Teach Me

"Why don't you go back to teaching?" I was asked by a fellow expat just the other day. Indeed, why don't I go back to teaching? Probably because my heart is not strong enough to fit any more Czech kids into it.

In my first year in the Czech Republic, I was thrown head-first into teaching British literature and English to a bunch of Czech 12-18 year-olds. Those nine months are a cluster of sharp memories of sincere, naughty, too-smart students teaching me how to see life through their young, foreign eyes. 

In my first week a student set his desk on fire while explaining to me – in near-perfect English and for no particular reason – centrifugal force. "Sit down, please" I said to another particularly rowdy student in the middle of a lesson on phrasal verbs. "Okay, but just one question,” he pleaded. “If I sit on the roof, am I sitting UP?" (And English is only one of the four languages these kids spoke.)

On our first big test day, a student climbed in through the classroom window just as the tardy bell rang. "But Miss Teacher, I *am* on time!" he stressed. This was followed by a gem from another boy: "I can't take the exam today, Miss Teacher – I hurt my hand." From his right sleeve, in place of his hand, protruded a pig's foot, the kind often sold at butchers’ shops for a nickel as a dog treat. (My school year would contain no less than three pigs’ feet.) Yet each one of those cheeky kids sat silently taking their tests with such focus that I could only sit and smile at them, almost afraid to breathe lest I distract them. Czech students get away with what they can, but they have respect down pat. They even stand when a teacher walks into a classroom and don’t sit down again until they are told they may.

As I began to pass *their* tests, we only got chummier. I fell in love with each of them, with their eagerness and with their minds full of all possibilities. A student once asked me if I ate jokes, because I was always smiling. (Soon after they all began calling me "Smiling Ladybird.") As ball season approached, we practiced ballroom dancing in class, while speaking English of course! And we began to talk more and more, in the halls, standing in the sunny courtyard between classes, or on the trams that we shared. I realized that they spoke like small adults. When I asked students, "How are you?" they paused for a long time before answering – and I got to hear how they really were. After a particularly embarrassing move by Bush, I was asked several times, "So, what do you think of your president?" They asked thinking questions and expected thinking answers.

They're just kids, and kids the world over are the same, right? Maybe. But there is nothing like observing European children to give you some perspective. I’d see them on their lunch breaks, on the streets outside their Baroque-era school building, with no need to fear guns or kidnappers. And some of the words they said to me have never made their way out of my mind. We read Animal Farm in class, but the stories they told me about communism, passed down from their parents, taught me more than George Orwell could ever have taught them. During a conversation about comfortable American houses with big lawns versus tiny Czech apartments, there came a harsh reminder, from the mouths of babes: "Communism was never in your country, Miss Teacher." The slightly bitter but mostly accepting expression on that girl’s young face spoke volumes.

At the end of the year on class picture day, we all left via the windows and gathered outside on the grass. As we moved on to the end-of-year party, a student took off his tie, put it around my neck, and kissed me on the cheek for not failing him. He’d taught me the cha-cha for the school ball, and we’d discussed everything from God to politics. Ironically, he’d stubbornly only ever spoken German in my class, saying English contributed too much to globalization. But how could I fail him? I knew he would go far, so very far.