Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Few Things, Lost In Space

You learn a lot as a teacher. Over the years, I certainly have.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering journey into outer space. I'm relieved that my daughters know this landmark voyage was made by a Soviet; a handful of their peers assume that the first person in space must have been an American.

So did half a dozen of my students, when I taught refugees at a retraining center in San Francisco. On the last day of class, we played a modified game of Trivial Pursuit, and this was one of the questions: What nationality was the first person in space? A man from Guatemala raised his hand to speak, but he was interrupted by a young Vietnamese woman. "American!" she called out, beaming. The Guatemalan frowned, but he nodded. "American," he agreed. "Americans first in everything."

I had the book, so I knew they were wrong. The awful truth is, I'd completely forgotten that the first person in space was Russian.

This class was mainly Chinese, Indochinese, and Hispanic, but as it happened, there were also three refugees from the U.S.S.R. Before I could open my mouth to correct their classmates, they all started talking at once, spluttering in indignation. "Not American, Soviet!" they protested. "Yuri Gagarin, 1961!"

"Not American?" the girl from Vietnam said, tilting her head. "I think American. Americans go to moon."

The former Soviets assured her that she was wrong. I confirmed what they said and blushed to imagine how embarrassed I'd have been if I hadn't had the answer.

Today, I read an article about Gagarin in the Guardian. His daughter mentions that he enjoyed literature and, like almost all Russians, was familiar with Pushkin, widely considered the Shakespeare of Russian literature.

When I was in Cyprus, I had a few classes with Nigerian students. During one break, the subject of literature came up. I had just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, and was surprised to find that many of my Nigerian students had never heard of it. Then we got to talking about poetry and somebody mentioned Pushkin. "He was part African," one of the Nigerians said, "like Obama." (Obama had just been elected president in America, delighting and impressing every single African student on campus, and dominating most conversations.) "Pushkin's great-grandfather was kidnapped from North Africa and he was sold," my student went on. "He was taken to Russia, to live in the palace."

This sounded pretty far-fetched to me, so I looked it up. When I googled Pushkin, I found that his African genealogy is well known and well documented. In fact, his great-grandfather's life story is so incredible, fiction could hardly do it justice. Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, was abducted from Africa, sold to a sultan in Istanbul, then passed on to the Russian court, where he quickly became a favorite and was made a page. Russia's Shakespeare was indeed the great-grandson of a kidnapped African greatly prized by the Russian tsar. How did I manage to miss this? As a child, I watched Bill Cosby's Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, and if he ever mentioned Pushkin, I never picked it up.

I like to think about Yuri Gagarin, floating up there in space, reciting Pushkin to himself. His daughter says that he loved learning new things too.

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21 comments:

Robin said...

Ok. Those are super cool facts. It makes me want to buy history books and read them. Yet I know, when I peruse Amazon, I'll get distracted and just end up with another vampire sex story. Did Pushkin have vampire sex? If so, I'm there.

MG Higgins said...

That's fascinating! I doubt Pushkin's heritage is a widely known fact. Also fascinating are the variety of students you've taught and where you've taught them. You've been everywhere!

Franziska said...

Half of a Yellow Sun! Mary, our bookshelves must look identical.

Off to find a well-written Pushkin biography...

Bish Denham said...

Wow! Now that's some very interesting information about Pushkin! And I knew abut Yuri Gagarin because my father made us so aware of the whole space race and Sputnik.

anna said...

Oooh I'd be embarrassed to admit how much I learned from reading this post. It's fascinating stuff isn't it!

Atlanta Roofing said...

It is not yet obvious that there are things we can do in space better by sending people up there than by sending up only our machines. So far, the only thing that human spaceflight is uniquely capable of doing is demonstrating the possibilities of human spaceflight. But there is sufficient interest, and thus sufficient political and economic support, that we will continue to send up modest numbers of space travellers in Yuri Gagarin's footsteps. Over time we may find new reasons to send up people in more than modest numbers.

Carole said...

I think one of the best things about reading is learning these kinds of things. There have been and always will be history that we stumble upon and go "Wow." I like it.

emilydreams said...

That's fascinating, never knew about Pushkin's ancestry. I always learn something from your posts, Mary - you write so well about such interesting things!

Charles Gramlich said...

THat was such a thrilling time, the first person in space. All things seemed possible

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I doubt that Pushkin was involved in vampire sex, but he died in a duel, defending his wife's honor -- just as good as vampire sex, and possibly even better. Definitely check out a history book!

MG -- I'm glad that the comments here haven't been, "Oh, I knew that" -- it makes me feel less ignorant.

I wish I HAD been everywhere; if I had, then I could settle down. But I've definitely taught students from all over. Every time I get a student from a new country, I proudly note it down. It's a way to travel vicariously.

