It’s 10:00 pm and I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to finish tomorrow’s lesson plan for my 4th graders. I tap my pencil on the Czech-English dictionary, which for the past three weeks has become part of the table centerpiece at my new home here in Čejkovy. This heavily used slovník claims its spot next to the bamboo-like placemats and a serving plate with a constant supply of Czech pastries. Tonight there is trdel – a hollow pastry covered in vanilla sugar crystals and nuts.
Earlier that evening, Monika and Lucka, twin 14-year-olds – my host sisters (and with our matching blonde hair, blue eyes, and peace-sign necklaces, we’re often mistaken for triplets), had shown me what a great idea it was to fill the trdels with whipped cream, successfully surrounding the sweet bread with sugar on all sides. Líbor, my host father, had sighed and shook his head at the sight of them, just before smearing his with a bit of his beloved Nutella.
I smile as I realize that I’ve come to really enjoy baking in the past few weeks. My host mom Martina stands beside me as she tells me what we need in Czech and I repeat in English. Sometimes I look over her shoulder at the recipe and say quite seriously, “Ano, jedna velka ververka.” Yes, one big squirrel.
She usually responds with a smile and a word I’ve taught her. “No, no, it’s fabrication!”
I’ll grin and point at myself. “Co kecaš.” (Which is roughly the Czech equivalent of ‘it’s fabrication’ though I’m told I’m not to use it at school)
Ah school, yes. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I bring myself back to my lesson plan. Time… what’s a good game for time… I look around the collage of orange, yellow and red that is the Hánová-Ptáček kitchen, with plants and a soothing fountain near the windowsill and snoopy drawings on the fridge. I consider having another trdel, but then quickly remember that I have a 6:15 AM wake up call for school, so I pass and sip some of my medový čaj.
At the moment, Martina is making svačina for tomorrow at school. After spreading “rabies” (apparently the word for currants sounds like rabies in Czech) on some delicious baguette bread, she walks over to the chocolate cupboard. She sits down on the warm orange-ish brown tiles and pats the space next to me. I move to sit next to her. With a twinkle in her eye, she opens the cupboard and pulls out a collection of different chocolate snacks.
“Co chceš?” She wants to know which snack I’d like for tomorrow.
“Hmm…” I pick up a Kinder chocolate bar filled with milk nougat. “Dobrý?” I ask.
“Ano. Velmí dobrý.” Oh but I already knew it was very good.
Líbor walks in and smiles at our collection of chocolate. “Jak se maš?” He asks, looking at me as he bends down to grab the mixer to make Herbalife breakfast shakes for the next morning. I smile as I remember one of the first nights as Líbor had stood next to Martina, helping her make dinner. He was smiling his dark brown eyes down at her green eyes. I turned to the twins and said the word they’d taught me earlier that day, “Láska.” They laughed and told Líbor what I’d said.
“Love, this is love,” he smiled and said.
Líbor, with his dark hair furrowed brow, has a thoughtful disposition. One morning, I tried discussing politics with him. I can’t remember how the topic was introduced, but I vividly remember the end and what I learned from it.
After rambling off about American politics, I concluded with, “Obama, lejpší,” using the word for “better” that I had learned the day before. “A lot better than George Bush.”
Líbor just nodded and smiled slightly, staring at his Herbalife breakfast shake. I realized then that while I had lived for eight years under the Bush administration, I had absolutely no idea what it was like to live under Communist rule of Russia, which had only ended twenty years ago.
Looking up at Líbor from my place on the kitchen floor, I respond to his question. “Já jsem št’astna.” [sh-t-as-t-nah] I grin, repeating the phrase Monika and Lucka taught me earlier that day, and had laughed when I tried so very hard to say in Czech what was often on my mind – I am happy. After twenty minutes of nearly crying at how hard I was trying to say all these harsh consonants, they had told me I could also say “Já jsem spokojena,” which was a lot easier.
“[Mon-ee-kohh]!” Martina yells downstairs. “Kolík svačina?” (It might be noted here that during my weeks here in the Czech Republic, I’ve realized that my name Amanda is not [uh-man-duh] but often [ah-man-dohh], depending on the grammatical function of my name in the sentence)
“Dvě, prosím.” Monika says, holding up two fingers as she and Lucka walk into the kitchen.
