I’ve always had trouble learning about history and politics. Or, I should say, I have trouble retaining what I learn. The three things that have aided in this are narrativity, experience, and relationship.
Like many people, I am more likely to assimilate information if it is in narrative form. For example, Dave Eggers’ creative biography Zietoun taught me more about Hurricane Katrina than news coverage did. I am also more likely to learn something if I can experience it. That’s certainly not unique. There’s a slew of educational research backing the merits of experiential, hands-on learning. What helps me remember things most is a combination of these three: I have an experience in which someone I have a relationship with tells me a story. It is at the intersection of these three things that I learn something new and remember it.
To learn about Madeleine Albright, I employed the three factors. Why did I want to learn about Madeleine Albright? Because I didn’t know about her and I thought I should. When I was a teenager, I played Trivial Pursuit with my family. I drew a card about Margaret Thatcher and fumbled with the answer. My Dad (a Harvard graduate with a daughter ignorant about the stats of a prime minister!?) wore a look of shame. I felt shame for letting him down and for not knowing about Margaret Thatcher. Over fifteen years later I felt a brief burst of the same kind of shame about Madeleine Albright when her book Read My Pins was released. But in my thirties I refuse to feel shame, to fear asking. This project is in part about confronting fear and shame, about bravely asking others to teach me what I do not know.
My method worked. I remember each fact I learned about M.A. precisely because of the person who contributed that fact and my relationship to that person. The “experience” of getting the information involved asking people to share anything they knew about her, or what they thought was most important about her. The experience continued as I followed up on that research using a variety of sources, but the origin of the person’s contribution framed that research. The final component of the experience was applying new knowledge by creating something.
For each person and her contribution I have designed a t-shirt with a slogan. Beneath each t-shirt design I will tell you about the person, my relationship to him or her, and how that intersects with Madeleine Albright. Madeleine will be modeling the t-shirts, in various incarnations.
THE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT T-SHIRTS
KISS ME- I’M JEWISH?!
Susanna Lang is a poet and an educator. I taught with Susanna for several years, and worked with her on our school’s literary magazine. Susanna shared this with me:
I’ve never paid much attention to Madeleine Albright, despite her role in so many high-profile issues–I’m not sure why. I did do some research, and I find what interests me most is that this person who has studied and affected the political history of Europe so intensely would be ignorant of her own family’s history as a piece of the larger puzzle. That she didn’t know her family was Jewish, forced to convert before they were forced into exile.
I remember Susanna’s Madeleine contribution because as teaching colleagues we considered issues of culture and identity within our students’ writing. Our students confronted serious issues such as immigration, domestic abuse, and gang violence. Several times we had to decide whether it was safe or appropriate to publish a piece. It is safe to read Susanna’s new chapbook, Two by Two, which you can find at www.finishinglinepress.com.
I GET BY… WITH A LIL HELP FROM HILLARY
Rima Rantisi is a close friend of mine, a writer, blogger, and English instructor in Beirut. She shared this fact with me:
appointed by bill clinton, with a lil help from hillary
I remember Rima’s fact because Rima and I often discuss issues of gender, particularly women’s roles in the Middle East. Her blog, Crosseyed Revolutions, often broaches this subject. Rima’s contribution is short, almost fragmented, because we often communicate this way. Since we live halfway around the world, we sustain ongoing conversations through phone, email, chat, and skype. Sometimes our conversations are long and detailed. Sometimes we exchange snippets that later build to something more. Madeleine and Hillary’s relationship continued to build when Madeleine endorsed Hillary in her 2008 campaign for U.S. President. She advises her on foreign policy, just like Rima keeps me abreast of Lebanon. Am I having delusions of grandeur, or are we just like world leaders?
PURPOSE and HUMOR
John Bridges is the Assistant Dean of The Theatre School at DePaul University, where I studied playwriting as an undergraduate. John’s distinctive sense of humor forces overly dramatic students and faculty to maintain a healthy perspective. If you’re having trouble imagining theatre students bringing drama off the stage, consider that more than once “miscast” students punched and shattered the glass door on which the casting lists were posted. John shared this reflection on Madeleine:
Madeleine Albright always impressed me during her time as the U.S. Secretary of State as an exceptionally skilled politician who had a near perfect balance of commitment to purpose and a wonderful sense of humor.
I remember this reflection because John maintains that balance within a community bred to overreact. When I listened to interviews with M.A., I did enjoy her sense of humor. Read My Pins is a good example of how she likes to bring levity to politics.
YES, THEY ARE WORTH IT
The Chicago Reader credits David Meyers with starting a “DIY roasting revolution”. David runs an independent coffee roasting business in Chicago and a small organic farm in Michigan. I met David at a party where we had a serious conversation while doing ridiculous dance moves. I now buy coffee from David, and admire his work with the Latino Union, where he involves day laborers in micro-roasting. I knew he would provide some gut-wrenching information about Albright, and he did:
Her quote on 60 Minutes comes to mind first, when asked whether the sanctions on Iraq, which had caused the death of 500,000 children at that point, were worth it. She paused ever so briefly, then said, “yes, they are worth it.”
