Once they all were mine

IMG_2125If there’s a moment in the life of a teacher when they realize it was all worth it, I’ve had mine. The image of a dozen chicken-legged 12-year olds, giggling and shuffling on stage in their nice skirts and slacks is seared into my mind as permanently as the feeling that came with it.

Typical in the Czech Republic is the tradition of an end-of-year Open House at the school. They call it the “academy” or – the official title – the Garden Party. It consists of the sale of homemade baked goods from wooden stalls around the school’s lawn, blow-up houses and trampolines for younger kids, and a 3-hour run of performances on a grand stage brought in especially for the occasion. The affair begins at four o’clock and doesn’t end until nearly 9:30 p.m. when the only people left outside are the cleaning crews, putting away the aftermath in the dim glow of the lingering summer twilight.

This year, as was the case last year, I ran around taking pictures of students and performers. I sampled the original Czech desserts. I teased my kids and met their parents. I watched the light stretch across the sky until it was so thin you could barely see the blue hues in the milky evening. When the 9th graders did their closing songs, I watched, enraptured with the rest of the several hundred parents, teachers, siblings and friends that had gathered. When they sent their balloons soaring into the sky, like last year, I found myself wiping away tears.

But for me, the real moment happened much earlier in the day.

Arguably my best and worst classes this year have been with my sixth graders. I didn’t teach any of them last year, so we started fresh in September. It’s been a long year getting to know each other and I’ve learned a lot in the last nine months – not the least of which is that teachers make mistakes too, love is given freely but respect must be earned, and if you try to wake a sleeping 12-year old during first period he will turn into a bear and eat anyone within a two foot radius.

A large reason why I’ve loved teaching sixth grade this year is because they loved me first. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, about half of each sixth grade class adopted me as their leader, mentor and mascot. I can’t pass any of them in the hallway without being asked for a high five, no matter how large their group is or how much of a rush we’re in – it takes a while to get anywhere in school these days.

But there are those I had to work on. The pair of girls in the back who were far too cool for school. The boys who were always on their phones. The kid who didn’t know that chairs were for sitting in and not for dancing on. The unfortunate few who didn’t believe I was serious when I said I’d send them home with notes to their parents if they didn’t behave.

I’ve tried several times this year to write about my sixth graders, but, to be honest, it’s been too painful. Mostly because I’ve made a lot of mistakes with them. Who knew being a teacher wasn’t all black and white?

Learning that really loving your students means really disciplining them was hard. Learning that not everyone is going to see you as the good guy was hard. Learning how easy it is to fall off someone’s pedestal was so, so hard. Learning that I have a long way to go as a teacher was discouraging and hard. And I just didn’t know how to put it on the blog. There was no real story. Just me screwing up a lot and my students struggling to grow up, as we all do.

But I also learned – miraculously and completely by accident – that my students love to sing.

As an exercise in listening and a grammatical lesson in similes and metaphors, I introduced my kids to Bette Midler’s “The Rose.”

We went over it several times before I suggested, off-handedly, that we do it for the Garden Party. The Vice Head had asked me to prepare something and I needed to come through. I’m not much of a singer, and even less of a director, but this was all I had.

At first, only the members of my ‘fan club’ were at all interested, even though most of the class seemed to like the song. Getting up in front of gobs of people to sing it. . . Whole different story.

But as the weeks drew nearer and we continued to practice and plan, more and more of my students asked to join our growing choir.

By the time the General Practice rolled around, the Friday before the Garden Party, we had maybe a dozen willing participants. The whole school had gathered in the gym and sat on mats or leaned against walls (depending mostly upon whether or not you were a cool upperclassman). The other performances were dance routines or instrumental numbers. Anyone singing was singing along with a CD. Pharrell Williams and Katy Perry were among the many voices that aided our students in their acts.

So my students were understandably nervous when they shuffled to the front. They were singing to a karaoke recording. I promised to sit right in front and keep time for them, mouthing the lyrics in case they got lost (which they did, despite the print-outs they were all holding), and guiding them through the difficult music changes. It was rough. Aside from the general disorder and the fact that half of them forgot the second verse and just resang the first one, a stage helper passed them a microphone halfway through the song. That mic got handed down from one to the next – each as surprised and scared of singing that close to it as the previous pair of hands. When it reached the end of the row, a timid blonde girl, realizing she had no one to pass it on to, turned and tried to give it back. No one wanted the mic. This game of hot-potato had the entire gym laughing at us as we sheepishly finished and the music faded out.