Lucka looks at my books spread across the table, smiles, and says, “Tomorrow morning— I say ‘stavé,’ and you must get up. ”
“Zítra ráno, quarter past six, ty” At this point I stand up and pretend to be Lucka, shaking an invisible person. “Amanda, stavé!” I then scuttle back to my previous place, rub my eyes, and pretend I’m waking up.
Monika slyly smiles and says, “Amanda, no get up, Lucka – ” she looks pointedly at the kitchen sink water sprayer.
“Vodovodní kohoutek,” I grin.
Lucka and Monika both smile. “Dobrou noc,” they chime and walk into their room.
“Dobrou noc,” I reply and walk back over and sit down to my lesson plan.
Honza, my 17-year-old host brother who plays four instruments, sings, has studied English for six years and is a younger, slightly more talkative version of his father Líbor, walks from the bathroom and into the kitchen.
“Honza, kolík svačina?” Martina asks.
“Chytri, prosím.” Honza nods and walks over to the table.
“Ah, what’s this?” He says, and I can hear the lightly covered disappointment as he looks at my books. “No fairytale tonight?”
Martina had gotten a book of Czech fairytales with the English translations, and we’d been reading them every night. Last night, Honza and I had decided to learn the Jeniček a Mařenka pohádka/ Hansel and Gretel fairytale – he would teach me Czech and I would teach him English.
“Oh no, let’s work on it right now,” I say, pulling out my notes from last night.
Honza smiles his great Honza smile and sits down.
“Okay, next,” I say, tapping my pencil. “Až potom, ježibaba řekne, pojd’ sem děti, já mám nejlejpší čokolada a cukr v domku.”
Honza smiles and says, “Yes, good!” and then translates my poorly constructed Czech into near perfect English. “After that, witch says, come here children, I have best chocolate and sugar inside home.”
“Nice!” I say, looking at his paper. “Is this right?” I ask, pointing to mine.
Honza laughs. “No no..” he says, leaning over to fix the spelling and accents.
I feel so lucky to have spent a few weeks with my new ‘bratr’ Honza, who will say something clever in English and then look at me to see if he said it right, patiently listens to my Czech reading and then reads perfectly in English, and walks across Sušice in the rain with me to make sure I arrive safely at my other host family’s flat. I nearly cried when he walked in to say hello the morning before I left. I was packing up my clothes along with the chocolates and gifts my students had given me. Seeing this, he said, “Amanda, what’s this? You must stay late.”
Not only did I have one wonderful Czech family, I was incredibly lucky to have two. Markéta and Vládá Kirchnerová have three beautiful daughters: Eliška, Susáná, and Hanička. Markéta, who had convinced Martina and Líbor to host a student, offered to let me stay at her home on the nights we had classes in Sušice, even though she was already hosting a student, Allie. Markéta is absolutely wonderful and has an excellent command of the English language. She would often sit and tell me about living in England years ago and about the current economic problems in the Czech Republic. Markéta’s husband Vládá always spoke in a sing-song voice, whether it was in Czech or in English. Even if I knew the words he was saying, I was distracted by how beautiful it sounded when he spoke, and often forgot to respond.
After Honza had walked me to Markéta’s flat one morning, I stepped into the living room to find Susáná (4 years old), and Hanička (18 months old) playing with a puzzle depicting the Three Little Bears story. I told them the story in English, complete with dramatic exclamations of “Oh no! Someone has eaten my food!” from the baby bear. By the end of the story, Hanička was sitting on the puzzle singing, “Oh no! Oh no!” Later when Allie and I left for school, we said “ahoj” to Hanička. She surprised us by saying in English, “Bye-bye!”
Twenty minutes later I look over my page of crossed out Czech words, covered in Honza’s writing, and then compare that with Honza’s paper that just has a few corrections.
“Konec,” I declare.
“Finished,” he replies.
I smile and give him a high five. Along with having the biggest Czech smile, Honza also is one of the few who responds to my high fives. Usually after hanging my hand in the air for a good seven seconds, I slowly bring it down, hoping no one notices. Not Honza though, he proudly smacks my hand and stands up.
