Quitting?

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.

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I wasn’t expecting this…

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.

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…”

Did that just happen?

I just had a great weekend. Let me explain.

I left home in Massachusetts last summer in early July. I have been in the Czech Republic since early August. Since before I left my mom has been discussing various possibilities of what a visit here would entail. In the last few months we finalized things. My mom would come to London for a week and stay with my sister and then come to Prague on Friday night. I would pick them up, show them Prague, my town and my schools and see them off Sunday back to Prague. As the days approached it was fairly exciting. I have never had family visit me overseas in the past few years. I would get to show them where I have been living and share my life with them a bit. It would be great.

And then the volcano that cannot be named struck. Days before my mom and sister’s flight. It was quickly surmised that the trip wasn’t going to happen. My sister would try to get a flight back to London ASAP but my mom was left to cancel her trip. I was disappointed to be sure but I felt worse for my mom. All the expectation was gone and she was left with a week of regret and sadness. Totally lame.

I went about my business last week and decided to plan a weekend in Prague anyway. See friends and the city. It would be nice. On Thursday I noted my sister was catching a flight back to London. I was happy for her. On Friday I woke up like normal and taught a couple classes. I then went online and was shocked to see a note from my sister saying my mom got a seat on her flight too via standby. More shocking: they would be in Prague that night as originally planned.

Just crazy right? This past weekend has been great. I spent time with my family in Prague, my town of Sokolov, and the capital city of my region. I took them to restaurants, showed them my flat and schools and really enjoyed myself. It was over far too quick. But it was just awesome.

I will end with two small insights. Meeting a lot of different people since graduation I have realized how important family is. When people have good family relationships things are pretty sweet. On the flip-side I have seen few things that can cause more heartache and emotional damage than a dysfunctional family dynamic. I am truly thankful for how my family supports me and loves me. But know that even if my family wasn’t what they should be, my relationship with my creator is an anchor that is something I can never get from something here on earth. Lastly, it was humbling to be reminded today that going overseas is not just about YOU making sacrifices. Your family, whether they support you or not, give something up too. Some handle it better than others but it is never easy. I have about two more months left in this year here but this weekend will be seared in my memory for a long time to come.

Thoughts on ples…

I attended my school’s last ples on Friday night and thought I would offer some closing thoughts about them.

1) I love the egalitarian nature of a ples. Anyone and everyone comes. Grandparents, parents, friends, younger siblings. The only requirement it seems is you should know someone at the school. Dancing happens throughout the night and it is almost exclusively the pleasant, romantic type of a happy couple or the fast paced excitement of people who actually know how to dance. The grinding that is so popular (and explicit) in the states is nowhere to be seen. As a teacher told me on Friday though, of course this isn’t the whole picture. The main hall was the room for the “mummies and daddies” as he put it. Downstairs a disco type area was set up for students. I never went in but what went on there might be a bit different from what I generally saw.

2) Czech’s love of alcohol was in full effect. Beer is truly a part of the culture here. Many towns have their own local brewery and many people drink copious amounts. At restaurants you generally get more beer for the same price or even cheaper than a bottle of water. IDs are never checked anywhere. As a Czech explained to me “It’s illegal to buy alcohol if your under 18, so why would you try?” Plus I imagine the desire to make money trumps the desire to check someone’s ID and refuse a sale. I saw this first hand when in the middle of a ples a student asked me to dance. She seemed nice enough but as soon as we got to the dance floor I realized she was absurdly drunk. Needless to say it was an awkward few minutes.Getting Czechs to not drink would take away one of the things that is deeply rooted in their culture. At the same time I think it is good to be here as a younger than average teacher who stays sober for an entire evening even after the champagne toast with the students.

3) Midnight surprises are delightful, entertaining and so entirely over-the-top that they would NEVER happen in the states.

In closing, living in a foreign country can be kinda neat…

It’s Ples Season!

It’s been a bit since my last entry but it’s amazing how fast time can go during the week once you start teaching all your classes. Today I wanted to share with you a rather unique but exciting part of Czech culture,that as a teacher here I am getting to experience.

The cold and dead of winter is Ples season here in the Czech Republic. What is a Ples? The literal translation is a “Graduation Ball” and the closest American equivalent is a prom, however there are big differences. Graduating from Gymnazium (high school) here is a big deal and you you have to pass a very difficult exam in the spring to do so. But a few months before that, every graduating class has a Ples. The graduating students wear fancy ball gowns and the men wear suits. Family, teachers, friends and classmates are all invited and come as well. A Ples evening includes lots of dance numbers from students and outside groups. A band plays most of the evening and everyone who wants to can dance.

The centerpiece ceremony of the evening is about halfway through the night. The graduating students line up and are called by name up to the stage. As they walk up they get pelted with Czech coins.  It is pretty awesome as tons of coins get thrown at these students. It’s a miracle no one gets hurt but it’s real fun to watch. After the ceremony these coins get collected and it helps pay for the Ples. Once on stage they are presented with a sash saying “graduate” (in Czech) and a flower. After this there is a teacher-student dance (I got to dance with a student) and a student-parent dance.

To cap the evening every Ples has a “midnight surprise.” Generally organized by the graduating class it is a fun or silly presentation or dance of some kind. At Friday’s the class dressed up in Hawaiian garb (boys in coconut bikinis of course) and danced to a great medley of dance music.

I have been to three Ples’ so far with potentially two more to go (classes work differently here, there are a lot more than one per school). It has been lots of fun to see teachers and students all dressed up and having fun outside school. Being able to experience something like this as an English teacher and a foreigner has been very interesting but also lots of fun. I look forward to my other Ples’ in the coming weeks!

Renewal

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I have been impressed with the amount of construction going on in Sokolov in the past few weeks. Building after building has scaffolding on it, including one side of my flat building and the middle school that I teach at. The scaffolding though isn’t the cool part. The cool thing is that in only a few short weeks I have seen buildings go from drab, gray, construction sites to bright, colorful and exciting. Sokolov, at least on a superficial outward level, is being renewed.

I think this idea of renewal is a great metaphor for our own lives. Of course I think we all want to be renewed, especially on a daily basis. We want to jump out of bed, pull the curtains, let the sun in and just thank God for the day. It doesn’t matter if our eyes are still crusty or we are wearing the giant stinky T-shirt that we have slept in for ages. We feel renewed.

I don’t think renewal is an easy thing though. The buildings in Sokolov are not being changed overnight or by any simple process. Many, many workers are putting in full days, doing what they have to do to prepare and paint the buildings that they are assigned to. We can’t force ourselves to be happy. We can’t mumble a simple, memorized prayer and expect to be refreshed. It takes effort. And hope. And faith. It is not a paint-job on the surface, it goes deeper to our very souls, our core being.

I want to be renewed. I want to wake up everyday with the thought that, “If God is for me who can be against me?”, no matter what my circumstances might be. And I want to see  Sokolov renewed as well. I want to see people’s hearts be as radiant as the colors I am seeing spring up all over town. I want the church I attend to grow so much that when I leave it is thinking about planting another. I want my students to feel the love and purpose that only a relationship with God can bring.

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It won’t be easy. I better start praying now.