LITHUANIAN SCHOOL COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
by Louis Wenzlow
“The destruction of the very young starts in grade school…”
―Thomas Bernhard, Correction
“The destruction of the very young starts in Lithuanian school…”
―Liudutis Venclovas, Untitled Poem
There was something about my smile the other kids didn’t like. Maybe it was the fear in it, the false bravado. Who knows what sets the wolf pack off?
These days, I sit in my castle without really caring what anyone else thinks. I drink lattes in the morning, expensive scotches late into the evening. Sometimes there’s a needle to thread. I have a family and friends who like to drink with me.
Almost anything is preferable to those Saturdays in the seventies at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Marquette Park, Chicago. Waking to the smell of Cream of Wheat, already knowing it’s the worst day of my life, just like last Saturday and all the future Saturdays to come: the dreary hour-long car ride past the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture; the ridicule of second-wave pedagogues fiercely determined to preserve our identity through the Soviet occupation; the prayers, the petitions, those letters to congressmen exploiting the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta; the so-called friends who hang you upside down from the third story stairwell until you shit your pants if you smile the wrong way.
They say things get better when you’re older, but that’s only until something worse happens. This is the lesson I would teach the next generation of Lithuanian children if the administrators ever made the mistake of inviting me to perform the sixth grade commencement address.
I would stand at the lectern in my Burberry trench coat and, gazing down from the stage of the gothic assembly hall, I would offer the graduates and their doting parents the unvarnished truth. For those of you who are happy now, I’d tell them, you will always be happy. But for those who are unhappy, for those who were bullied and mocked and domineered, for those who are depressed, you will always be depressed. And all of your future accomplishments, the occasional victories, landing the first job, spouse, child, etcetera, the joys of drugs and alcohol, will be nothing compared to the disappointments, the rejections, the forever truth of the forever worst Saturday forever.
And then when the first families start getting up and streaming out, when they finally realize how crazy this speaker is—the so-called great Lithuanian poet, this Liudutis Venclovas—I would step from the lectern and open my trench coat, so they could see all of me, all of the sagging skin, the moles, the rash that just won’t go away, the object itself, not merely its ugly projection, the entire truth of the great Lithuanian poet, the entire unvarnished and depressing truth. And I would smile broadly as I watched them, frenzied now, both running away from me and toward me, the big Lithuanian men rushing toward me to close me down, to knock me off my imaginary tightrope, to hang me one last time from the third story stairwell.
Yes, that’s exactly what I’d do, I say to myself, from the safety of my brown leather club chair, which I purchased at Anthropologie for over $8,000. It’s a beautiful chair—made from the finest Italian leather—and it’s facing what one of my friends has called the Taj Mahal of whisky collections, a bar that even the Ayatollah would bow to, this friend has said, as he’s guzzled down my fifteen-, twenty-, and even twenty-five-plus-year-old single malts.
My favorites are the old Auchentochans and Highland Parks, but I also particularly like the Yamazaki 18, which I consider to be a testament to the Japanese capability to assimilate and transcend. What the Japanese did for the auto industry, they also did for single malt whisky. The Nikka Yoichi 25 is another very good one. Those Japanese are amazing! They take what is already good and make it even better, unlike the Lithuanians, who drink beer and Russian vodka.
As for me, I refuse (refuse!) to have a single bottle of vodka in my Taj Mahal of bars. There are many whiskies, a few gins and rums, several cognacs and armagnacs and calvados, and even a superb aged tequila, but not a drop of vodka. Go elsewhere for vodka, I say to the plebeians who ask for it. Go to Russia. Go to Poland. Fly to Lithuania for the vodka.
When someone comes to one of our parties with a bottle of vodka, I make a big show of opening it and then pouring it down the drain. Forgive me, I say. We must not pollute the Taj Mahal of bars with what is essentially boiled potatoes.
