I was explaining to him about the second amendment, as he had broached the topic of guns in our freewheeling dissection of our cultural differences. There's a TV show in Germany which follows German citizens emigrating to other countries, documenting their adjustment in a new land. It's a bit less prurient than, say, "Celebrity Wife Swap". Anyway, a family moves from Hamburg to Texas, and kooky hijinks ensue. The patriarch of this Deutsch clan is having some problems with the proliferation of guns in our great country. My student agrees. "I can't imagine being in a situation where my neighbor is having problems, he is crazy, he comes home one night, comes over to my flat, and he can decide if I get to live or die, because he is allowed to have this weapon."

I explain the proud American tradition of providing guns for crazy people, and the constitutional enshrinement of the right to protect life, limb and property with heavy metal. The corpses of Columbine and several mall shootings are exhumed. "And this is why, I cannot imagine someone with this mentality coming to live in Germany."

He folds his arms, smiling, fully aware of the ironies this entails. He refuses to judge our country, knowing full well the paradoxes and contradictions of our respective social systems and shared history. I look out his window at the empty, snowy lot which was once the no-go area between the two sections of the Wall. Legions of Americans romanticize the German system of socialized medicine, he says, but those same people would not countenance the vast amount of taxation which supports said system. "Every month I get my paycheck and I weep, because nearly 50 percent is taken away. Americans, they think it's so great in Germany, but they don't realize this simple fact." And now it is my place to say, that this blind spot is a reason why our country is financially in the doghouse, in part because of Bush's, and his constituents', refusal to tax. Where's the happy medium?

After class my student walks with me in the snow and ice, to see if we can find the bricks which mark the original presence of the wall. We follow them for at least two blocks in search of the metal plaques which commemorate the dead. It's a futile task, but our efforts are vindicated when we reach a certain corner. My pupil points to two large classical style apartment buildings facing each other on opposite sides of what was once the wall. He explains that people would attempt to walk tightropes between the two structures, from East to West, risking their lives. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the political fence.

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