I went on a walk tonight for the last time in Sokolov. I get on a plane tomorrow to go to South Africa, and in a few weeks, home. I’m filled with emotion and feelings and it’s just weird. When I left South Africa I was pretty happy. Not because I wanted to leave but because it just felt right. The year was up, it was great, I was excited for the future. Here, in this moment, it just feels a bit strange and anticlimactic. I have been here 10 months and it is simply weird to think I won’t be here tomorrow.
I have much to rejoice over. I got to teach in two schools this year. I met awesome students and got valuable classroom experience. I made great friends, Czech and American, who I will stay in touch with long after this year is over. I learned about a new culture, food and language. I traveled to multiple countries in Europe. I grew a lot.
This year was far from easy. It started horribly. But as I sit here with this subtle feeling of melancholy I realize how important it was to be here this year. It was important not just for me but all the people I met. I have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. I’m so excited to see friends and family at home. But my year in the Czech Republic was incredible and so I’ll close out this year by just saying that God is a good and faithful king and I’m thankful for it.
As I approach the end of the year I will write a summary type entry on Tuesday before I leave but I have been thinking about some stuff that I wanted to touch on. This year has reaffirmed in me my resolve not to quit anything. A tangential story will illustrate this.
My freshmen year of college I went out for the cross-country team. It is hard to express how ridiculous it was. Everyday was a challenge. I lay in my bed as much as possible when I wasn’t running and tried to pretend I wasn’t brutally sore. After the two week preseason my calves were rock-hard bundles of muscle and pain. I waited everyday that season to get injured and finally at the end I did. A stress fracture kept me off my legs for 6 weeks. I remember waking up in January to return for the start of indoor track. I was tired, still slightly injured. I had zero desire to face a new team and more brutal training. But I got up and slowly worked my way back to health. Every workout was hell. I remember nearly blacking out on the track during a few of them. Running with a grimace that would scare a witch was the penchant that first year. Despite the challenges I returned for a second year. I still struggled but glimpses of light entered. I experienced my first “good” run. I challenged others in races and workouts. My junior year I finally broke out. I set a one-minute personal record in cross-country. In the conference championship in track in April that year I got put in the 10,000 meters, almost as an afterthought. In the first race of the day, I got within a few meters of third place. My fifth place finish earned four points for my team that day and surprised coaches and teammates alike. My senior year was consistent with my junior year. No major breakthroughs but workouts were completely different. I was in control. I decided how hard it needed to be for me to benefit. In the spring I remembered my coach called a workout short because of weather and I argued with him. I knew I needed another set. Over four years, my hard work paid off. Quitting never does.
My collegiate running career lines up nicely with my experience this year. The beginning just sucked. Lots of reasons for this but the bottom line: it was a struggle. A daily one. I went day-by-day, weekend by weekend. I never seriously considered quitting but the thought certainly crossed my mind. It slowly got better. Never easy but better and better. And here I sit with only 5 days left and I am so thankful for this year. It has been good and positive and I’m tremendously grateful for everything that has happened. I would have been incredibly regretful if I had quit. There are of course times and situations you should leave and quit from. But this year for me was not one of them. and I’m happy to be telling you this now.
Hard to believe but this is my last week teaching. After Thursday my classes are done. This past Friday I said goodbye to a few classes who I have only once a week and won’t see this coming Friday. I wasn’t expecting too much excitement. Some might have a slightly romantic of teaching. An apple on the desk with bright, smiling students obediently asking and answering questions. It really isn’t.
Teaching is shockingly tiring. Standing in front of a group of kids for 45 minutes telling them things and encouraging them to participate wears you out. Writing on a chalk board isn’t super fun. Waking up at 6:30 nearly daily also loses its charm pretty quick. But mostly the realization that, much of the time, your students really aren’t interested in what you are teaching can wear on your mind. After all if they don’t care, why am I trying so hard? I really enjoy teaching but its not all bubbles and cupcakes, to steal a line from a friend.
When I walked into my 3A class on Friday I noticed stickers on my desk. Some students have World Cup sticker books. It has every team and player to collect. A student had gotten me the USA emblem and team stickers. It was nice. We then played Mafia which Czechs call “The Town of Palermo” and it was pretty fun. Near the end I offered some final words of farewell and took any questions they had for me. When the bell rang the kids got up and to my surprise one, than all, came up to shake my hand. They told me I was a good “lektor” (what they call up native speaker teachers over here) and wished me well. I’m not one to show my emotions publicly and I didn’t at that moment but as I shook my students hand I felt surprisingly bittersweet. Bitter because I was sad to leave these young people but sweet because it reaffirmed that this year was truly worth it. I want to be a teacher. I want to influence and mentor young people. And I have been privileged to start doing that this year.