Vodka killed the so-called spirit of Lithuania. Lithuania gained its independence in 1990 but then lost its spirit by drinking Russian vodka. That’s why I drink only very old whiskies, like this Auchentochan 31, this amber ambrosia, the “water of life,” one of only ten whiskies in the world that exhibits the quality generally reserved for ancient cognacs—rancio, the pleasure for which I paid several thousand dollars.
One thing I’ll say about having the finer things in life, you pay for it, and not just with dollars and cents. You pay for it and keep paying for it. What little pleasure there is gets further diminished with every new luxury experience, with every new sip, even of the Auchentochan 31, which used to taste quite special, I imagine, but that now tastes like turpentine. Yes, with every new sip, the Auchentochan 31 tastes more and more like turpentine. There remains a hint of the old rancio, but the rest is very expensive turpentine.
That’s what Romas Kalanta would have learned had he, in 1972, on the square off of Freedom Alley in Kaunas Lithuania, reconsidered pouring gas over his head and setting himself on fire for the sake of Lithuanian independence. Lithuania may or may not be independent now, without the spark of Romas Kalanta—what the teachers called the spark of independence that was the great Romas Kalanta—but Romas Kalanta would probably be alive, rather than a spark, and then a fire, and then a symbol: alive to learn about this principle of diminishing returns, the spiral of worst Saturdays, expense after increasing expense, luxury after luxury, until everything is turpentine. No more rancio for you, alternate universe Romas Kalanta.
But instead he poured the gas, lit the match, and became the bonfire of independence, the perfect Lithuanian youth, performed what our teachers, and quite possibly even our parents, then secretly wanted from each one of us—the children at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Marquette Park, Chicago—to eschew the temptations of American materialism and devote ourselves fully and completely to the cause of our Tėvynė, which means fatherland. Not simply to write those letters to our congressmen, but to actually set ourselves on fire for the sake of the Lithuanian Identity. Deep down, I’m convinced it’s what they wanted, what they were guiding us toward: a flaming pyramid, a fierce pyre of sixth graders.
And I cannot deny that I considered it, considered following in his footsteps, especially on those Saturdays when the Lithuanian School bullies attacked me, hung me upside down from that pathetic third story stairwell. After cleaning myself up and wiping the tears away, I would look in the bathroom mirror and imagine the flames, the glory of those flames. For Romas Kalanta was my hero. The other kids worshiped OJ Simpson and Mick Jagger, but I—in step with the teachers and my parents—found American culture to be immoral and depressing. I worshiped the great Romas Kalanta.
I remember one time in particular. After returning home from Saturday school, I grabbed some poster board and scrawled on it the single word LAISVĖ, which means freedom. Then I walked into the kitchen and took the Diamond matches we used to light the defective left front burner of our stove. I rushed out the kitchen door into the attached garage and found the gas can we used for the lawnmower. I walked past our Chevy Impala station wagon through the open garage door to the center of our driveway, placed my poster on the cement ground, and then doused myself with gasoline.
I’m not sure what I was thinking or feeling. I somehow knew it was important not to think or feel much of anything in order to accomplish something like this, in order to follow my hero into his flaming glory. But when I opened the matchbook, removed a match, and tried to strike it, nothing happened. The wet of the gasoline prevented the initial spark. Had the match ignited, I wouldn’t be here to consider these issues, to relay these important thoughts to the next generation’s sixth graders, but it didn’t. There wasn’t even a faint sizzle or a tiny whiff of sulfur. Nothing (nothing!) happened.
And then I started thinking and feeling again. In particular I started thinking about the pain I would feel, the pain that Romas Kalanta must have felt, and I wondered if it was really worth it, whether this gesture would really make any difference, in the grand scheme of things, whether it would really contribute to the onset of a great new age of Lithuanian independence, which suddenly seemed quite unlikely, and just like that, my motivation was lost. I threw the matches on the ground, grabbed the poster board, and rushed back toward the garage.
