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.

Ding-Ding-Ding!

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.

Ding-Ding-Ding

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.

Ding-Ding-Ding!

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.

Ding-Ding-Ding!

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.

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When the day ends in Dover

I spent an evening on the cliffs of Dover two Octobers ago. In anticipation of a beautiful sunset in Prague today, I’m revisiting this one.

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5 Things I learned from teaching 4th graders in the Czech Republic

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My first day teaching in Prague was probably one of the most nerve-racking of my short existence. I spoke exactly four words in Czech and knew my fourth graders would have limited English abilities. Because Murphy’s Laws about the universe are cringingly on-point, I got lost on my way to school, so the hallways were empty as I ran through them to find the fourth-grade classroom. Giggles erupted when I entered, disheveled, nervous and late. Twenty-two sets of eyes watched me with curiosity and amusement as I timidly made my way to the front of the room. I pulled out my vastly inadequate lesson plan, took a deep breath, and began the most torturous, terrifying, tremendous two years of my life.

When teaching, it is only natural that we also learn, but I had no idea just how much of an education I would get from those fourth-graders.

1. Words are our least important form of communication.

My first lesson was that words matter very little, although that’s strange to admit that as an English teacher. Children use their whole bodies to communicate, twisting themselves into knots as they tell stories and ask questions. Every movement is unchecked and unfiltered, the sincere, subconscious expressions of a child’s thoughts and feelings. It’s intimidating, only because as adults we spend so much time crafting our body language into socially appropriate constructs that mask those feelings. I learned quickly that I had to lose that mask, because saying, “Stop! Don’t do that!” or “Yes! Good job!” made no impact, even on students who vaguely understood what the phrases meant in English. Far more effective were the moments I knelt down next to a student and made eye-contact on their level, or gave someone’s hand a little squeeze when they seemed nervous about speaking in front of the class. Sincerity became our classroom translator.

2. A spoonful of sugar really does make a difference.

My teaching experience was minimal before taking the full-time position in the Czech elementary school. Aside from the ‘new job’ adjustments, there was the cultural learning curve. Things like ‘inside shoes’ and student-teacher etiquette, not to mention the vast array of Czech cuss words that I would learn from students all too quickly, had me frantically double-checking my every move. My greatest fear was that a teacher would walk in on one of my classes just in time to see my students playing toss with someone’s shoes, sandwich or school keys as I would be desperately trying to make everyone get off their desks and sit in chairs like normal people. Sometimes being a teacher feels like playing whack-a-mole – as soon as you get one kid down, another one pops up. Particularly endearing was their habit of hiding in the cupboards, behind the chalkboard or under my desk at the beginning of each lesson. One boy managed to remain undetected in a rolled-up wall map for half of class before he finally fell over and came spilling out. So when the school Head told me that a city inspector was coming to sit in on one of my classes, I justifiably panicked. Shockingly, when the inspector took a seat in the back of the classroom, all of my students suddenly became angels. Everyone stayed in their seats. Not a hair was pulled nor a pen thrown. They even got through singing the Hokey-Pokey without someone deciding to put “in” something inappropriate or dangerous. But as we finished the lesson, as the inspector gave me a smile on her way out the door, as the class exploded once again into chaos, releasing all the pent-up energy, I realized that our perfect lesson may also have been our most boring one. And I’d gladly sacrifice perfection for the sake of a little joy.

3. You can’t be everyone’s hero.

But that’s not to say that all of my ventures in teaching have been success stories. A hard truth about teaching – and about life – is that you can’t be everyone’s hero. You can’t swoop in and magically fix everything. Although most of my fourth-graders flocked around me like ducklings when I entered the cafeteria (as the only American teacher in school, I was the local celebrity), begging for high-fives and shouting out their much-rehearsed, “Hello!”s and “How are you?”s, there were a few who would turn their shoulders so I couldn’t see their faces. They were the same ones I struggled with in class and sent home with poor marks in their report books. I ignored it for a while – give it time, right? But one day, one of those students accused me of not being fair in a classroom squabble and had to hide his face in his sleeve, embarrassed by the tears streaming down his cheeks. Czechs have a very strong sense of ‘fairness’ and to allow violations to the balance of justice is a heavy crime. I sat down and tried to explain why I had to do what I did. I tried to tell him that I understand how hard it is to be a student sometimes, but when I reached over to give him a reassuring pat on the back, he jerked away. He wasn’t the only one who cried that afternoon. I was the bad guy in this situation and there was nothing I could do to change that for him. No amount of explaining would fix the image of the unfair teacher he saw me as. Alone in my office, I finally faced a fact I should have learned in high school. Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone will want your help.

4. Everyday is a new start.

The amazing thing about ten-year olds is their ability to bounce back. I walked into one lesson to find all my little pupils up in arms because the class ‘sweetheart’ had unwisely told her best friend who her class-crush was, and her best friend proceeded to make the information public (proving that human nature is essentially the same, the world over). The jeers and tears had to be stopped and more than one broken-heart had to be mended before we could begin our regularly scheduled program. I assumed there would be a changing of the seating arrangements the next day – after such a political upheaval, I hadn’t expected any of the old alliances to be intact. But there they all were, laughing and sharing the last bites of their snacks, as if yesterday had never happened. That must be why kids are able to survive an institution as mentally and emotionally arduous as elementary school. You have to be able to start fresh everyday with the same innocence and trust and hope you had the day before, no matter what has happened.

5. If your heart doesn’t break a few times, you’re not using it right.

I knew I wasn’t going to be in Prague forever. I knew getting attached was a bad idea. The plan was to be distant, respectable, forgettable. But as I watched the teachers who remained aloof – whatever their reasons – and as I tried it myself, I realized how difficult it is to do what we do without putting our whole hearts out there. As a teacher, you have to be ready to listen to excited whispers, laugh at silly jokes you don’t understand, and hug little people who need to know that someone sees them. That’s just it. You have to see your students. You have to show them that you care, which means you have to actually care. It took me a year on the other side of the world to realize just how great our capacity is, as humans, to love. It took me a year with some very rowdy ten-year olds, who have hearts with ever-open doors and incalculable room for affection, to understand that some things cannot be lost, only added to. And that may be the most important thing I’ve learned from these children. Without even speaking the same language, twenty-two fourth-graders taught me the importance of loving people, no matter how briefly.