Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Berkeley Experiences in Three Acts

Ambassador Kounalakis with Fulbright grantees Rita Hoffmann and Maria Flamich (Embassy photo by Attila Németh)
Ambassador Kounalakis with Fulbright grantees Rita Hoffmann and Maria Flamich (Embassy photo by Attila Németh)

Staged in “the cradle of the disability rights movement,” Maria Magdolna Flamich and Maria Rita Hoffmann set the scene to capture the theatrical and dramatic sweep of their intensive learning immersion in “The Story of Gershwin and Kodály.”

As Maria sang “Then you’ll spread your wings, And you’ll take the sky,” by George Gershwin in Porgy and Bess, I realized that it would be a fitting motto of our Berkeley experience. What made me feel so? I will tell you. First, however, I should describe the inspiring scene of a relatively small group of people enjoying this famous lullaby, ”Summertime,” from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess.

It was a beautiful day. I was delighted by the warmth of the colors of the sunset as it was painting everything gold through the large windows in the living room of a Berkeley brown shingle house. I was thinking of the magic that was happening to me just then. I had no idea what the other people at the party were thinking, but I was convinced that they also enjoyed the magic that had spread in the room by then. As if in a concert hall, a curious silence accompanied the performance.

Marilynn, the warm-hearted lady of the house was playing the piano sensitively and enthusiastically. Maria, as usual, was singing with plenty of sentiment and musicality. We, the audience, were breathing together with the musicians so as not to break the magic. Sophia, the big dog was lying in the middle of the room, listening attentively to the musicians while watching all of us carefully.

The home concert was Marilynn’s idea. She had fallen in love with a song by a 20th-century Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály. But how does a nice middle-aged lady in Berkeley, California come across a 20th-century Hungarian composer? How can she discover the beauty of a different culture?  And what inspired her to share her feelings and house generously with a lot of people, most of whom were unknown to her?

That is what I would like to tell you from the very beginning. For the story, just like the quoted lullaby, is more than special to us. It is about a lot of wonderful people, who every minute of their lives make the world a fabulous place to live. They made our time in California a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Act One

Scene One

This story starts in Hungary with Maria Flamich and me, Rita Hoffmann. As blind teachers of English as a foreign language, we often confront the difficulties blind students and their teachers experience in mainstream education. So we decided to bridge the deep gap, the existence of which is hardly ever declared officially, and assist the teachers and their disabled students to understand one other.

We thought we could do so both on the basis of our own lived experience and on that of literature. We strongly believe that the first step is that people in general should clarify their own relation to disability as well as persons with disabilities. We also believe that disability as a topic should not be restricted or limited to special education; that is where literature or literary representations of disability could come into the picture to help.

That was what we had in mind when we applied for a Fulbright scholarship. We intended to find a place where that philosophy is present and its influence could be experienced and brought back home. Obviously, what comes to one’s mind first is Berkeley, California, the cradle of the disability rights movement.

That is how we found Professor Georgina Kleege, a well-known writer, and an acknowledged scholar in the field of Disability Studies, at the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley. She was the first among the very few people who immediately understood our goal: to let people talk about (or get rid of?) their fears and reveal their thoughts and misunderstandings of people with disabilities.

“Georgina understood that literature is a perfect device to help people understand, accept and respect otherness. For without knowing, accepting and respecting otherness, an inclusive society is hardly ever achievable.”

She believed in us. Thanks to her, and the generous support of the Hungarian Fulbright Commission, we could start our five-month stay and research at the fabulous libraries and the very supportive English department of UC Berkeley.

Scene Two

We were very much looking forward to meeting Georgina. It is always a very inspiring and encouraging feeling to get to know people from another culture and, of course, it has a special ”taste” if they are disabled.

Similarly to us, Georgina is blind, which meant that we did not have to explain basic, obvious things, concepts or difficulties. She just knew what we were thinking of or aiming at.

”Disability Memoir” was one of Georgina’s classes that we could audit at the English Department. Disability memoir! Something we had never heard of before. Of course, we knew the term ”memoir,” but ”disability memoir”? This term, or literary concept, as a university subject was quite new to us. So we were really interested in auditing the classes.

Why? Firstly, the term ”disability memoir,” to the best of our knowledge, has never been applied in the Hungarian literary terminology. Moreover, as of today, literary works by disabled authors as a university subject have never been taught in Hungary.

Secondly, the motives of Georgina’s class seemed to be based on a similar viewpoint to ours: to deal with the concept of disability and its multi-faceted appearance in the world from the disabled person’s point of view to highlight the unknown values the disabled possess.

