Milý Okurky. . . (A letter to my students)

Last Days in Prague

Dear students,

On Tuesday we had to say ‘Goodbye.’ For some of you, this was easy – you were excited about the next step of your lives, your summer plans, or even just getting home for lunch. For some of you, the last day of school was tougher. You were torn between a past that you loved and a future you’re unsure about (no matter how excited you may be for it to come). And then, not all of us got to say ‘goodbye,’ did we? That happens too.

For me, the hardest part of the day was walking down the first floor hallway for the last time. You know the one – it runs along the ninth grade classrooms from the lunch hall to the big staircase at the end of the school. All those big windows let light come washing onto the smooth floors and across your lovely picture boards. I’ve been dreading that walk for a year and a half. I go that way every day after lunch to get to my office. Really, the day I realized how hard it would be to walk through this hallway on the last day of June was the day I realized how much I was falling in love with you and your school.

But the day did have to come and, even though you’ve already moved along with your summer plans, I want to say just a few things. Think of it as one last little piece of love from your teacher to help you through the next few years.

Be ready to smile.

I know Mondays are hard and it’s easy to be glum when you get bad marks or lose your phone (or someone hides your phone and doesn’t say where! . . . Honzo. . . ). But smiling is a way to fight back. Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make. Smiling – even when you don’t really feel like it – is the first step. And I think you’ll discover that if you smile at people, they’ll smile back. That’s called human connection and we don’t do it enough. But more importantly, your smile will have an effect on those around you. Your smiles have gotten me through some really difficult days. The person I am today is made up of tiny pieces of the people you have been for the last two years. You have shaped me by our shared experiences and you’ll continue to shape those around you for as long as you live! We humans share this planet and we will influence each other, for better or for worse. Remember that and decide: how do you want to shape people? If all you ever give the world is a smile every day, it will be a brighter place.

Be kind.

This one is tough. Being kind isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. It certainly isn’t cool. But you know what? It is one of the greatest things you will ever learn. Learn to be nice to people you don’t like. Learn to keep quiet when you want to say something funny at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Learn not to laugh when a friend is down, no matter how funny it might seem to you – help them back up instead. I know this might sound boring to you. It’s not. Kindness is both a gift and an adventure, and only the bravest will ever know its fullest depths. It is the most underappreciated form of goodness and heroism that exists. There is no glory in being kind – only the reward of helping another person. And that is enough, trust me.

Don’t complain about lunch.

We can all agree that not every lunch in school is a good lunch. I particularly struggle with the fish dishes. Gag. But someone made that food. Someone paid money so that you could eat it. And someone much hungrier than you is going without lunch at all today. This isn’t meant to make you feel guilty, only to remind you to appreciate what you’ve been given. Appreciation is something you’ll struggle with your whole life. Start now. Start by thanking God for food to eat, friends to eat it with, and a school to eat it in. The best part about this is that the more you appreciate what you have, the fuller life will seem to you. Richness and joy will leak out of every mundane activity and colorless possession and you’ll discover an entire world that most people will never notice because they never learned appreciation.

Work hard.

Duh. Turn in your homework. Study for tests. Get good marks. But hard work won’t do you any good if you’re not doing it for a purpose. And I don’t mean, “Mom is happy when I have good marks,” or “I need to get into a good high school.” Work hard because you can. What a gift it is to learn! What a privilege it is to fill our minds! God has given us the most amazing capacity to grow and expand! It can be a struggle and you won’t always win, but I want you to try. I want you to aim to grow yourself into the brightest, smartest, hardest-working person you can be – but don’t do it for me! Do it for yourself. Do it because you owe your humanity the very minimum respect of cultivating your mind, body and soul to the best of your ability.

Don’t give up on yourself.

I’ve seen some of you quit. I’ve seen you come to a wall that you didn’t think you could climb. Can I tell you something? Watching you give up on yourselves is the hardest part of my job – worse than grading papers (or losing students on the metro. . . Petře. . .). Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb) once said, “I didn’t fail – I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb!” And after thousands of tries, he finally succeeded. And all those failures added to his character – they made him a stronger person. The key is to keep trying, because, ultimately, our greatest successes are not what we accomplish but who we become. Become someone who doesn’t quit.

