We’re Supposed To Know It

We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.

These words have resonated in my mind since hearing them said to me last Friday in our Krakow hotel. It was the last day of our Smithsonian Journeys “Week-in-Krakow” tour. The setting was a restored, golden-bricked medieval cellar where our breakfast was laid each morning.

I’d given my final lecture earlier in a side alcove of the cellar used for presentations. Other than the morning talk, the day was unscheduled, and I was going to be able to eat a leisurely breakfast after speaking. What a rarity that is!

A young waitress set a hearty omelet before me. I nodded and started to dissolve back into my book when she asked quietly: “What was that music you were playing in there?”

She asked in perfect English. (Everyone under 30 seems to speak English here.) What music did she mean? Then I knew. She’d overheard my lecture since only an ancient door of weathered boards separates that space from the breakfasters.

“Ah, that music. Chopin. The first piece was one of his songs called Wiosna (Spring),“ I smiled. “Most people know Chopin’s piano pieces, but they don’t necessarily know he wrote songs.”

“Oh,” she said, still waiting. “And the other music at the end was a clip I showed from a movie called Moonlight Sonata starring your Paderewski.” She nodded at the name of Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941). “It’s a sweet scene where he plays an ornate rendition of his famous Minuet at a children’s hospital.“

Boznańska

Boznańska, Girl with Chrysanthemums (1894)

Her eyes continued to inquire, so I continued. “In between, I was showing images from your wonderful Polish painters, like Chelmonski and Boznańska. In the U.S. we don’t learn many Polish paintings, but you know this art, of course.”

That’s when she said it. “We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.”

She said it so wistfully, I almost caught my breath. Then I got the picture. She was wishing she had been sitting in the lectures, rather than carrying fruit trays and clearing plates. She wanted to go back and fill in the gaps in her education.

She continued to stand there. I sensed two choices: I could thank her for the omelet and go back to my book. Or, I could follow the twitch in my heart and do something different. But should I?

I looked around. Everyone was gone but us and another young waitress clearing the buffet. The quiet time between breakfast and lunch shifts had descended. I followed my heart: “Would you like to see some of the talk? I can show you right here.” She smiled broadly and called her colleague to come over.

I cranked up the computer and gave them the ten-minute version of the talk. Yes, an hour-long talk can be compressed into ten minutes.

They listened thoughtfully to Wiosna and watched the video clip. I told them more about “their” Paderewski who was just a “book name” to them. In vivid terms, I described this dynamic pianist who took the music world by storm and ultimately served as Premier in the newly restored, independent country of Poland after World War I.

Then we flew through images of gorgeous 19th-century Polish paintings—the same images that had captivated my own guests an hour earlier. They recognized many, but not all, of the paintings. They asked questions, too. It’s amazing how much you can pack into a short time when you have to. It was like ice-skating through Polish cultural history.

Then the restaurant manager walked in. I closed the computer. They moved back to work with a twinkle in their eyes. The omelet, while cold, was still delicious.

They knew enough to know that I was teaching icons of their culture. And they were “supposed” to know these things not for a test or a better job, but because it’s part of who they are as Poles. How many of us in the United States can identify the gaps in our education, especially after we have stripped so much of the Western Canon out of our curricula?

One source of continual inspiration, since beginning “Professor Carol,” happens to be the parents I meet who are dedicated to obtaining a better education for their children than the ones they received. Whether they accomplish this through exceptional diligence for their publicly schooled kids, breaking the bank for private schooling, or by home-schooling, they are determined. It’s a battle and they don’t want to lose again.

We are supposed to know it, but we don’t. It is our duty, and privilege, to make sure this changes.

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