That was a wake-up call. We need to get our act together. And together we got it. In the next four days, we rehearsed with vigor, planned our costumes, and reviewed our strategy in case someone forgot the words. By our last practice, they were so good they didn’t even really need me up in the front.

The day of the Garden Party, classes were sent outside for a run-through. The sun was shining and the breeze was soft as a feather, brushing across our bare faces and tousled hair. The stage on the lawn outside had been set up that morning and my students were now waiting in the tents just to one side.

I surveyed the area. Long benches had been set up below the stage for people to sit on. Right now they were filled with the fourth and fifth grade classes. A sound booth was behind them and farther back, between us and the school, was a field of booths being constructed for the bake sale. Various teachers and older students lingered around the ongoing activities. I wandered toward the front of the benches, trying to find a good place to direct my students from. I hadn’t expected to feel so conspicuous standing up in the front, especially with all the younger kids sitting down right behind me. I’m not a choir director anyway, so I felt out of place in a million ways. Despite my rather out-going nature, I don’t like to make a public spectacle of myself.

Picking a spot on the grass, I curled up next to a fourth grader and waited for my students to come on. I’d just stay here. They knew the song by now anyway.

How can it be possible that I’ve grown up as much as my students have?

The microphones picked up every giggle and cough as my kids made their way shyly to the front of the stage. They had to be coaxed by the sound guy to come closer to the microphones standing near the edge. Tugging at skirt hems and wringing hands, still giggling awkwardly, my sixth graders tuned their ears for the opening chords of our song.

And then I noticed something. The girls in the front were scanning the crowd. The same girls who were once some of my biggest trouble-makers were standing there in their blue-n-white dresses, soft grins on their faces, ready to sing. And looking for me.

Kde je Mary?”

That was it. That was the moment. That was all I needed to hear to get me to my feet and stand in front of all the teachers and students. My kids needed me.

We were a team. They were for me and I was for them. They were willing to sing because I asked them to. I was willing to direct because they needed me to.

Every key change, every new verse, they’d look at me with anxious, trusting eyes, and I’d guide them through it, exaggerating the words with my mouth, ignoring the chuckles and grins from those behind us. And when we’d get through a tough spot in the song, I’d smile reassuringly and they’d smile right back. It was the most beautiful tag-teaming I have ever witnessed. And it was us.

The actual performance went even better. They were angels. And so many people were standing in the crowd that I didn’t feel in the way when I took my place below the stage.

The evening came and went, and as I watched the ninth graders’ balloons waft into the sky, I felt someone tug at my arm. One of my little singers. Tears in her eyes, she said, “You’re like the balloons.”

She means I’m going away.

I couldn’t help but feel like they’re the balloons. Drifting out of my life as quickly as they came into it. We watched the colorful spots get smaller and smaller and it felt like the whole year had gone by in a blink.

But how can that be true when we’re all such different people than we were when it started?

How can it be possible that I’ve grown up as much as my students have, that I’ve learned as much – if not more – from them as they’ve learned from me? And how can it all be over so soon?

I want to tell my students that I’ll always be there for them. That if they ask where I am, I’ll be able to stand up and guide them through whatever they’re struggling with. But I can’t. Because I’m flying away.

More of my sixth graders found us and we stood in silence under the vanishing flecks of color. And I wondered how the balloons felt to be leaving. Were they scared to rise to such great heights, so far away from where they started? Did they worry about being separated from the other balloons? Or were they simply happy to be free, going on their merry way?


We can’t hold on to balloons forever, after all. Eventually we’ll have to let them go. Isn’t it enough to hold on to them for just a moment and then enjoy the sight of them soaring towards the stars?

And that moment, this year, these students – all the growing pains – they’ve all been worth it.

30 Things I’ll miss when I leave Prague

My departure date is quickly approaching and it seems like everything I do reminds me of something I’m going to miss when I’m home. I’ve spent roughly half of my adult life (ha. as if.) living in this city, and I feel like I’ve grown up in it, like a branch that has been grafted into a tree. Will adult life even function the same way in a country without guláš? I think not.

So to cope with the impending dread of leaving my little nest here and returning to the Great Unknown (read: the future), I’ve made a list of all the things I’ll miss about Prague.

Wait. Mary. Stop. This sounds like a hooooorrible coping mechanism.


So, we’ve been a little emotional lately… Let’s get back to that list, shall we?