Don’t give up on others.

There have been a few times in the last few years when I’ve thought, “I’m not meant to be a teacher – I can’t do this.” (One of these times may definitely have followed the ping-pong incident). Do you know why I didn’t quit? Because you wouldn’t let me. Every time I got worn down, you picked me right back up. We need people to believe in us. We need to believe in others – and not just with things like school and work! Growing up is hard and we all make mistakes. Be patient with your friends. Forgive. Forget. Work together. Don’t give up on those around you who are struggling to find themselves – and I mean everyone, not just our friends. Everyone. Our faith in humanity is much too fragile. Learn to sympathize, learn to respect the struggles of others, learn to lift people up.

Follow your road.

Leaving school has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It breaks my heart to go. A lot of people have been asking me, “When will you come back?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I will come back. Who can know the future but God? On Tuesday, when someone asked me when I’d be coming back to Prague, a dear teacher took my face in her soft hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your life is ahead of you.” I needed to hear that. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to say ‘goodbye.’ Love and friendship are not bound by space and time. So follow your road. Go where you need to go. The people who love you most will be waiting for your return or simply praying for your safe journey, wherever it takes you.

Keep your heart open.

I want to thank you for letting me into your school. You can’t know how I scared I was when I first came to Prague. I didn’t understand anything anyone said. I wasn’t used to the rules and customs here. And I kept getting lost on the stairwell! Most of all, I was scared of letting everyone down, of being a bad teacher. Nebyla jsem špatná učitelka, žejo? I could not have made it through the last two years without your help. You have been so kind to me. You have been so much fun to work with. And you believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself anymore. If anything, you were my teachers and I was your most adoring student – and I always will be. I want you to know that you have been my greatest adventure. I also want you to know that it’s okay to love your new teacher the way you have loved me. People come and go – that’s life. But there is no end to the amount of love we can give. Don’t let the pain of an ending keep you away from the beauty of a beginning. All things do end, eventually. Keep your heart open for whoever needs a home there. And be ready to love everyone – no matter where they come from or where they’re going.

It took me less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of that hallway to the other. The school was quiet – the way it is in the afternoon when you’re all tucked away in your last classes of the day and everyone is sleepy from a full lunch. For that 90 seconds, I thought about all my favorite moments in this school. The first snowfall, Halloween, learning our Christmas songs, the Garden Party. I thought of all your little triumphs and all your dreams, your fears and hopes and crazy ideas – pieces of yourselves that you’ve given me. What an honor to have been your teacher!

But before I knew it, the hallway ended. The view around the corner spread out before my eyes and, looking backwards, the hall lay still and silent.

Life happens quickly. It’s over before we know it. Don’t waste a moment, don’t miss a beat. Remember that you won’t always have the chance to say ‘goodbye,’ so live each moment expressing your love for those around you – let there never be a doubt in their minds how much they mean to you. I hope, I hope, I have been able to express just how much you have meant to me.

But above all, don’t be afraid. The world needs brave people who will be kind, fair and loving.

Are you ready?

Best of luck,

Your Teacher, Mary

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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.

You’re stuck on an island

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“We’ve been trapped on this island for days and there’s no hope of getting rescued,” I say. Everyone nods in comprehension. “If we don’t decide whether to build a raft and get to safety or stay here and live off the island in ten minutes, I’m going to flunk everyone.”

Nervous laughter.

I’ve been trying to spruce up 9th grade conversation class – a difficult task when you consider how few games and activities there are which keep some twenty 15-year olds mostly engaged for 45 minutes, while reaffirming the lesson material and giving everyone at least a small chance to speak. If I’m being totally honest, most Tuesday mornings melt into chaos around minute three and I spend the rest of the class period trying to keep the volume at a humane level and the number of broken chairs / bones / feelings to a minimum.