“Goodnight Amanda. I am going to take a nap.”
I smile and say goodnight.
Now it’s nearly 11:00 pm and I keep thinking of two of my 6th graders, (we’ll call them Jeniček and Mařenka) sitting at the back of the class. I’m not a very observant person; I still get lost in the school where I’ve spent several weeks. I didn’t notice them the first day. Since my thoughts were mostly concerned with answering the questions about Utah and where I lived, I honestly can’t say whether they were there or not.
The second week I noticed that they sat at the back working on their workbooks. I figured that perhaps they had missed school and were catching up. When I read a book in class entitled Little Blue and Little Yellow, they were two of the few students who were actually listening. The third week I knew something wasn’t right.
They sat near the back, two on the right side and one in the middle. I was handing out pictures to the students. I stopped in front of them, smiled and said, “Please take a card.” They looked a bit surprised and each took one. I looked down and realized that the workbooks they were using weren’t even in English, but in German. As I moved to the left, I ran out of cards. Some of the students had two cards, and I moved to take some from them, but my English teacher walked over to Jeniček and Mařenka, took the cards from them, and gave them to other students.
I was confused as to why this happened. I noted that they didn’t look like the other children; their gorgeous olive-toned skin, characteristic of a person from India, was darker than the typical milky-white skin of most Czechs. I thought that perhaps they were a part of the Roma population I’d heard about while in the States preparing for my study abroad trip.
Not only in the Czech Republic but also all over Eastern Europe, the Roma, also called gypsies, are the largest and also the poorest European minority. I’d heard of blatant, overt racism towards the Roma population and that it was often socially acceptable, but I couldn’t fathom that it would be so widespread in the year 2009. During World War II, approximately 250,000 to 1.5 million Roma gypsies, around 25% of their 2.5 million pre-war population, were killed in Nazi concentration camps for being “racially inferior.” The persecution continues today throughout Eastern Europe. Segregation exists in the schools where Roma children are often sent to different schools because of being ‘handicapped’ – though no evidence exists to make this claim. The Czech National Party has urged for the “repatriation” of the Roma gypsies to India. The title of this plan –“The Final Solution for the Gypsy Issue” – has obvious, frightening parallels.
I had heard that racism was a huge problem, but during the first couple weeks of my trip, all I saw were magnificent castles, rustic ruins, museums, and gorgeous green countryside. I had heard about Barack Obama being welcomed by the Czechs during his visit to Prague. I’d had several conversations with Czech people that followed the same general pattern.
“Ja jsem Amanda. Ja jsem Američanka studentka.”
“Ah, Američanka!” Then the person would say “Obama,” smile, and flash me the ‘thumbs-up’ sign.
I was also so wrapped up in the welcoming love I felt from my new Czech host family. We worked in the garden, collecting sweet honey from the beehives and plopping it fresh into our mouths. For the first time in a long time, I loved coming home, and would wake up early on the weekend, waiting for my host family to wake up so that I could spend more time with them. I’d forgotten that this wasn’t a complete paradise and that actual problems still existed.
So while I knew that this might be a case of segregation based on race, I still wasn’t certain. I didn’t expect it from this teacher. She was younger and seemed fairly open minded. I had a hint that something was wrong, but I still figured that there must be a logical explanation. Plus I wasn’t even sure how exactly a Roma person looked. I don’t consciously distinguish among races and often don’t think anything of it until someone else points it out. It wasn’t until a conversation with my Practicum instructor, Rai, later than week that I realized what was really happening.
I told her that there were a couple students in my class and I thought that perhaps there was a bit of racism going on, but I wasn’t sure. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe there was something I missed. I didn’t want to think that such blatant racism was actually occurring. Rai told me that this kind of thing does happen, more often than we’d like to admit, and that I should reach out to these students.
Lost in thought about this, I realize I’m staring at my books. Martina sees me sitting there and looks at me. “Dobrý?” She asks, wondering if I’m okay.
I smile slowly and sigh. I look down and then look up at Martina. “I have a question.” “Ano,” she says and sits down next to me.