This past weekend was the final trip I had with my fellow ESI teachers for the year. We headed to the southern part of the Czech Republic, to the small town of Cesky Krumlov. It is a little touristy place on a beautiful curved river. The main activity of the weekend was a rafting trip on Saturday. The sun was out in force and while the river was far from white water the current took us along at a nice pace. It was really awesome to have this last week of fun and fellowship with my fellow teachers. A small story illustrates this.
After the rafting we had a dinner reservation at a nice local brewery restaurant. The dinner was nice but the main event in my mind was America’s opening game in the World Cup against soccer power England. I have always been a huge soccer fan and World Cups are the pinnacle of the game. I scream at every pass, shot and especially goal when I watch. I had brought the jersey of my favorite player to wear for the game but that was about it. However, a fellow ESI teacher had managed randomly to procure a number of USA flag cowboy hats, multiple red, white, and blue bandanas and even brought his grandfather’s American flag, which he wore as a cape.
Even as a soccer fan I can be pretty self-conscious but I figured this wasn’t the time to worry about such things. Soon I found myself walking through a small Czech town bedecked in hat and bandana. It was great, but better things were to come.
Right before the game starts the teams come out and the national anthems are played. To my shock and amazement, when the Star – Spangled Banner began all my ESI American friends shot up and started singing lustily. For a moment I was frozen. This was a Czech pub, other people were around and they were rooting for England. But then my amazement gave way to excitement and I shot up and joined in. It was probably one of the best moments of this year.
I love soccer and I love my friends and too often they are separate. But watching the game last night with everyone was as perfect an ending as I could make up for this year. This has been a great year and last night typified that for me.
Do you have a problem with pride? Do you think just a bit too much of yourself? I have a great solution to troubles such as these. It is as follows: Go to a foreign country where your language (or one you know) is not spoken. Move to a small town away from the capital and/or tourist centers. If you are lucky enough to find one, get a job. Live with no more than one or two people who can speak your language. Wait for a few months. Your level of pride should drop by orders of magnitude within weeks.
I have lived in the Czech Republic for over nine months. When I leave my flat and the safe haven of the internet I am surrounded by the Czech language. In my school hallways, in restaurants, at church, on the street. The positive part of this is that I have learned a lot without any formal study. I know numbers and foods in Czech better than most of my students do in English. I have basic greetings down. I know the days of the week and I have learned the months as the year has gone by. When I return to the US I have a handy response to the question “So do you know any Czech?” “Sure. Máte průjem?” (Google translate it my friends, haha).
All these small successes have lately gone to my head. In the past month, I have been picking up more and more words from conversations I hear. Every time I understand a new word it adds to my pride. Thoughts like, “I’m in control here.” “Or I can handle this, why study?” And then as these things tend to do, a series of events occur and I am reminded of how helpless I really am. A man stops me and asks a presumably simple question. I sheepishly say I don’t speak Czech. He looks at me strangely and walks away. I go to the bank and not seeing the English-speaking guy I usually talk to, I realize I cannot even ask anyone if he is there.
All this serves as a great object lesson I think. I don’t have it all together. Never have, never will. When I have successes and I speak correctly or understand something new that is a blessing and worth being happy about. But I cannot forget that right around the corner is another place to slip up and fall if I let myself get too puffed up by my victories. Perhaps it is fortunate I have lived in a foreign land for ten months illustrating this point so clearly?
Throughout the year I have had four retreats with my organization, TeachOverseas (ESI). This past weekend we had our final “End-of-the- Year” retreat. This was supposed to be a last hurrah of sorts, as well as a chance to say good bye to some of our fellow teachers who don’t live near us. This was complicated by the fact that we still have three and a half weeks left here and almost all of us are going on a rafting trip together next week.
Despite these incongruities it was a great time. The sun (finally!) decided to make an appearance and it was really nice to hang out again one last time with everyone. We did worship in English, reflected on the year, took Communion together and played a super slick game called Word Blur, which is totally awesome besides the fact that it makes your blood pressure shoot through the roof.
As I said above, I will see most people next week or before I leave, but the following fact stuck with me: This group, which has been spread across the Czech Republic all year, will probably never be together exactly like this again. God brought us together, uniquely and providentially. It may sound cheesy but it has been a running theme in my life up to this point and I think it’s an important one to latch on to. I’m so thankful for my fellow ESI-ers. It has been so great to meet them, live with them, serve with them. They are the main people who made this year survivable when times were hard and who made it awesome when things improved. It won’t be easy to say goodbye. But these are the type of people and community that when the time comes you just have to step back and reflect and most importantly, think to yourself, “Thanks for this time together Lord.”
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…”