Franziska -- I'll bet we've got a lot of titles in common. I was astonished that more Nigerians hadn't heard about Half of a Yellow Sun, but glad that at least one could tell me about Pushkin.

Here's a great link I found about Pushkin and his great-grandfather: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/13/opinion/13iht-edschmemann.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss The most incredible thing is that he was acquired by the Russian ambassador, Peter Tolstoy, great-grandfather of Leo. You couldn't make up anything that good!

Bish -- I have a vague memory of hearing about Gagarin's space flight, and the intense rivalry between the USSR and the US at the time, but when I first saw this question, I immediately thought 'American'. Shameful, but true.

The more I find out about Pushkin, the more I want to read everything he wrote.

Anna -- Confess away! When I started writing this post, I was tempted to cover up my ignorance. But surely hiding ignorance is worse than confessing to it. The older I get, the more I'm amazed by all the stuff I don't know -- and the more determined I am to whittle away at the giant mountain of what I don't know.

AR -- I wonder if I'll live long enough to see groups of people emigrating to space, or if I don't, if my children will. It will be interesting to see, won't it? I just hope we won't HAVE to leave the earth because we've made it so inhabitable.

Carole -- I agree. You can look up half a dozen classical composers, authors, or poets, and find that they've had the most amazing life stories. The history of a city like New York, or even a modest-sized town in the Midwest yields a treasure trove of fascinating stories. Reading fiction or non-fiction is an endless source of entertainment (unless you're stuck editing stuff about intellectual property rights or accounting theory...).

Emily -- Thank you for saying that. I go over my posts and always feel I could have done better, but my inner teacher is thrilled to know that people read my posts and learn things from them.

Charles -- For some reason, space travel didn't thrill me as much as it did some of my friends, but I loved the idea of weightlessness, and I devoured the Space Cat book series. I had dreams of taking my cats to space.

Girl Friday said...

Wow, that's totally fascinating about Pushkin's great-grandfather - and a Tolstoy connection too. Amazing. *starts plotting book*

Robert the Skeptic said...

And today our NASA shuttle program has expired and the US has no replacement program even in the planning stages. We will now depend on the continuing Russian rocket program to keep the Space Station manned, equipped and supplied.

Marcia said...

Ah, I so remember growing up with the "space race." My mother always got McCall's magazine, and there were Betsy McCall paper dolls in it most months. But one time the paper doll was Laika the Russian space dog. She went up before any people did. She was quite the hero dog for a while. :)

prasad said...

Russia faced so many difficulties to reach this position. If Russia didn't split in different countries no doubt it is the world's most powerful country. Russia come to this position with their (own) men power but America come to its position with different countries people effort so Russia is the greatest country like India.

Mary Witzl said...

Girl Friday -- The fact that the ancestors of Tolstoy and Pushkin were connected this way in history is just incredible, isn't it? And yes, it would make a great story. I'd love to read about Petrovich Gannibal and his first impressions of Russia.

Robert -- Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a shared space program, where Russian and American scientists, among others, could pool their resources and brain power? (Do I sound like a head-in-the-stars idealist or what?)

Marcia -- I remember Laika the space dog! We were so busy with the arms race back then that we couldn't applaud anything Russian. But I do believe that Laika the space dog was an exception.

Sigh...I remember McCall's Magazine, and also Life, and Look.

Prasad -- While I agree that much was sacrificed to make Gagarin the first man in space, remember that it was the USSR back then, and as such, a republic with many diverse peoples, similar to the U.S. (India too has people from different backgrounds and religions, who speak different languages.) If you consider the fact that even Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet and writer, was of mixed ethnicity, Russia does not seem like the totally homogeneous nation many people assume it is. I've had Russian students of mixed backgrounds who looked completely Asian, but considered themselves Russian.

Russians have borne so much hardship for so long; I certainly admire their spirit and forbearance. I see their ability to cope so well given limited resources as more indicative of their potential greatness than their relative homogeneity.

planetnomad said...

So cool! I knew about Yuri but not about Ibrahim.

Medeia Sharif said...

I learned something today about Gagarin and Pushkin. :) I enjoy these informative posts.

Catherine A. Winn said...

All of this made a fascinating and interesting post. Makes me want to study Pushkin.

Pat said...

I remember Yuri coming over as a likeable person which did a lot for Russia's battered image.

Anne Spollen said...

Wow, this post makes me think how the idea that we are all connected in more ways than we realize is so very true.

I knew about the Russian/Sputnik cosmonauts because I had a friend from Moscow. But not about Pushkin - I wish all history could be made this interesting, Mary!

Stella said...

A few years ago we had a young portrait model 18 or 19 tops. She was Russian and had lovely features. As we sat drawing her, she told us that her uncle had been Yuri Gagarin and that he'd been the first man to go into space. I'd forgotten that piece of history.