by Michael Kaley
I’m letting baby Adela cry herself to sleep tonight. I sit outside our room on a wooden bench that is strategically placed in the anteroom of this orphanage. I sit among the shoes and slippers that are swapped off and on depending if one is entering or exiting this domov (house). I’m now accustomed to this Czech practice of removing one’s shoes when entering a living space.
She keeps crying and the quiet activities of early evening in this Dětsky domov (childrens’ house) continue. Marcia, who is an eighteen-year-old member of this household, is taking a shower, getting ready for her doctor’s visit in Plzeň tomorrow. I wonder how she feels about Adela crying; her room is next to ours and she’s four months pregnant. She puts on some tight shorts and escorts her thirty-five year old boyfriend / father-to-be through this passageway and I just say “sorry” and make crying motions with both my hands clinched in front of my face, rotating them back and forth. The couple gives me a somewhat indifferent look of “It’s ok.” I wait for my baby to go to sleep and wonder about the history of crying babies in this orphanage.
The sound of crying babies is an orphanage cliché that just doesn’t fit the Dětsky domov. Sharka is the youngest girl here at about six, and all the kids here feel like they’re part of a contented family. It seems strange that their house (an orphanage) is much more elaborate than the two bedroom apartment that Eva Smolicova (the principal of the k-9 grade school) lives in. Because Eva is the local school principal and her husband Luboš is the director of a museum in the nearest large town, I was surprised by their modest living situation (which I had the opportunity to see when she invited my family over for dinner last Sunday). She showed us the one bedroom she and her husband occupy and the other bedroom with the triple bunk / loft bed that her three children share (ages eight, eighteen, and twenty-two). Not to mention the irony of the school that Eva runs being housed within the walls of a beautifully restored eighteenth century Baroque castle. What’s going on in this Czech village of 450 residents?
Adela is still crying and the Teta (Auntie) during this shift comes halfway down the stairs and sees me in a state of surrender. She gives me a look that makes me feel completely assured that letting her cry to sleep while sitting just outside the bedroom door is brilliant parenting and she walks back upstairs. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that deeply endorsed about an act of parenting.
Baby Adela is sound asleep now and my wife Meri returns from a “girls’ night out” at the local hospoda (pub) to tell me that she now knows why Marcia is going to the doctor in Plzeň tomorrow. Apparently the doctor has reason to believe that the baby has Down’s syndrome. If this is true, Marcia doesn’t want to keep the baby – which might not be so bad if the baby gets placed in an orphanage like this one; the living conditions here at the Dětsky domov are quite comfortable.
Arrival: The Experiment Begins
We are four: Meredith, Cole, Adela, and me. Our family arrived here on a Saturday afternoon about ten days ago. To get to the village of Chanovice we took the train from Prague about two hours southwest to Horazdvovice, which is the closest town with a train station (10 km away). It reminded me of the small train station in the classic Czech film Closely Watched Trains. Eva picked us up with all of our luggage in her small vehicle (we grossly overpacked). She drove us to our new home: the Dětsky domov in Chanovice. My wife Meri and I were a little nervous about the prospect of our host family for Project “New Eyes” ® 2008 being an orphanage in a small, rural village. This all subsides when we pull up to the Dětsky domov; it looks more like a French country manor than an orphanage.
The younger kids who live here come out to greet us while the teenagers hang back at a picnic table, looking on from a distance. As we carry our bags in we’re invited to the Festival of Wood at the skanzen, which is an open-air museum of rural structures from this region dating back some 600 years. Via Eva’s cell phone Professor Sternfeld tells us to meet him by the fish. Fish? The Festival of Wood? Eva seems to understand what this is all about and I surrender to her lead.
She walks us to the skanzen pointing out the zámek (castle) where I’ll be teaching. A little further up the road we enter the festival, making our way through the stands of sweets and crafts. Someone hands me a large glass of pivo (beer) while moving toward the longest bearded mayor I have ever seen, busily grilling fish in the rear of the festival. Perfectly seasoned carp is handed to us on square pieces of thick recycled paper. We pick through the bones, savoring the tender fish while watching the drunken woodsmen carve large scale saints out of logs with massive chainsaws. It seems an appropriate introduction to Steven Sternfeld’s Project “New Eyes” ® 2008: an experiment in authenticity—disguised as a study abroad to the Czech Republic.
The evening of our arrival, we took a walk into the nearby forest with all seven of the kids from the Dětsky domov. There were some early tensions among the older kids, who seemed to be watching our every move to figure out if we were ok. Marcia seemed the most difficult to win over and I thought it was because she was the oldest; I came to find out later that there were some deeper issues she was dealing with. The Teta had Marcia put Adela in a stroller and said that she would walk her because “She’s in training.” The walk through the “magic forest”, as the kids call it, dissolves some of the apprehensions and our group becomes more of an “us” among the pine.
We put Adela in the crib that is set up in our room and she begins the process of crying herself to sleep in this new place. The teta assures us that it’s ok if we leave and tells us that Petre and Yarka are expecting us. Meri and I walk to one of the local hospodas (there are three in Chanovice). This hospoda is in the center of the village and tonight it’s packed with locals. We meet up with Professor Sternfeld, Heather Hirschi, and Sara Bridge (Project “New Eyes” ® Participants visiting Chanovice for the day) and our small group of Americans sit together in the middle of this rustic cottage. After our table fills up with empty pint glasses, the mayor begins to explain the history of Chanovice’s very own drink. The Fernet / eggnog concoction is poured into small crystal glasses, which are weighty between thumb and forefinger. Petre (the mayor) hands out the drinks to the locals first, and then to our table. The revelry is cut short once the twenty to thirty villagers and our table of foreigners all have one of the custom drinks in hand and Petre makes a toast. His words in Czech seem to be an invocation of a hidden village sprite, welcoming us to Chanovice. The warmth of this group of people baptizes us and I’ve felt part of this village ever since. Through a translator I express my gratitude to Petre and offer to help him learn English. With a somewhat serious tone he relays a message through the translator, “I just want you to teach the children English.” I assure Petre I will do everything in my power to accomplish this and we toast our glasses.