“So..” I try to begin. My eyes start to sting. I don’t know how to go about this. Though I’ve lived with this family for three weeks and know them well, I’m not sure how they feel about the Roma population.
I’m nervous, so I speak quickly. “There are two students in the 6th class and… the teacher doesn’t teach them.”
Martina looks at me softly with a confused look and says, “Ne rozumím. Please, again, slowly.”
My eyes start stinging more. “Okay, so… dvá studentký, a učitelka, ne—” I gesture with my hands and drop them, nervous to explain.
Seeing my frustration, Martina asks with a hint of concern, “They not learn?”
“Špatný… they are bad students?”
“Ne ne ne,” I exclaim. “They are good students. Chitrý studentký. Chitrý, šikovný. Učitelka – ne učhit.”
Martina looks perplexed. Perhaps this isn’t all that common, I think to myself.
Furrowing her brow, she asks me, “They… not want to learn?”
“No no no. They want to learn. They want to. Ale, učitelka – ne učhit.”
She sits back. “Proč?”
“Ne vím. Ne vím proč. Nerozumím. Možna protože… they…” I hesitate. I realize that this conversation could probably be happening a lot quicker. I’m not being straightforward with the words I’m using. I shake my head, silently scolding myself for not communicating clearly, the goal I’d recently set for myself.
I slowly say what’s on my mind. “They have dark skin.” I touch my face. “Not like Obama, but not,” I tap my arm, “ne bilá. Not white.” I could tell that she understood now.
“Roma?” I ask.
She turned to me. “Some teachers no – not like – Roma children.”
“Proč?” I nearly cried.
“Ne vím proč. Nerozumím. They… I, já, ne–” She gestured with her hands, chopping the air.
“Separace? You don’t separate.” I brought my hands together. “Dohromady. All together?”
“Yes. I – white, black, brown, ne…” She grasped for words.
“Láska. Love everyone?” I asked.
She nodded and went on to speak Czech with some English and somehow I knew exactly what she was saying. Maybe it was the thick emotion in her voice, maybe it was the hand gestures, combined with the words I picked up… somehow I understood. I could tell she wanted to say so much, she wanted to explain, but was frustrated that she didn’t have the English words to do so. But I understood, and I said so in Czech.
“Rozumím. Já vím.”
“I…” She was frustrated, and nearly cried as she said, “I not speak English good. I –” she opened the dictionary.
I knew where she was looking and said the words she had taught me during my first weekend in her home. “Ne. Ty – šikovná. Ty si chitrá.” You are able. You are clever.
She stopped turning pages when she found the word, “Idiot. I am idiot.”
I silently cursed whoever had ever told my talented, beautiful and caring host mother that she was anything less than amazing. “No… That’s fabrication,” I stated, staring at her tear-filled eyes, feeling my own filling with water. “I understand you. You are able.”
I reached my arms out and wrapped them around her. We hugged, and wiped away our tear-stained cheeks. Looking at the clock, I realized that it was now past midnight. Remembering my 6:15 AM wake-up call from Lucka, and also that Martina had to leave for work at the hospital in Sušice before I even got up, I gathered my books and said goodnight.
The next day I arrived at school brimming with determination. I slipped off my blue and green plaid shoes and left them in the 8th graders’ cloakroom in between Lucka’s electric-blue Converse’s and Monika’s neon-green ones. The twins smiled and said, “See you,” as they left for their German class.
The first lesson of the day – my 4th graders – went as planned. We played a version of their favorite game, “Say and Slap.” They each drew a clock with the different times I had handed out and placed them on the ground. After placing them in two groups, I called out a time and they slapped the corresponding clock. Their competitive edge kept them focused while having a great time. I walked back to the teacher’s room with a smile.
Plopping myself down at the end of a long, wide table, I looked out the huge windows at the gorgeous view of the Southern Bohemia countryside. Sitting next to me, the teacher for the 6th grade class leaned over and showed me the lesson plan she had prepared.
“First, you will read this text,” she said, “and then the students will translate and work in their workbooks.”