Previously, of course, we too, had read some books and essays by disabled authors and we had thought of building some of these literary pieces into the system of higher education in Hungary. So we liked and welcomed the idea of analyzing them from the aspect of disability as ”lived experience,” especially for the purpose of teaching people to manage, accept and respect differences.

As we regularly audited Georgina’s classes, we saw that such a course works. We saw the process of how the objective, constructively critical and supportive attitude developed. With Georgina’s guidance, the students’ initial uncertainty turned into understanding as well as sincere acceptance.

We experienced how timidly the students started discussing and criticizing a piece and, with the help of Georgina’s encouraging and sometimes humorous attitude, how they adjusted in the course of time.  We can only hope and do our best, to make such a course work in Hungary.

“It became obvious to Maria and me, that, Georgina believes, as we both do, that people should be encouraged to talk to people with disabilities to sort out the misunderstandings people in the mainstream tend to carry and vice-versa.”

Perhaps that was one of the reasons why she supported us in surveying the students of her ”Disability Memoir” class. While auditing Georgina’s class, we experienced the changes in the students’ attitude. We thought that, with the help of a short questionnaire, we could make a survey to prove the significance of the course. We hoped our findings would convince those in the higher education system in Hungary to start a similar course.

To be even more convincing, we summarized our experiences on the significance of Georgina’s classes in an article titled: ”Magányos küzdelem – Akadálymentesítési lehetőségek a pedagógusképzésben” (”Lonely Struggle – Possible Curbcuts in Teacher Education”). The article was scheduled to appear in the November special edition on inclusion in Pedagógusképzés (Teacher Education) in Budapest, Hungary.

Act Two         

Scene One

However developed a society may be, disability does not make one’s life easy when abroad, that is for sure. People, on the other hand, certainly do make a difference. Their attitude, and their respect are things that one never forgets, and one tries to bring them back home.

What have we managed to bring back home? Here are some pieces of the millions of the examples to illustrate the attitude and respect we experienced and collected at Berkeley. Let us share them with you so as to enjoy the beauty of diversity:

On our second day in Berkeley, we were walking along Shattuck Avenue with our white canes in hands, trying to get back to campus.  It was raining heavily. Much to our disappointment, no one came to ask whether we needed some assistance.

That was more than shocking for us Europeans. We just did not understand how that could occur in the home of the disability rights movement. In such a situation there was not a single person to come to us and ask if we needed a helping hand. We could do nothing but initiate ourselves, so we asked the person closest to us.

Much to our surprise, she was more than helpful. Surely, we learned that we are the ones who have the right to decide whether we need help and, if yes, what kind. We got happily used to the fact that people in Berkeley respect our needs, requests, privacy, or whatever it is called. They do not take us to the other side of the road, unless we ask them. People in Berkeley were pleased to help us in the way and to the extent we wanted.

Scene Two

The homepage and catalogue of the university is completely accessible. That is what made a lot of things possible for us. For example, to contact and ask for the assistance of Peter Soriano, (the ”angel” of Doe/Gardner Library) or to find Professor Allen Shearer (composer and voice teacher) who was Maria’s voice teacher during our stay in Berkeley.

One of the reasons why we very much wanted to find a voice teacher was to take part in the cultural life of Berkeley, or that of the large Hungarian community. So luckily, Maria intended to carry on her voice training. That intention proved to be wise. On Katalin Voros’ request (Katalin is not only our new friend, but also the heart of the Bay Area Hungarian Community), Maria was asked to sing at the Raoul Wallenberg commemoration at Beth El Synagogue at Berkeley. She was accompanied by Mark Willson, the Director of the UC Berkeley Gospel Choir.

That remarkable performance meant a lot to us. Not only does it mean the chance of being members at the UC Berkeley Gospel Choir when we are back, but also brought financial support from a generous Hungarian entrepreneur, Tamás Jackovics, for two more months. So, thanks to him, we could stay and continue our research in the wonderfully accessible and rich libraries of UC Berkeley. That was incredible! Two more months at the libraries! Two more months on campus!

When we realized that we needed to do something to remember the tremendous readings and to take home as much material as possible, we started collecting books. As Georgina generously provided us with the class readings, we could look for similar kinds of books and articles related to the literary image of disability. We focused mainly on disability history, literary representations of disability, disability memoir, disability in the media and disability in music.

We think that all these areas illustrate very well how people with disabilities have been seen throughout centuries by any mainstream society. At the same time, it also turns out that people with disabilities reflect the world around them.

We are also convinced that with a thorough observation, examination and reconsideration of these areas, disability-related attributes and values may well be discovered, discussed, understood and rethought. The knowledge, that we can gain this way should be applied for the benefit of education. And sharing such knowledge may help society to learn to be inclusive.

