Doing Things

A week ago I related the story of my student who passed her Maturita exam. It was awesome and being a teacher is a huge part of my life here but it is far from the only part. The single-handedly best thing about being in a place for a longer period of time is all the cool stuff you get to do, especially with the locals.

Do you know where Sokolov is? If you do, it is probably because of me being here. I know I didn’t have a clue where Sokolov was when I got the email last April. I literally google-mapped it that first day, remarking casually, “hmmm, it’s pretty close to Germany…” Did you know one of the prettiest little castles in the Czech Republic (a place full of castles by the way) is a 20 minute bus-ride from Sokolov? It’s called Loket and I got to explore it yesterday.

The teachers in nearby Cheb planned an awesome event to close out the year for their English club. They called it “The Thing” and kept it as an immense secret for over a month. What it ended up being was a day-long scavenger hunting, question-answering, silly-photo taking extravaganza. We were put into teams of 3-4 and were set loose on the quiet, cobble-stoned streets of Loket. We took photos jumping on a stage. We reenacted a castle siege. With spoons. Some students stripped to their skivvies and jumped in the river (double points!) We imitated statues we saw and posed with goats. It ended with a relaxing afternoon hanging out by a camp fire as a big group.

I only have a month left here in this country that has been my home since August. But as I sat by a beautiful, lazy river yesterday, eating a giant Czech sausage while chatting with Czech students I thought to myself, “Life is nothing if not interesting…”

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A Good Day to be a Teacher…

Working in a school I have been able to see how education is done from a different cultural perspective. This week I saw one of the most interesting things about the system here. The infamous Maturita (Graduation) Exams.

When you reach the final year of high school here you need to pass your Maturitas to graduate. They are done in 4 subjects: Czech Language, a foreign language (usually English or German), and 2 others of the students choosing. At the start of their final year the students are given a list of 30 topics for each of their four subjects. They are responsible for knowing ALL 30 topics. On the day of their exam, they are in groups of 4. The student picks one of the 30 topics from a bag. They then have 15 minutes to write and prepare to speak on the topic they picked. Then they are “examined” by two teachers. It is a 15-minute pressure-cooker where they have to say everything they know about the specific topic. They must answer any question the teacher throws at them best they can. The sense of stress and terror in the classroom is palpable. When they are finished they have about 30 minutes to reboot before doing in all again in their next subject. After four hours their grades are decided and announced and they either graduate or not.

I did not have any final year students in classes this year and only observed the Maturitas this year. However, back in October, I was asked to meet with a student named Hanka during my office hours each Tuesday to help her practice her English. I spent 45 minutes talking to her about whatever topic she wanted each week. She was very conversational but her confidence was somewhat lacking. Telling her how impressive it was that she could carry a conversation with me was something I found myself doing each week.

In April she had to discontinue our meetings in order to spend more time studying. I had no idea when her exam day would be this week. I showed up today thinking I would observe a few random exams and mostly sit in my office. When I walked in, one girl was being examined while another was preparing at a desk. Her back was to me though so I couldn’t tell who it was. When it was the desk girl’s turn I was beyond shocked to see it was none other than Hanka. I was a bit worried she would be nervous with me there but she gave a nervously excited smile and sat down.

Her topic was announced immediately as very difficult. No students want it. This was an immense challenge. Hanka nailed it. She did utterly fantastic. She was poised despite  understandable nervousness. She answered every question and her examiners noted that she had facts down that they didn’t even know.

When she finished she got up, completely spent. She sighed deeply as she slumped down briefly next to me. English had been her last subject. Her four hours of torture were complete. I told her she did fantastic and soon she left to go decompress in the hall for a few minutes before hearing her grades.

In the Czech Republic they do a number system for grades. 1 is an A and 5 is an F. You need to get at least a four to pass. This was the last day of exams so when everyone finished they all came into the classroom to have a “parade” and say good bye to their teachers. At the end we got to go down the line and congratulate all the students. When I got to Hanka, she said, with a grin from ear to ear, “I got four 1s.”