Jonza, a seventeen year old here at the Dětsky domov, tells me that that the school where I’ll be teaching has a ghost. I didn’t think much of it until I told Eva what Jonza told me and she said, “That’s why I moved my office.” I was nonplussed, waiting for an explanation when Eva asks, “Do you want to see his room?” I responded with a hesitant “I think so.”
Eva walked me to the other side of the castle crossing through the open-air interior courtyard. I liked the sound the cobblestone made as our dress shoes hit the old stones in a rhythmic pattern. “Eva, how old is this castle?” She tells me that the adjacent church dates back to the thirteenth century and that this Baroque manor was built in the 1700s. This jogs my chronological notion of surroundings, so I ask, “And what about the ghost, how old is he?” Escorting me into what looks like a bachelor’s study, she tells me that he was the last resident of this manor then points to an oil painting of a handsome, aristocratic looking gentleman. This room contains an eerie heaviness that falls upon me.
“Who painted it?”
“It’s a self portrait.”
In trying to process all this, I ask more questions and find out that the gentleman’s name is Franz Goldek; he’s a German national whose family owned this castle for a few generations. He was an artist, a writer, and an educated gentleman who resided in this castle with two dogs until his death in 1945. He was apparently taken out in front of the castle and shot in the head, execution-style. This was shortly after World War II, and I’ve heard conflicting details on whether the two men who killed him were Czech militiamen or Russian operatives in the region.
Eva assures me that Franz Goldek was not a Nazi, and I get the sense that there’s a deeper tragic element to his death. Along with the genocidal horrors that Czechs suffered during the Nazi occupation, there was a post World War II backlash against Germans, with killings and expulsions throughout this region. Throughout this Bohemian region, Germans were systematically removed, and Franz Goldek is just one example. I ask Eva if the tombstone you can see from a window of Goldek’s study is his. She tells me that it marks the place where Goldek buried one of his dogs (“Bella”) about a month before his own death. There are several pieces of art in the room, as well as beautiful furniture made from local Bohemian woods and a display of important documents from the castle’s archive. Sealed behind a glass case are various documents that chronicle some of the Goldeks’ achievements, purchases, and property ownership, as well as a few architectural drawings.
What does one do with their ghosts? I can understand moving the school’s office out of this space. Why not restore it to how it was when Franz Goldek lived here and open it to the public? It seems like a healthy way to clear the air through the remembered spaces, stories, and histories.
Authenticity in the Castle
The most obvious difference with the school in Chanovice is that it’s housed within the walls of a Baroque castle. However, the number of students and class size is probably a more important difference. Any teacher will tell you that class size is critical: and smaller classes are optimum. Eva tells me there are 120 students in this kindergarten through ninth-grade school. The school has three buildings in close proximity, with kindergarten and first graders in one small building, second through fifth graders in a larger two story schoolhouse, and the sixth through ninth graders in the main floor of the zamak (castle). All the students eat in the cafeteria, which is strategically housed in the castle’s inner sanctum. Residents of Chanovice (particularly the elderly) are able to purchase a warm meal to go, which I see carried off in one’s own round, stainless steel, stackable container, or they can opt to eat in the cafeteria. I’ve seen Petra (the mayor), Lubosh (the skanzan’s curator), volunteers from European countries who work on the skanzan, James (a village utility worker), and other city workers having lunch in this intimate dining room. Meri and Cole join me for lunch every day I teach (a simple pleasure I’ve come to appreciate). In the U.S., we’re probably too paranoid to let the elderly eat lunch in our public schools.
I’ve been talking a lot with Eva about what I’m going to do here at school in Chanovice for the next three weeks. We’ve agreed that I should observe some of the English classes before I start teaching. I start with Eva’s sixth grade class, which she teaches from 8:00 – 8:45 AM. She warns me about the behavior of the students in this particular class and yet holds to the following summation of this school: “Our school is about relationships.” This simple phrase puts me at ease; and I now have the sense that Eva and I have very similar ideas about teaching and learning.
With my first visit to Eva’s sixth grade class of twelve students, I’m a bit of a ham and can’t help but start teaching. I get up on the board and write out a sentence that highlights the contraction “I’m,” with a discussion about the difference between British and American English. At the time I didn’t realize how completely inappropriate such a discussion was for this group of Czech twelve year olds. Looking back now, I’m sure they had no idea what I was talking about but they could sense my enthusiasm. There’s an organic quality to the way I teach, and when you start out with a class there’s going to be some rotten discussions and/or rotten lessons that can fertilize the seeds of any new crop of students. But the teacher must go back day after day and work in the fields of learning. The question at hand is, “How can I cultivate learning English in three weeks?”
Eva and I keep talking and I continue to observe English classes. There are four teachers and Eva who cover all the English classes taught here. The students have a forty-five minute English class three to five days a week. Most of the English instruction in the higher grades is based on English language textbooks. At the lower levels students do more group activities and use various English language props. The most striking thing about all of the classes is the degree of what’s called “direct translation”. It seems to start with the teacher giving instruction in Czech and then having the students work on English language tasks in English. The students get out their Czech / English dictionaries and go to work translating everything from English to Czech and then back to English again. I was amazed at how well the students utilized the dictionaries and it works quite well for the English language exercises, the only problem is that it’s an ineffective technique for developing one’s ability to communicate in English. The observations made it clear to me that what these students need is an authentic situation where they would need to communicate in English. The next question is how to create this over the next three weeks.