I owe George a phone call. He called me about six months ago and I didn't call back yet. I saw a lot of him in the fall of 2005, and Matthew and I took him out to dinner around then. I already didn't like the way he looked thinner and frailer. In my memory he is the picture of robust energy, a big, stocky, even beefy man with ears that stucjk out and the thickest Brooklyn accent there is. I hate to use the words passion and vitality because they have acquired such a nauseating aura but what other words can you use to describe George's passion and vitality?
He was certainly one the sweetest most generous people I've ever known. The first class I took from him was 8th grade American history and the first thing (as I remember) he had us study was a pair of campaign speeches of Lincoln's, to show us that Lincoln's anti-slavery remarks were considerably toned down or softened or even eliminated depending on his audience. I no longer find this shocking, and I don't remember whether George's point was that Lincoln was a hypocrite, a liar, or a politician trying to get elected ( I suspect he meant all three.) And if I did not then and dont now agree with him on the first two points, the third is undeniable and instantly changes the 8th-grade god Abraham Lincoln into a human being who really lived and equivocated and managed the circumstances and controversies of his time just as people have always done up to the present moment. I suspect George was trying to puncture the myth of Lincoln but the better thing he did was vividly show Lincoln as a man running for office - which allowed us to learn about him as a man of his time and not a mythical personification of virtue and goodness. This amazingly effective instantaneous humanizing for a bunch of 13-14 year olds of a revered icon got you thinking of history and politics now in terms of men and women with minds and emotions, what they thought and what they did and what they said, and for me at least, has been the basis of my thinking about history and current events of which I know nothing personally, ever since.
He loved to show you how supposedly great men were actually scheming hustling and selfish , but he had his own naive love and faith in figures that tended more toward his own socialist philosophy. I recently had a conversation with a very famous very brilliant woman in her 60s or thereabouts, who contended that Lincoln was a liar and didn't care about slavery and made no bones about it. I had a long argument with her that this was not in my opinion the case - and after an hour or so of friendly arguing I said You're just mad because he didn't turn out to be what they told you when you were five, and she said Yes! And I said that's not his fault and doesnt make him a fraud - the point of the story being that when I was 14 my history teacher had already driven it home to me that no great public figure is what he's made out to be to little kids (and many grownups), and that my whole adult life it never occurred to me to idolize anybody I didn't know or then condemn them for being less than an idol - because I learned history from George.
I know this is long but why not? You don't lose George Kirchsner every day. The other, equally important, simple lesson he taught us - and whether this was from 8th or 11th grade American history I don't remember. Nor do I remember the specific example he used; but he hammered and hammered at the point that when you read a book of history, of politics, of reportage, you should know something about the author, the times he lived in, and his point of view: In short, "What is the FRAME OF REFERENCE?" What is the frame of reference of the person writing the book?
There's an old tag that says historians always reveal more about the time in which they are writing than the time they are writing about. But again, this simple guide has proved infallible to me, and I'm sure to others, my entire adult life. History is not just about real people, it is WRITTEN by real people. So I am horrified and shocked when my college age niece quotes a hard-and-fast fact that she knows because she read it in a book. It is obvious after a while, listening to anyone, kid or adult, expound on any subject (particular subjects they have no personal knowledge of) that there opinions are largely fashioned by their personal likes, dislikes, and upbringing, and much less so by their experience with the subject at hand, or whatever gift of insight they might have. I don't see how it could be any other way, and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, but it's certainly the truth, and very handy to remember when you're trying to learn anything or read anything or think about anything for the first, second, or millionth time.
Knowing George's frame of reference made me temper in my mind many of the things he taught me, many of the things he thought. But he's the one who introduced me to that idea and without that idea always in your mind
I don't see how you can even read a book and have a full sense of what you're reading.
But I have to say that even more than as a teacher I loved George when he was off-duty telling stories about his life.
He told us stories about his days in the Navy, about the ice-man delivering ice to his apartment when he was a kid, about being part of an impromptu bodyguard of men to protect Paul Robeson after he had received death threats before giving an outdoor concert. I liked his story about having been without sleep for two days during the war, as his ship was crossing the mediterranean, and falling asleep on duty during a German air attack, the story ending with something like this: "Then later on I heard everybody saying "George has nerves of steel. He slept through the whole attack with bombs going off right over his head. But I didn't have nerves of steel, I was just so Goddamn tired I couldn't keep my eyes open."
I loved his partial deafness because I loved it when he would miss something and then turn and yell "WAT?"
I loved his high pitched voice when he said things like "Think about the implications of what you're SAYING." with the "saying" rising up into the upper octaves. I loved that he usually addressed the boys by their last names - very unusual, unique actually, I think, for Walden. "LONergan!" "BARsky! What do YOU think?"
I loved his friendliness and his love of humor and his non-authoritarian attitude to the screw ups latenessess lies and stonedness of his teeenage flock. You could really make him laugh and you knew he was interested in you, and he was never anything short of absolutely genuine. There are very few people who are so open and warm and good natured that they inspire the kind of love and respect and sheer liking from nearly everybody who gets a share of their time. I loved that you could meet him years after graduating and just pick up the conversation from anywhere.
My immediate reaction to the news of his death was a terrible sadness and then a feeling that a big hole had been rent in the world that could never close. If anybody ever got the love and devotion they deserved from life it was George. I know he had a good life despite the tragedies of the last few years and the horrors of his last illness.
But I hate that he's gone and I much as I knew I liked and valued him, I found when he was gone that he was more a part of me, my past, my thinking, my mental and emotional apparatus than I had ever realized. I don't believe he's still out there except in the impressions he left on earth, but if he is I hope he is giving them hell in heaven, and listening in on all of you. Plus I wish I'd called him back last year. I am not going to check the spelling on this, because that's not the Walden way. Goodbye, George. You had nerves of steel.