I am under no illusions about what my impact was to Hanka. She passed because she is a very smart young woman who studied very, very hard. I merely talked to her for a few minutes each week. But my role here is not really what’s important. What is important is Hanka passed. I am so happy for her success. I am happy I could share in it with her. And so today, more than any other previous, it was really, really great to be a teacher.

Travelin’ Thoughts Part 2

A year ago when I was at home I traveled down to my camp for its Spring Camper Weekend. It’s basically just a weekend of camp about 2 months before the official summer season begins. I drove 8 hours from Massachusetts down to West Virginia on the Thursday. I was really excited. I arrived and went into the office. I talked briefly with the registrar who I knew from past summers. She said dinner was at the director’s cabin in a bit. I decided to walk across the property to dinner rather then drive down. See camp a bit.

The quietness struck me. There was essentially nobody around. People wouldn’t really show up till the following afternoon. It was just a boring (albeit beautiful) evening in Anywhere America. This was not the camp of my memories. The  camp of my memory was filled with noise and laughter and singing and noise and games and food and noise and worship and fun and even more NOISE.  Walking across camp in that quiet, empty moment was just weird.

But I finally reached my director’s cabin. I knocked on the door and walked in. And that same, great, bear of a man was there to greet me with a hug. A few minutes later my friend I had CIT-ed with 7 years before walked in. Soon we were sharing a meal together. Now I was truly at camp.

The weekend was beyond awesome. It was all the fun and craziness of camp packed into a weekend. The weather was beautiful. I saw fellow counselors, campers and friends who I hadn’t seen for a year or more. And as quickly as it started, Sunday afternoon came and just about everybody left. I stayed till Monday morning before driving home but I was thinking back to my arrival on Thursday night. I was at camp, but I wasn’t.

I have been a pretty extensive list of places and I feel blessed for being allowed to do so. But the places that remain special to me are not the ones with the biggest buildings or nicest landmarks. They are the places where I had community. This is why places like my camp and South Africa remain indelibly on my heart. I had friends there. I still have friends there. I care about those people and therefore those places. It will never be “easy” to leave those places when and if I return to them. But they are the places that this self-proclaimed “travel hater” feels excited about traveling to.

And you know what? Come the end of this year I might have to add another place to my list.

Travelin’ Thoughts

I don’t like traveling.

I know, I know. I am a vicious liar. Since I graduated in 2007 here is my places I’ve been list. South Africa, Botswana, California, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, London. How can I possibly hate travel?

It takes time and money. It involves big crowds of people I don’t know and so I’m more likely to make a sarcastic comment out of their earshot than talk to them. Delays happen (volcano anyone?). You leave things places (good bye favorite jacket, cell phone adapter, favorite sweatshirt). Traveling home from wherever you went is always awful because you regret leaving wherever you were.  I have been places but I like to stay somewhere an extended time if I do go. Hence this whole being on foreign continents a year at a time business.

So this weekend I traveled across the country that I have been living in all year. My organization has teachers in the center (Prague), east (Ostrava), and West (Me!). I hadn’t gotten a chance to get out to Ostrava, see the city and the teacher friends I know. A shortened Friday allowed me to embark on a 7 hour bus and train journey to the other side of the Czech Republic.

I have to be honest. Ostrava isn’t that awesome. I felt like they showed me the whole city in about thirty minutes. It was certainly a city but not much seemed to be going on. Despite this, I had a great time. Why? I was with friends. The biggest reason to travel this year hasn’t been to see cool things or do fun things (though both have happened in great supply). It has been to see and connect with the people I know. See their flats, talk about their experiences and see how they are doing. And have lots of fun together.

I have said pretty much my whole life that as long as I have a roof over my head and I’m well-fed I’ll be happy. I need to change this a bit. I’m still committed to the food part. Feed me well I’ll love you forever. But where I live doesn’t matter. Give me a tent in a swamp, a lean-to in a forest, a communist-era flat in Europe with the most ridiculous nonsensical bathroom set-up I have ever seen. Just give me people who are awesome, who I care for and who care for me. I’ll be perfectly content. And I will travel whatever distance necessary to get to where they are.