  1. Public transportation. Otherwise referred to as a guilt-free excuse to leisure read.
  2. Cobblestones.  Also grey-brick sidewalks and dirt paths through the forest.
  3. Thick hot chocolate. It’s actually really like melted chocolate. You could use it as dip. Or cement. Delicious, dark cement.
  4. Donuts for 12 cents. Or really, just all food being extremely, unbelievably cheap.
  5. Swans. Everywhere. All the time. And feeding them on the river banks is one of the best ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. IMG_3985
  6. Beer. There is no point in drinking American brews now. My standards have been raised. Also, it’s cheaper than water.
  7. Pretty money. Like, why is American currency just green? Are we the only country that doesn’t have fancy colors on our bills?
  8. Dumplings. Potato dumplings, bread dumplings, fruit dumplings, stuffed dumplings.
  9. Train rumbles. There are few areas of the city where you can’t hear the gentle hum of a train chugging along its tracks or see it’s speeding on its merry way
  10. People dressing like they care. European fashion is real.
  11. Picking my own food. Spring and summer are resplendent with forest berries and mushrooms and everyone in Prague has some kind of garden with fruits and vegetables to share all season. Fresh. IMG_2238
  12. The Charles’ Bridge. Because it’s a thing of beauty.
  13. Street performers. And for that matter, sausage and pancake vendors.
  14. Fried cheese. Can we please, pleeease make this a thing in America already? 20140605_181837
  15. The Vltava. Pity those who don’t live next to a river.
  16. Trdelník. Dough, roasted over coals, coated in cinnamon and sugar.
  17. Czech holidays. Especially the crazy ones, like the day the devils come and drag children out of their classrooms or the day they burn the witches to beckon spring forward.
  18. Randomly hearing fireworks all the time. Because they’re legal here. And people like to party.
  19. Being just a day away from everywhere else in Europe. They don’t call it the Heart of Europe for nothing.
  20. Czech humor. Dry, sarcastic, and unapologetically honest.
  21. Sitting down to eat. You don’t walk and eat here. You eat. You enjoy. The bond between human and food is respected here.
  22. The social acceptableness of eating alone. It’s done. It’s normal. No questions asked.
  23. The community. Prague is too small not to run into people you know on the metro on a frequent basis.
  24. The seasons. Prague looks magical in all of them. IMG_2659
  25. Wild Boar. Not that I’ve seen any yet. I’ve smelled several and heard one. And their tracks are visible all summer along forest paths. I guess I’ll just miss the possibility of seeing one.
  26. Chocolate. They sell chocolate here in huge bars with nuts, fruits, cream fillings and gummy candies. It’s out of this world.
  27. Crazy hair. I see someone on the bus with a mullet at least once a week.
  28. Having a pub or grocery store on every corner. They may all be exactly the same, but as long as they’re serving Staropramen or selling rohlíky then I make no complaints.
  29. Tartar sauce. I’m not sure if I can go back to ketchup after two years on the sauce. We’ll see.
  30. The sky. All summer long. IMG_0506

Shall we torture him?

Some of our 9th graders at the Halloween Parade last year as Zombie Cowboys.

Some of our 9th graders at the Halloween Parade last year as Zombie Cowboys.

Debate Day always inspires a certain amount of nerves and a certain amount of mischief. I write the topics on the board and split twenty ninth graders into groups. Our theme today, following several weeks of ‘American slang’ vocabulary in the same vein, is “Cops and Robbers” – or, more accurately, “FBI and the Mafia.”

Five minutes of prep. Ten minute rounds. It’s a hodgepodge of cross-fire and muttered soliloquy. I let it run until they break out the ad hominems.

I love Debate Day because it gives me a chance to see my students from a slightly closer vantage point. Who are they when it’s just them in front of the class? Who do they become under pressure? What do they have to say?

Question: Should we (the FBI) use torture tactics to get information from a known gang member in custody?

Group 2 settles into the front row desks as Group 1 takes position – each team occupying a corner of the front of the classroom.

Round 1
Šimon v. Sam

Šimon is short in stature, big in character, sweet in demeanor, and one of the more responsible students in class (depending on who he’s sitting next to). He assumed position of Team Leader very quickly. Sam is soft-spoken and taller than any drink of water you’ve ever seen. His English is top-notch.

Šimon (craning a little to look up at his opponent and bouncing on his heels in excitement): We shouldn’t torture the gangster because we’re the good guys. It’s wrong and we shouldn’t do it.
Sam: But it’s the quickest way to get information that we need.
Šimon: We can find other ways. Torture shouldn’t be an option.
Sam (blushing): But this is the most efficient option.

