It’s only been in the last few months, as I continue to make gains in my Czech language ability and as staff becomes more short-handed, that the school has given me responsibilities that I would previously have been considered unequipped for. These include lunchroom duty, subbing classes and, most recently, leading a field trip.
The eighth and ninth grade classes were “going to the theater” on Friday and as 9.B’s class teacher was unavailable to accompany them, I was chosen to go instead.
This was an incredibly huge deal for me. Not that I haven’t been on field trips before. I have helped on zoo visits, amusement park trips and museum tours. But I was never in charge, see. I was never fully and solely responsible for the health and safety of the students.
And that is kind of a big deal.
I suppose some of my worry was born out of the fact that it had been a tough week. I really don’t want to go into details, but it included a ping-pong table during a class I was subbing and a sharp reprimand from the Vice Head (mortifying for someone who is a strict abider of rules). To make matters worse, the Vice Head speaks no English, so when I went to her office to apologize, I had to write the Czech word for “irresponsible” on the palm of my hand and refer back to it during the peak of my contrite confession which sort of took away the “umph” of my speech and added to the “aaawwkward.”
Anyway, it was with this stressful, I-must-prove-myself monster crawling up my backbone that I ran into school on Friday morning. I had no sooner buzzed myself through the teacher’s entrance that I realized, in my haste to arrive on-time, I had completely forgotten that trips to the theater usually have a dress-code. Looking down at my jeans, I could feel the monster inside me groaning exasperatedly.
In my defense, when I first heard about the trip I assumed it was to the movies. It’s fairly common for class teachers to take their students to see a film a few times a year and when we say, “I’m going to the theater” in America, we really mean the movies (because, let’s be honest, who actually goes to the theater? We’re just not that cultured). Czechs, however, call ‘the movies’ the cinema and save ‘theater’ for the actual theater. Even though I knew this, and I knew it was a theater-theater we were going to, my brain had already locked “movies” into my brain under the wardrobe file.
If I am anything besides a strict abider of rules, it is an over-dresser. Ask anyone who went to high school with me. In fact, I’d been dressing nicely all week (and thought to myself on Friday morning, Wow, it’s been such a long time since I’ve worn jeans!). The horror, the sheer horror, of greeting the other teachers in their nice, black dresses while wearing jeans . . . Words fail me.
The students couldn’t have cared less and the other teachers were nice about it. Like, no one judged me, but I’m sure they subconsciously made note of my ineptitude in their mental files the way I had stored “movie theater” in mine.
I collected my kids – there were twelve of them – and we set off after the other classes towards the bus stop. They weren’t dressed for the theater either, but then they are just students. “We are supposed to be the examples,” said one teacher, sweetly, in what was meant to be a comforting reassurance. She went on to explain all the rules of being a field trip leader. “If you’re going up the escalator, they go first, but if you’re going down, you go first. If you’re getting on the metro, they go first, but you should be the first one off. You walk in front unless you’re crossing a street…” The list seemed endless and suddenly my jeans weren’t the only thing I was worried about.
I could feel myself crusting over. It’s a sad side-effect of a bad week. Whenever I feel like I’ve been failing as a teacher I become a little stricter, a little more sullen, just to prove that I can do the job. I’m not sure if it does anything except frustrate my students and make me feel more miserable.
The new teacher got her eighth graders onto the bus without a problem (yes, I’m not the new teacher anymore. There goes my last excuse for not being able to do this job well). She’s lovely, by the way. Young, but not as young as me. Pretty, but in a casual way. Strict and funny. Experienced and fresh. And, of course, dressed like someone taking their class to the theater, which I was not. I like her a lot, but in this moment, I felt my inner monster turning green with pathetic envy.
Half my students hadn’t eaten breakfast and begged me to let them grab a to-go slice of pizza once we got off the bus at the metro station. I said ‘no.’
Heads were counted and then we set off into the underground.
The question was the same at our stop on the red line as we crawled back into the sunlight.
“Please can we grab a slice really quickly? Please can we stop in the potraviny?”
I was determined not to screw this up. No allowances. No toes were to come even CLOSE to the line. We would not have another ping-pong incident on our hands.
A small boy who we call the little dragon – Dračík – went running up the escalator. I called out for him to wait for the group but he just shot me a mischievous glance and kept going, two other boys trailing in his wake. I couldn’t honestly remember the rule – was I supposed to go up first or were the students? My kids were already headed in that direction but he was nearly out of sight so I tore up the escalator after him.
For those who don’t know, the escalators in Prague’s metros are extremely long and not to be messed with.
We were all out of breath when I finally caught up to him. He looked extremely satisfied with himself.
“I just want to get a piece of pizza,” he said with his snarling, lisping accent. We call him the little dragon because he acts like one. He’s always snapping his jaws at someone, licking his reptilian tongue over his pale mouth and growling under his breath. We love him, but we don’t poke him.
“You ran away after I told you to stop three times,” I managed between gasps. “There are other teachers here watching us and I have to prove that I can do this job. After the ping-pong stunt you guys pulled this week, I’d expect you’d cut me a little slack. No. You may not have pizza.”
At this time, the other groups caught up with us and we all got swept away. I did notice that a few of the boys from the other classes managed to get their hands on food. My students noticed too.
We waited outside the theater for ten minutes (“Plenty of time to get pizza,” several students muttered to each other in Czech – no one realizes how much I understand these days). Finally, we all piled into the theater with a dozen other schools.
I counted them as they went up the stairs to make sure all twelve of my students made it into the auditorium.