Since David told the Reader, “Pretty much everything I do comes out of anarchist activism,” I expected he might view Albright with a critical eye. His unique lens and my experience buying his radical coffee help me to remember the anecdote he shared. You too can get your Resistance Coffee; he’ll deliver it to your door.
UNCLEAR ABOUT RWANDA
Marcus is a polymath. If we lose touch for a few months, I can be sure that when we reconnect he will have a new project in the works. Marcus is or has been an engineer, real estate agent, Chicago House DJ, brewer, and probably more. Marcus and I worked together in the late nineties at an online community for kids called FreeZone. We were in charge of monitoring conversations between children around the world who had very real interactions with one another yet existed for us as text on a computer. It was our job to set parameters in order to provide a safe community. Marcus would always challenge our notions of what was or wasn’t appropriate discourse or content. He engaged us in critical conversations about race, gender, age, and economics. From Marcus I expected a dagger, and I got it:
For someone who’s family was a victim of the Holocaust, it seems odd that she was “unclear” about what was happening in Rwanda.
I can still count on Marcus to knock off my rose glasses. Sometimes that punch in the gut is what makes learning most meaningful and memorable.
OLD WORLD/NEW WORLD
Raul is a poet, librarian, and bike enthusiast. He was born in Mexico and grew up in the North Shore of Chicago where his mother was a domestic worker. Much of his poetry tells this story. I love Raul’s poetry, and I love hearing him read it aloud. When I first asked him to share about M.A., he sent me an email with links to NPR programming about her. Raul loves radio, and loves learning by listening to radio. I pushed him to synthesize what he had heard and share one fact, and this is what he provided:
Madeleine Albright: That she was born Jewish in the “old” Europe, and raised as a Catholic into the “new” world. That conversion on the part of her parents was of course political, economic and social, and very much played a part in saving their lives at that time.
I mentioned Raul’s experience immigrating and living with his mother’s employers because I think it fits with his Albright contribution. I’m not sure if he thinks it does, but the connection I formed helps me to remember what he taught me. I will also share Raul’s radio recommendations for all of you auditory learners:
READ MY PINS
Molly is the Library Assistant at Northwestern library’s multimedia center. Media passes through her hands all day. I met Molly when she was studying scenic design, and we continue to see plays together. Molly and I both have some Jewish ancestry, and it turns out part of her family history resembles Madeleine’s:
A couple of things I think are interesting about her … She didn’t learn her family was Jewish until much later in her life (her family had converted to Catholicism when she was young) – much like a part of my family. Also, the whole brooch wearing thing as indicator of her mindset/intent – I enjoyed hearing her interviewed about Read My Pins on NPR a few months ago.
The two items that Molly highlighted are the two that ended up interesting me the most as well. And it’s funny to consider them in juxtaposition. A powerful world leader is ignorant of her own ethnic background until later in life. This same world leader makes bold, intentional, and personal statements by wearing pins. After being called a serpent by Saddam Hussein, she wore a snake pin while discussing Iraq. During dragged out diplomatic discussions, she wore crabs and turtles to symbolize her frustration. Putin noticed Albright’s three monkeys pin (hear, see, speak no evil) during a discussion on Chechnya.
GOOD WILL WOMEN
Marty is my new stepdad. He and my mom got married three years ago. Marty has many of the qualities a person looks for in a stepdad: He makes me pancakes, he tries to curb his road rage when I’m in the car, and he adores my mom. I was elated by his feminist M.A. contribution:
Just off the top of my head: Madeleine Albright was a brilliant Secretary of State that successfully advanced the interests of the U.S. throughout the world by treating other countries as partners in advancing peace and prosperity to all people. She continues to be a shining example of the role women can play in fostering good will between nations and in advancing the rights of women everywhere.
Isn’t that exactly what you would want your new stepdad to teach you?
I DON’T KNOW, BUT I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT
When I asked my best friend Tim to share about Madeleine, he sent me this image. After recovering from viewing it, I asked him why? “I don’t know, but I think it’s important.” It turns out this image is from a blog devoted to rebuilding the Lebanese political system. The post accuses Albright of “exacerbating genocide”.
On his blog, Lottie + Doof, Tim writes about food in an important way. His confidence in sharing this ludicrous photo without knowing why it was important, and his dedication to empowering people in their kitchens, reminds me of Madeleine’s irreverent and intentional wearing of symbolic pins in the political arena.
Reading the Lebanese blog that Tim led me to reminds me that a person’s political agenda and personal background influences her view of Madeleine. We all wear a different t-shirt, so to speak. I intentionally selected a diverse group of people (although they lack diversity in that they are all my friends and are politically liberal), with a range of age, race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. It was interesting to consider how these markers influenced the contributions. The process of considering this made for a memorable learning experience. Finally, politics I can retain.