A whispering behind me draws my attention away from the debate. Apparently half our judging panel doesn’t understand the word “torture.” We pause the debate for translation which takes several minutes as we continue to discover (in waves of realization) that most of the students present don’t know the translation of the word in Czech, including a few of the debaters.


Šimon returns to his team continue coaching – admirable, considering he wanted to be on the pro-torture dialogue.

Round 2
Kristyna v. Tomaš

Kristyna is full-lipped and doe-eyed. She’s a sweetheart and dresses like a champ. She doesn’t often speak in decibels loud enough to hear, but neither does her opponent. Tomaš is a nervous smiler. He pulls out his shaky, weak-kneed grin every time I try to speak to him in English. We have yet to have a conversation with words spoken on both sides, but his grin is worth the effort. It could win an Oscar.

Kristyna (taking us by surprise and jumping right into the fray): We can’t torture him. It’s wrong.
Tomaš (smiling sheepishly): . . .
Kristyna (trying to catch Šimon’s coaching from the sidelines): It’s. . . It’s wrong?
Tomaš’s teammates begin assisting from the sidelines as well. There are, after all, plenty of valid reasons to torture people, they remind him.
Tomaš (after some coaxing of legal and slightly-less-legal variations): It works.


Round 3
Petr v. Matouš

Petr is a gamer and a world-class geek (a classroom essential, if you ask me). He’s one of a few kids who always says ‘hello’ to me in the hallways and he’s a decent student. Matouš is more of a cool kid, at least, as far as I can tell. I’ve not really ever known enough personally to be sure. But beneath his laid-back airs and apathetic shrugs, he’s got a rather genuine layer of something resembling gold. Both are higher-level English speakers.

Matouš: If we don’t get this information, other people will be hurt.
Petr: This is horrible. We can’t do this. Only terrorists do this.
Matouš: And the FBI, apparently. Now. Because we’re doing it.
Petr: No, bad guys do this. You’re a . . .
Matouš (lifting his arms in a ‘come at me, bro’ fashion): Go ahead. Say it.
Petr (with conviction): You’re a terrorist.
Matouš, as a statement, walks off.


Round 4
Terka v. Matyáš

These two are actually cousins, though you wouldn’t guess it. Terka is an adorably frustratable person. She gets tongue-tied and bashful if someone blinks too hard, let alone if someone asks her to say something in front of the class. Matyáš, on the other hand, is Mr. Golden Mouth himself. He’s the kid that can talk himself out of trouble almost as fast as he gets himself into it. The only quality these two have in common is that they are both rooted firmly in some undefinable goodness that shows itself when least expected and reminds me why I love being a teacher.

Matyáš: If we don’t take this course of action, a lot of other people are going to be hurt or die. You may say it’s wrong, but it’s better than letting innocent people be killed by this gang. It’s our moral obligation to find out what this gang member knows.
Terka: I think . . .
Matyáš (grinning mischievously at his cousin): Yes, Terka? What do you think?
Terka (blushing furiously): I think . . .
Matyáš (his very familiar, very endearing teasing now unleashed in full): Sorry, I didn’t hear that. What was it you said?
Terka stamps her foot and looks pleadingly at Matyáš who says something to her in Czech.
Terka: . . . Okay.
Matyáš (to the judges, as Terka walks over to his team): Terka is joining our side now. I’m pretty sure we should get extra points for that.


Round 5
Kaja v. Marek

Kaja is another quiet one, with long, nut-brown hair and clear blue eyes. Very pretty, very good in class, very quiet. She is one of my more well-behaved students, even if her English is a little weak. Marek is the closest thing to a drop-out I’ve encountered while teaching. He’s short, blonde. . . A bit of a player or a heartthrob or whatever they’re called these days. His English is lacking. With minutes left on the clock, he sidles up to Kaja.

Kaja: . . .
Marek: . . .
Kaja: . . .
Marek (with a pleasant impatience): Well, start!
Kaja: . . .
Someone suggests that Marek go first. What does he think about torturing the gang member?
Marek (with a look of surprise): I just think it could be a lot of fun.

Uproarious laughter and the ringing of the school bell ends the last round. It’s a close vote, but non-torture FBIers win by one hand.

I collect tests and journals from my desk and make my way into the hall amid the scraping of chairs and zipping of bags. They’re all laughing and pushing and teasing. None of them seem capable of torture, despite what they might insist.

But I’m sure they’re capable of other things. In them I’ve seen flickers of greatness, sparks of passion, pebbles of kindness, which I’m sure, with time and care, will develop into the steady foundations of the new world. Their world. A world I want to be in.