“Don’t say that word,” I told the three little boys who were shouting profanities at the chalkboard. The rest of my 4th graders were busily engaged in our classroom activity but there are always a few Ringo Jacks in the group…
“What does it mean?” asked Petr.
For a moment I saw my mom’s big brown eyes softly blinking at me and I heard her telling 10-year old Mary something like, “It’s just not a pretty word.”
Ah, to handle life’s difficult questions with the grace and elegance of my mother.
Unfortunately, I am not my mother.
“Well,” I told the boys, pulling out my phone to check my Czech/English dictionary for an exact translation, “It is a dirty word in English and you shouldn’t use it.”
They huddled in closer, eyes wide with curiosity and a fiendish amazement that is both adorable and intimidating. We bantered back and forth in Czech for a little bit – I wanted to make very sure they understood why they weren’t allowed to say this word in class before giving them the definition.
Finally, I turned my phone around and let them look at the Czech equivalent of their cuss-word of choice (which, in this case, was ‘H-E-Double Hockey Sticks’ and accompanied by the much-employed phrase, “What the?”).
Enlightened ‘Aaaaaah’s fell from their O-shaped mouths and I made them promise one more time not to say that word in class before shipping them off to join their classmates.
I love teaching 4th graders, but they require a lot of energy (especially if one plans on introducing songs like, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” during the lesson), so I wasn’t just a little grateful when Friday’s class schedule was replaced by a “Birds of Prey” exhibit on the school lawn.
Between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 10:15, the school’s 1st – 4th graders lined up on the school lawn around a roped off circle of hawks, eagles, owls and vultures. It was quite a sight to see so many powerful birds perched on our foggy school yard, their heads tucked deeply into their feathers to ward off the chilly mist.
The teachers next to me chatted in Czech. None of them speak English so I did my best to chip in using the native tongue. They are gracious with my limited conversational abilities. At this point, I understand much more than I can say.
One of the teachers stepped forward and lifted up the thin long-sleeved shirt of a 4th grade boy. No undershirt, no jacket. She gave him a glare and he shrugged his shoulders. Whispering to the others she complained that he always made a fuss about being too cold but never wore a jacket. Twenty minutes later he’d be shivering and stamping the cold out of his feet, determined to stick-out his choice of wardrobe without complaint.
The teacher to my right asked about the big bird in front of us. Did I know it’s name in English?
Of course I did.
We were standing in front of a magnificent, sleepy-eyed Bald Eagle (capitalization out of respect for our country’s national bird). I had already snuck my phone out to take a few snapshots. It’s always nice to see a fellow expat, and except for Uncle Sam and the occasional corn field, nothing says, “America misses you” quite like a Bald Eagle.
The exhibitors explained things about each bird. I understood bits and pieces. Things like: “He is the fastest bird in the world.” “He has a black head and white neck.” “He eats salmon.”
The boys in front of me were the very same rascals who’d just the other day learned which words not to say in my class – I leaned forward and tugged on the hoods of their jackets.
“Having fun?” I asked.
“Yes!” Noses pink. Eyes wide. Smiles stretching across their faces like comet tails.
We watched hawks race after fake rabbits hooked to trap wires. We watched vultures swoop down onto leather gloves. We watched some weird little bird hop around on the ground for about five minutes. Not sure what the deal was there… But, by far, the show-stealer was the American Beauty waiting patiently for his turn.
When the Bald Eagle lifted up into the sky he could literally have soared on the ‘Oooohs’ and ‘Aaaahs’ of the crowd alone. What a wing span. What a dignified figure. What a bird.
I felt so proud to be an American.
And for the first time in . . . well, for the first time since I moved here, I felt homesick for home. Not the people or the weather or the burritos. Not the familiarity of ‘life that was.’ I missed America.
I have so fallen in love with this country and these people in Prague that I’ve forgotten how much I still feel American.
As a kid I idealized the country of my youth. It was easy to believe that the USA is the greatest nation in the world. Easy to believe that her shores are still safe-havens for the tired and poor and you can hear liberty echoing through her valleys and canyons. I know better now.
The sad part about growing up is that things lose their golden sheen. In traveling away from home I’ve seen more of my country’s problems from a different angle. I’ve also been surprised by very “American” qualities I’ve seen in places abroad – ambition, optimism, hope and hard work.
But watching that eagle mount its terrific wings and circle the sky above us, a part of me felt called back to purple mountains and amber waves of grain. Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln seemed to wake up and smile. And I missed home.
I also wondered if the eagle missed home. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist by any means (sometimes I waste paper for fun), but I think I’d rather that eagle be allowed to fly off to North America than be chained to a perch for 4th graders to look at.
Then again, argued my unresting inner monologue, isn’t that what you’re doing? Maybe the eagle likes getting to teach kids about how cool birds are (especially, lets be honest, American birds). Maybe he’s enjoying the camaraderie of that hawk from Saudi Arabia and the weird hopping bird from Croatia. Maybe he, like you, is enjoying the wide world and just isn’t ready to go home yet.
Possible, I thought to myself. Though, frankly, I’d rather my eagles be staunchly patriotic, even if it isn’t politically correct these days.
We trekked back inside where it was warm and we could smell lunch waiting for us. My 4th graders were practically flying themselves, they were so excited by the exhibition. I was happy to hear that in their excitement they had not forgotten their promise to me to not say the H-word.
After that class had finished, Petr had come up to me and asked in his broken English, “Are you angry on me?”
I wanted to give him a big hug, but we were both in a hurry so I just said, “Of course not! You’re a good student. I am not angry at you.”
He smiled and trooped away.
I love teaching 4th graders. They are everything that is good about life. So much energy and enthusiasm. That golden glow of the world is firmly protected in minds so-far untarnished by wars and worries and taxes. They are so ready to believe that every day is a good one, every new word is an adventure and every eagle really is King of the Air.
I think the thing I love about America is its promise for a better future – that we can change and build tomorrow any way we like it – and even when our country is floundering, her Spirit remains true. As we grow up, adults tend to get stuck in the red tape of reality. But to me the American Spirit is an eagle that soars up unhindered. To me, the American Spirit is a 4th grader, bounding in curiosity, growing with determination, unrelentlessly hopeful.