I nod, thinking of how I can make sure that Jeniček and Mařenka are part of the class. Sipping my berry tea, I read over the text and tried to make sense of it. The bell rang, pushing me out of my chair and over to the 2nd grade classroom.
The second lesson of the day with my energetic and enthusiastic 2nd graders was entertaining as usual. A bit tired from the singing and dancing, I met up with my teacher for the 6th graders.
Looking tired and a bit overwhelmed, she looked up from her pile of work in the teacher’s room and said, “You can go to the 6 class, yes? I must work here.”
I was instantly thrilled and nervous at the same time. Besides translating the text into a language I’d only been studying for less than a month, I didn’t have anything else for the lesson. As I walked downstairs, I scrambled to think of activities that would get the students moving and interacting with each other. I realized that translating the text probably wouldn’t work. I do know some Czech, but not that much. I’d also noticed that this particular group of students demands the Czech equivalent of nearly everything that comes out of the teacher’s mouth, so I was a bit nervous about how this class would work. Pushing my hesitations aside and filling myself with determination, I walked into the class and made eye contact with each of the students. Jeniček’s seat was empty. I smiled at Mařenka and she smiled back at me.
I began by giving each of the students a card from the deck I bought in a Utah tourist shop before getting on the plane in Salt Lake City. Mařenka looked a bit surprised when I smiled and asked her to please take one. Through modeling and teacher talk, I then asked them to take their chairs and make a circle in the back of the room, with the numbers in order.
I started the game by modeling the instructions of saying something in the past tense about what I did yesterday, and then had the students stand up and switch seats if they had also done the same thing. Even after explaining the directions in several different ways and using the modeling techniques Rai taught us in the Practicum class, they were getting impatient and antsy. The students started shouting Czech at me; I understood bits and pieces but not all.
I regained control of the class and had Mařenka come to the middle of the circle. I prompted her to follow the model of “Yesterday, I ____.” I pointed to the list of verbs on the blackboard and asked her to choose one. With a group of twenty twelve-year-olds staring at her, she hesitated. Several students tried to grab my attention to tell me, “She – not learn.”
I brushed this off by saying, “That’s okay,” and patiently smiled at Mařenka. She confidently turned to the class and said, “Yesterday I rode the bus.” She smiled at me as her classmates ran around trying to find a different seat.
The rest of the class was a frustrating blur. At times I felt the control slipping through my unpracticed hands. I knew I was capable of teaching a better class, and with more preparation time, I felt that I could have taught more. When the class ended, I felt a hint of relief immediately followed by a stab of frustration. I wanted more time. I was frustrated that it had taken so long for me to recognize the problem and that I had been unprepared to deal with it. Knowing that there was little I could do at the moment, I picked up my teacher’s book and walked through the school, my slipper-covered feet falling heavy on the tile.
After my English lessons, Leigha, a graduate student in the Project New Eyes Program, stopped with her host family at my school to pick me up for a trip to the beautiful Karlštejn Castle. Following a tour of the gigantic, highly ornate castle, we pulled over for a picnic in a gravel pit area surrounded by trees.
I could tell that Leigha’s 18-year-old host sister Ivčka was giddy about something. Once we had stepped out of the car, she immediately skipped over to the trees. “Come here,” she beckoned, ducking through the trees. I followed her and brushed my way through the branches. On the other side a huge canyon greeted me.
“This is Lom Americký,” she said.
I suppose Lom Americký must translate to “the most beautiful, unexpected natural wonder you will ever lay eyes on.” A concealed jewel tucked away in Southern Bohemia, Lom Americký is a gorgeous gulch with a sapphire blue lake at the bottom.
The most beautiful and also the ugliest sides of the Czech Republic in one day. I felt like the small orange iris dangling on the edge of the cliff. So far away from seeing things up close, so far from understanding, about to fall back into the life from which I’ve come. I felt insignificant. How could I cause change in the world around me?
Right then I started formulating a plan to come back to the Czech Republic with a degree and a determination to teach those who aren’t taught. I’ll learn enough Czech, maybe even German too, so that I can help neglected Roma children to get the education they deserve. Looking through my camera lens at the beautiful orange iris, I decided to become a revolutionary.