Scene Three

Berkeley is the city of surprises. Perhaps that is why it is very hard to pick stories out of the flow of wonders that we experienced each day of our stay in California.

One such an unbelievable story is about sunset. Maria had always dreamed about seeing the sun setting down to the Pacific Ocean. Some very good friends, Tibor Kozek and his family took the time and effort to drive us to Muir Beach and explain the sight of the setting sun;  it turns into an orange, then a small lemon when it finally falls into the water. These people understood that blindness does not mean ”darkness.”

Act Three

Scene One

The knowledge or acceptance of people with disabilities could well be experienced in the everyday life of the city of Berkeley, where mainstreaming is, of course, the policy which educators seem to prefer. We were also interested to know what kind of atmosphere characterizes the ”special environment” (i.e. the school for the blind).

We took the initiative and contacted Professor Stuart Wittenstein, the director of the California School for the Blind in Fremont. Before leaving the United States, we managed to visit the school. It was Stuart, the devoted director himself, who guided us through the campus. The way he spoke about his colleagues and his work showed the great respect, consistency, understanding and humanity he feels for their students and for all the staff.  We will always remember what we experienced there as it was something very important – something we call dignity.

Scene Two

We could go on with such stories forever and a day. We have a special story of a special Friday afternoon when we made friends (at first sight) with Bryan Bashin, the wonderful and humble director of the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. And the story of the following Saturday morning when the three of us managed to change the world for a few hours in his North Berkeley garden.

We can hardly talk about how much we felt at home in Berkeley when we listened to Hannah Ginsborg, the professor of philosophy, playing Mozart in our room on an instrument that our new friends the Kozeks lent us. Or when it turned out that Professor Georgina Kleege is not only a great scholar, but also an excellent cook.

There are no words to describe how touched we were when we saw Julia Bader and George Starr, the well-known, warm-hearted professors, carrying our furniture to make our new home comfortable and convenient.

Or when we tasted the champagne Marilynn Rowland and her husband David opened to greet András Csáki (an exceptional Hungarian classical guitarist) because he is our friend.

Or when we learned that Maria was invited to perform together with the UC Berkeley Alumni Choir at a concert in Central Europe in the spring.

Or each time when we sit down by the computer here in Budapest and feel the Braille dots of the new, very light, modern, elegant, and of course, very expensive but very practical braille display the Hungarian Community gave us with Katalin’s tremendous effort and help. It is really hard to decide which ones to pick.

What Maria and I would like to do is to tell everyone the stories one by one to remember all the moments and all the people who made the new world an exceptional place for us to live. But, as it is impossible, let me finish with the one I referred to when I started my summary. The story of Gershwin and Kodály.

Scene Three  

One spring day we were walking towards the old Berkeley house on Hillegass and concentrated hard to find the number where Marilynn, Maria’s would-be pianist lived. Although we could not see any numbers, outside a house, we heard dogs barking loudly. No way, we thought, it cannot be the house we are to enter! Yes, it was!

Two dogs – Sophia and Hetty – and a nice middle-aged lady, Marilynn greeted us. We started talking about music, and the possible future appointments. We just did not dare to say that if dogs were present, we wouldn’t be coming, for we were very much afraid of dogs. After a short while, the dogs were asked to leave the room, and Maria started singing. The question whether to meet or not seemed to be sorted out. It was obvious that we should meet and play music together.

One day, we asked Marilynn for an American piece and then she proposed ”Summertime.” As she did not accept any money for accompanying Maria, we thought to give Marilynn a present: the song of ”Nausikaa” by Kodály.  Marilynn started playing its piano part with curious eyes and ears. Love at first sight!

When we saw each other some days later, she played it with a special delight. The next time, we met Marilynn, she came up with the idea of giving a home concert for our Hungarian and American friends to show that we are not on our own in this distant part of the world. And to introduce to her friends, the sad, melancholic, deep feelings of the Central European people throughout the music of Kodály, whom she had not known earlier, but enjoyed. She wanted to share her latest musical discovery with musicians, writers, rabbis, black and white, yellow and bronze people from and around Berkeley.

That was the concert where Maria and the very reserved Allen Shearer performed the Duettino from Mozart’s ”Don Giovanni.”

About forty people were sitting in the living-room, watching and listening to the performers attentively. Suddenly, I had the feeling  of understanding what it means to spread the wings and take the sky. Hetty, who turned out to be a guest dog, never ever appeared again when we were in the house. Whereas Sophia always left the room elegantly during rehearsals only to come back and listen to the concert of the golden sunset of summertime.  She seemed to enjoy every minute of it. Just like each member of the audience, who for a while surely believed that with the power of music and friendship, they all could take the sky.


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