A thought from the classroom

March 15, 2010

A thought from the classroom…

Nearly every year, from the time I was a graduate student studying Spanish literature, I have taught at least one course devoted to the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. With each passing academic term I seem ever more concerned that I will not be able to illuminate for my students (many of them born in the 1980s!)—or make them care about—a short-lived war that pitted the forces of reaction against progressive democracy. When presenting my students to the poetry of Lorca and Hernández, the speeches of La Pasionaria, images of the intensely colored propaganda posters that plastered the walls of Spanish cities, and the text of the Republican constitution, my enthusiasm spills over and I look into their faces and wonder: “am I making real for them the connections between the idealist projects of the 1930s and their activist goals of the new millennium?”

Inevitably at a moment of professorial discouragement, when I am certain that the next text message on their cell phones appears infinitely more compelling than, for example, documentary footage of rows of skeletons uncovered in Franco’s mass graves, some small story of a single student’s cross-generational connection to the Spanish Civil War reaches across the pedagogical pavement that separates “history” from “today.” This spring alone brought two such exceptional, marvelous crossings.

About three weeks ago I received an email from a musician named Dan Srebnick. Dan had been my Spanish student in 1993 when I was a second-year MA student at Columbia University in New York. The first lines of his email said:

Hi Gina-

I hope you remember me from your Columbia graduate school days teaching freshman Spanish. I came across your name in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade newsletter which my parents receive (my father’s mother was a member) and thought I’d say hi and tell you of the connection.

No wonder Dan was such an excellent student, I thought, what a good pedigree!

Our correspondence continued, and Dan wrote:

My grandfather didn’t fight with the Lincolns and I’m embarrassed to admit that I know very little about my Grandmother’s connection to the ALBA. She, as were all my grandparents, was a big supporter of the communist party and I have a feeling that her involvement with the ALBA was more in terms of support than anything else.

Emails went back and forth, and Dan reveals that not only did he cut his teeth on Paul Robeson but that “one of my grandparents’ best friends, Joe Klineman, fought and died with the Lincolns. My father donated their letters a few years ago.” And he signs off: “Can’t wait for May to arrive, so much snow here.”

Dan’s solicitation of spring stirred in me the idea that ALBA’s annual reunion exhorts from us a renewal of vows, a return to a promise to commemorate the hope, bravery, patriotism, and active outrage at social injustice embodied in the Lincoln vets.

Not long after Dan and I reconnected, I received another astonishing email from a young woman who is currently my student in a lecture course on contemporary Spanish literature at the University of Oregon. Budgetary realities have led to the creation of a number of unfortunate “large format” Spanish classes, and I am lucky if I get to know well even ten of my some seventy students. So when I saw the following email from Phoebe, I was uncertain if I could picture her face:

Professora Herrmann,

Aqui estan unos caprichos que mi mama ha pintado de unas figuras de la guerra civil- pensaba que le los encontraria interesantes.


Gracias, que tenga buen fin de semana y todo-

-Phoebe Moriarty Lev

In English: “Here are some sketches my mama painted of famous figures of the Spanish Civil War—I thought you might find them interesting.”

I invite you to explore Viola Moriarty’s sketches, images that Phoebe’s mama created, thus infusing the history of the Spanish Civil War with color for her daughter long before Phoebe was subjected to my power-point presentations on the reforms of the Second Republic.

Another spring, two years ago now, Peter Carroll beseeched the crowds gathered to dedicate the San Francisco Embarcadero monument:

As a commemorative body, we must not preach only to the choir.  An active transmission of memory requires. . .a broadening of the ‘we’,” it has been written. The “we” who must “remember” has to be broadened. More people must feel that urgency, that desire, that commitment, those ideas that have defined this community for over 70 years.

These virtual conversations with Phoebe and Dan reassure me that “we” have stretched our influence, that our own May renewal, the ritual of remembering the Lincolns at the ALBA celebration, does in fact germinate running rhizome systems that spread underground, springing up in new and surprising places.