To this day, I keep wondering if it would have made any difference, whether anything makes any difference. In the grand scheme of things, how much did it matter that even Romas Kalanta gave up his life to showcase the plight of occupied Lithuania? What impact did it really have on the eventual liberation—nearly eighteen years later—of the Lithuanian people, on those big Lithuanian men, drinking their beer and their Russian vodka, a nation of big Lithuanian men forever chasing me to wipe that silly smirk off my mug, with or without Romas Kalanta, with or without the spark of independence that was the great Romas Kalanta?
“Here’s to you!” I say, lifting my precious Auchentochan 31 high above my head in the general direction of Marquette Park, Chicago. “Here’s to all you sixth graders.”
The wife is asleep. The estranged kids have long since moved away, scattered about the country to their own lives of loud or quiet desperation. I am of course not a great Lithuanian poet. I am just a small, pathetic clown, sitting naked late at night in front of his fortune of fancy booze, my rash reflected in the backdrop mirror, the terminal rash, the inoperable forever truth of that forever worst Saturday terminal rash…
…that Saturday, after I failed to light myself on fire, as I rushed back toward the garage, I thought I noticed a flutter at the kitchen window, as if the drapes had moved. Yes, I’m sure there was a flutter. Someone had been watching me, my mother or father perhaps, watching their only son very nearly follow in the footsteps of his hero. How proud they must have been, until the match failed to ignite and I lost my resolve.
They are both long dead now, but they lived for more than forty years after that, with me wondering but never asking. All that time I’ve been wondering, was it my mother or was it my father, or was it perhaps both of them, who stood watching me through the window, their only son, so proud at first for his great sacrifice, his almost great sacrifice, and then so disappointed, so very ashamed, as he abandoned his Lithuanian Identity, abandoned the cause of Lithuanian independence, and instead implicitly (at first implicitly and then quite consciously) selected the dedicated pursuit of materialism: the right schools, the best firms, the trophy wife, the spoiled kids, expense after increasing expense, luxury after meaningless luxury, extreme after ignoble American extreme, rather than setting himself on fire, rather than firmly and boldly striking the Diamond match head and displaying the great poetry and courage of self-immolation.
This is what my parents were thinking, I am convinced, either one or perhaps both of them, yes, very likely both of them, as they stood watching me through the kitchen window, and then for the rest of my life, even as they continued to go through the so-called motions, to pack my lunches, attend my basketball games, to scrape and claw to pay for my college education, to dote on their grandchildren, etcetera, etcetera, until they passed away and were buried in Saint Casimir Lithuanian Cemetery on 111th Street on the south side of Chicago, where I still go to visit their graves at least once every year, and where—according to my doctors—I will be joining them sometime between six and eighteen months from now.
But that Saturday, when I walked back in the house, clutching my poster board and stinking to high heaven of petroleum, when I walked through the kitchen and into the living room, they were nowhere to be seen, until I looked out the living room window and saw my father pulling weeds in the backyard, and then heard the bang of the washing machine door, indicating that my mother was in the basement. How quickly they had run out of the kitchen in order to pretend they hadn’t seen me! As soon as I had dropped the matches and turned back toward the house, they must have glanced at each other, conspired on a plan, and then sprinted away to their respective hiding places, the backyard and the basement, running off to do their chores, starting the pretense that would last for over forty years. At least one but very likely both of them, almost surely both of them, as will be proved definitively (definitively!) between six and eighteen months from now, after my commencement, after my ashes are buried in the family plot, when I finally stand naked (not just physically but fully and completely, spiritually) in front of my creator, with my father on his right side and my mother on his left, and perhaps even my childhood hero, Romas Kalanta, slightly behind them and off to the side, when everything will be revealed, all of our sins and blemishes will be fully and completely revealed, the entire truth will be revealed. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces. What will they say when I ask them? Was it just one or was it both of you, surely it was both of you, standing there, watching me, that Saturday afternoon, behind those imaginary drapes?
Louis Wenzlow’s short canards and poetry have appeared in Cease Cows, Eclectica, The Forge Literary Magazine, International Poetry Review, The Molotov Cocktail, and other places. He is a Lithuanian American who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and now lives with his wife and daughter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.