Dispatches from Finland #2: The Big Circle

I teach in Finland, but in an international school, not in the Finnish system. As a long-time resident and frequent visitor to Finnish schools, I have a few insights into the Finnish education, um phenomenon? miracle? Whatever.

During the summer in Helsinki, we spend most of our mornings at the local city park, where friendly staff members organize activities and make bikes available for the kids to ride. There are usually around fifty families at our park when the weather is nice. At noon, a bell rings and we all walk to the lawn and stand in a big circle. It's time for lunch, which the city provides for free for all children -- not just poor children with the proper papers, but anyone who shows up with a bowl. (They have some loaner bowls if you forget.)

When I look around the circle, I see immigrant parents from a dozen countries, a newscaster from the national service, a member of parliament, a professional hockey player, an olympic marathon runner, and a former cabinet member. The city believes all kids should have a free lunch even during the summer, and the community turns out for the free lunch.

Many of the parents are stay-at-home-mothers and come to the park all year, taking up to three years of nationally mandated maternity leave. Some are stay-at-home-fathers, who can take one of those years of leave in place of the mother. But during the summer, most parents there are on their holiday: most Finns get 4-5 weeks of vacation time a year, and lots of offices and shops shut down or run on minimum staffs for the month of July.

So anyway, we stand in a circle and sing a little song with hand motions. Then they blindfold a kid, spin her around, and wherever she points is the beginning of the line. The two halves of the circle become the line, and all the kids get their lunch, usually soup, pasta or risotto. (It's usually very tasty -- my boys often go back for seconds.) The staff brings out buckets for washing up, the kids get back to playing and the parents get back to chatting.

I was reading about education in Finland the other day, and the writer was claiming that Finland is not so exceptional that its educational system couldn't be used as a model. And in some ways, I agree. However, it's worth pointing out that the educational system does exist in a larger political and social environment.

In Finland, public services aren't charity for the deserving poor: they are services for the public. Some of those services are better and more efficient than others, and I'm sure that the services vary by social class and region to some extent, but people of all social classes use them. 

As a case in point: there is only one private school in the entire country (where I work), and it is an international school with relatively few Finns. The children of most of the wealthiest and most influential Finns go to state-run schools. 

That probably has an effect on the educational system.


bookpost: my first Harry Potter experience

No, I haven't been living in a cave. When the first book came out and was all the rage, I was a grad student and had no time to read for pleasure. As the subsequent books piled up, and got longer and longer, it seemed like the time commitment wouldn't be worth it. I didn't see the movies because, well, I'm a grown man who hasn't read the books, so they held no interest for me.

I mentioned this to a former student, and she was shocked. 'How can you teach English and not have read the one book most of your students have read?' she asked. It's a good point, and I admitted as much.

A few days later, I got an envelope in the post with her collection of the audiobooks on cds read by Stephen Fry. So I listened to Philosopher's Stone.

First, I'm not a huge user of audiobooks, but Fry is amazing. If you haven't heard this, I recommend it wholeheartedly. It's not so much a reading as a performance. Astounding.

The story itself is very well crafted and really, really fun. I didn't love the way the end was set up -- it seemed a bit ponderous, with the challenges matching the characters, but fair enough. The characters are excellent and the action just rolls along, building suspense and using the plot devices effectively. The style of the writing veers into cliche too often for my taste, although the action is well written. I could easily imagine the Quidditch matches, for instance. It reminds me very much of the Narnia books and Roald Dahl stories in its tone and style.

What struck me was how obsessively English it is, and how Rowling presents Hogwarts and the wizard world generally as a romanticized premodern England. The feasts, for instance, made me laugh out loud. While this smacks of a certain conservatism, the wizard world is anarchic and anti-logical, especially compared to the ultra-rational world of The Dursleys. Rowling seems to be rejecting the rationalism of the Enlightenment, taken to its extreme in Victorian England, for a more imaginative and honor-based world. In that way, it fits into a fine tradition, going back to Hamlet.

I can see why this is so popular: like the Star Wars franchise, Rowling gives us a classic hero's journey in a fresh setting, with fun jokes and relatable characters. I enjoyed it myself, and I will be listening to the other novels as I go along, and I might watch the films as well.


bookpost: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

This collection of short stories was made for me. I love short stories, and I have a special appreciation for stories of the troubled male psyche.

These are magnificent. Tower is a writer who magically says so much with so few words. I was amazed by the characterization, feeling like I had read a novel instead of ten pages of a story based on my interaction with the characters. The stories present a world where destruction and violence are possible and even likely, and individual men and women need to find their way of coping with it. Tower focuses on the margins, not the mainstream. There are no easy answers here: people are sometimes coping but generally not thriving.

Honestly, this is the best thing I've read this year.

If you want a taste, here's a short animation of one of the stories.


bookpost: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

A woman discovers, after her father's death, that he was not her father. The mother who abandoned the family when she was a teenager has a secret past, and she decides to find out who she really is. That journey takes her to Lapland, in northern Scandinavia, and a whole series of discoveries and shifts in perception.

First of all, it's fun to read a novel set in places where I've spent time. Not only have I been to Lapland and Helsinki, but also Rhinebeck, NY, where the protagonist grew up. The description of Inari is spot-on, and I only spotted one error: she describes a dubbed Italian movie on Finnish TV, and the Finns never dub, only subtitle. But whatever.

I enjoyed this greatly. First of all, it's fun to read a novel set in places where I've spent time. Not only have I been to Lapland and Helsinki, but also Rhinebeck, NY, where the protagonist grew up. Additionally, the characters are well-crafted, and the protagonist's narrative voice is coherent and compelling. The pacing is fantastic -- it's a short novel, and it's a good example of why I prefer short novels. I would describe it as crisp, matching the emotional state of the protagonist. Thematically, it works well, too, explaining why a person would choose to recreate herself and walk away from her past. My only issue was with the ending -- it was a little too clean and happy for the context of the novel -- but otherwise I strongly recommend Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.


bookpost: The Wonder Book of the Air by by Cynthia Shearer

Shearer's novel starts incredibly strong, following a shoeshine boy in 1930s rural Georgia who develops hopes and dreams through an eccentric uncle and in spite of the Great Depression and a dysfunctional family. It becomes a saga of his family, each chapter told from a different point of view. As we follow him through his early years and military career before World War 2 really begins, it is fresh and lively.

Then it turns dark. He becomes abusive and his wife becomes a neglectful victim. Basically the rest of the novel is about people with failed romantic lives, and the point seems to be to cast doubt on the efficacy of love. All of the men find their lives empty and tend toward unfaithfulness while the women feel trapped and resent their children. At some point, a character spells out what seems to be the author's point: that a family will make men and women unhappy, so better to see the whole thing as a social function and not to expect happiness from it.

I'm generally sympathetic toward novels with these themes, but the darkness and bitterness seemed ham-fisted and unconvincing. Most of the characters fall into stereotypes of their gender roles, or the author's concept of their gender roles, and so I found their plights uninteresting. The early chapters offered so much promise, but then the book faded into a sort of polemic. Some of the later chapters were OK as well, especially the ones involving the protagonist's granddaughter. But the chapters are maybe better read as independent stories without the need to develop a substantial arc.


bookpost: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Purge is a great novel. It tells the story of two women, an old woman who has lived through the Soviet occupation of Estonia and a young woman attempting to escape sexual slavery. Their stories are about survival, specifically for women in systems that oppress them and abuse their sexuality. The characterization, historical and physical setting, pacing and structure are all top-notch. An interesting and thoughtful read.