The play was mostly in English, but that didn’t make it comprehensible. Put on primarily by student actors, the watered-down script was the weirdest, most questionable, slightly racist thing I’ve ever seen performed on stage, which included songs that weren’t sure if they were dance numbers or just opportunities to leap around stage and props that were fifty-percent imaginary. For a low-budget performance, it wasn’t so bad, but I did felt personally offended when they made light of the U.S. national anthem. Our song is not a prop, mad’am.
But I tried to keep a straight face for the duration of the performance and only say neutral sounding things when people asked me what I thought afterwards.
The groups split up on the way back to school. My class wanted to go to KFC, which was along the metro line we took to school anyway, so I agreed. It’s pretty typical for teachers to let their kids get lunch on the return trip.
I counted heads. Twelve.
We wandered into a mall at Pankrac and I told them they had 45 minutes till we would meet back at the entrance. I followed some of the girls as they wandered around the mall. I even introduced them to the wonders of Frozen Yogurt which they were pretty enchanted by. Most of the kids got cheap lunch boxes at KFC or McDonalds on the top floor in the food court.
At last we all convened by the metro doors. I counted again and we headed down into the tunnel. Dračík still had a third of his McDonalds blizzard and was taking his sweet time in finishing it. Most of it had turned into creamy slush.
“I can’t take this on the metro,” he told me as ours pulled up. It was completely packed, thanks to the post-lunch rush.
“Then toss it,” I said as I shepherded my brood toward the doors. What was the rule again? Do I go on first?
“No, there’s still some left,” he said, his voice rippling with amused defiance.
“Then hide it,” I hissed, as we got on. There was barely enough space for us and my jacket got stuck in the doors as they closed. Face pressed against the glass, I struggled to free it. The monster inside my chest was heaving in angry breaths.
And that’s when I noticed.
There, on the other side of the window, just an arm’s length from my face, was Dračík, clutching his blizzard and waving slyly with the sickest grin of self-satisfaction I have ever seen in my life.
Our metro pulled away slowly and I watched him disappear on the platform.
“Dračku?” the girls next to me asked as we rushed into the dark tunnel.
I gasped audibly, to the amusement of the adults packed in tightly around us.
“I lost him!” I moaned into my hands. “I lost a student! The Vice Head is going to kill me! …I will kill him.”
Amid my students’ reassurances and the grins my fellow passengers were failing to hide, I found myself hyperventilating against the cool glass of the metro car. The little green monster inside of me loaded a pistol and held it to its head. It’s all over now. You’ve lost a student.
Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm.
When the doors opened and my class and I spilled onto the platform, I let out the groan of agony which caused the remaining passengers to loose the laughter they had been holding in. My outburst – which I had not intended to happen out loud – attracted the attention of those on the platform as well, because if you’re going to lose a child on the metro system, you may as well make a huge scene of it.
The rest of the ninth graders thought it was hilarious. What a Dračík-thing to do. Class act, he was. Oh yes.
The problem was, it was funny. This whole year I’ve struggled with the fact that I have no teacherly instincts. I’d much rather be making paper airplanes with the kids in the back of class than be up in the front teaching. In fact, if we could have a class just for making paper airplanes, that would be ideal. That’s how the whole ping-pong thing got started in the first place.
But I can’t do that. I have to be the teacher. I have to have a little crust. I have to dress up for the theater. I have to be the example. It’s my job.
So I swallowed my smile and set it to rest with my fears that the Vice Head would never let me teach again if she found out about this incident (and so soon after the ping-pong catastrophe!). With a nerve-wracking stillness, we waited for the next car which carried our dear little rascal.
He was greeted by his friends and fans with much aplomb and it was a moment before the crowd cleared and we stood face-to-face. He looked at me a little sheepishly and I looked back at him, not cruelly, but certainly without my usual twinkle.
“So,” I said in Czech (because they know I’m serious when I stop using English), “Are you finished?”
He nodded silently and I asked him to give me his ice cream cup, which he did (it was empty by this point). I tossed it in the trash and then motioned silently for the kids to make their way up to the bus stop, which they did.
For a gorgeous two minutes, everyone behaved. We got to the bus stop and waited.
Dračík was fidgeting uncomfortably and I was having trouble keeping up my real-teacher act. So I pulled him aside and explained why he’s not allowed to run off. He explained that it was just a joke. And I made him promise that next time we’d both do better – I’ll be a better teacher, he’ll be a better student. He grinned.
Someone pulled out a phone and the next thing I knew, we were taking a huge, conspicuous group selfie. So much for maintaining a teacherly anything.
We got back to school – all of us, in one piece.
I met up with the other teachers in the cafeteria and sank into a chair. Grins were exchanged at my expense.
“The Vice Head was really worried when we said you took your group back alone,” said one. “Everything went okay, right?”
At first I nodded, then I shook my head and the whole story spilled out.
“Don’t worry,” came sympathetic responses. “Once I got everyone on the metro but myself,” or, “Today, two of my boys nearly missed the bus home. It happens. It’s school.”
That seems to be the motto we go by. That’s what the Vice Head told me after my pitiful apology in her office on Wednesday regarding the ping-pong incident (may it rest in peace).
It’s just school. It’s just life. We learn as we go. I rarely make the same mistake twice (though when I do, it’s usually grander and more cringe-worthy the second time).
On Friday I learned that I can get a dozen fourteen-year olds from school to the theater and back. I learned that more often we have things to prove to ourselves than to others. And I learned that it’s okay to get a little lost on the metro.