So today we played a new game. Two teams were given a topic to debate, the other teams sat back and picked a winner. All survivor themed – all intensely dramatic.

After a mildly successful first debate where eight of my students reasonably argued (in somewhat legitimate English!) whether or not to leave the island on a raft, group two came up. Their topic was a touch more provoking.

Dan has killed Marika. Should we kill him in order to maintain justice?

— The following excerpt is an almost verbatim account of 9B during fifth period English class in which Mary discovers much about her students that she never knew, nor would ever have dreamed of before —

First Round: Petr v. Honza

Honza is a fluffy-haired boy with lanky arms. Petr is the size of a 5th grade girl and has as much spit-fire as a room full of baby dragons.

Honza and Petr giggle anxiously at each other like they’re not 15 year old boys and squabble over who should begin first.
“You start.”
“No, you start.”
“No, really, you can start.”
“Petr,” I say. “You start.”
“Okay, I think we shouldn’t kill Dan.”
Honza jumps in with conviction.
“I think we should! We have no food!”
“You want to eat Dan?” asks Petr with a curious glint in his pitch-black eyes.
“No, I didn’t say that,” says Honza, backing up slightly.
Petr’s tone changes into an accusatory laugh. “You want to eat Dan!”
“I didn’t say that!” Honza insists. Then he pauses. “But that’s not a bad idea. We have no food.”

DING DING DING.

[That’s the bell. Back to your corners. I’m not about to let them go on about cannibalism this early in the debate. Especially not with Dan present in class, sitting on a desk in the front of the room, restlessly awaiting his fate.]

Second Round: Julie v. Monika

Julie is a short, chocolate-haired girl with a sweet spirit and little inclination to talk. Monika is her twin soul set in a tall, fair-complexioned body.

“I think we should kill Dan because I don’t want him to kill me,” says Monika quietly.
“But we can’t,” says Julie simply. “We aren’t killers.”
“He killed Marika,” says Monika.
“What if we made him our slave?” suggests Julie with an innocence that makes the worst offenses against humanity seem like great ideas.

[Uproarious moans and commentary in Czech rise from both sides as team captains shout inflammatory things they don’t want me to understand. Julie and Monika remain quiet.]

DING DING DING.

Third Round: Ivana v. Gabi

Ivana is a large girl, polished in manner, princessy in poise, and very good at English. Gabi is a swearing, slouching, tomboy baseball-star and also very good at English. They size each other up.

“Let’s eat Dan,” says Gabi, just going straight for where it hurts.
“You can’t eat Dan,” says Ivana. “That’s disgusting.”
“He killed Marika,” says Gabi. “That’s disgusting.”
“We need to keep him alive and have him do all the work on the island for us.”
“We need food,” drawls Gabi with insistence. “Besides, if we kill him, we won’t have to listen to his stupid stories anymore.”
Ivana has nothing to say.

[“Oh, come on!” says Dan from his desk.]

DING DING DING.

Fourth Round: Petra v. Vojta

Petra is a swan – regal, dignified…a little prissy. Vojta is a gentle-giant, standing head and shoulders (and chest) above everyone else in school. I think the top of my head barely reaches his ribcage.

“You don’t have to eat him,” Vojta begins, swaying over Petra like a tall tree blowing kindly in the wind. “But the rest of us are hungry.”
“We can’t eat Dan. We aren’t killers,” she says, picking up Julie’s argument.
“We are now!” says Vojta, pointing at Dan with a ‘he-started-it’ look. Dan grins sheepishly.

Team Captain Petr jumps in from the sidelines (illegally) and shouts in Czech, “Don’t become the monster! Don’t be like Dan!”

DING DING DING.

Fifth Round: David v. Sara

David is a huge, doe-eyed teddy bear. He is literally Winnie the Pooh incarnate. And he’s shy. Sara is the class sweety – innocent, kind…Definitely not capable of cannibalism.

“We have to kill Dan,” says Sara with modest sincerity.
David says nothing.
“We have no food,” she says.
David still says nothing.
“And he killed Marika,” Sara presses. David blinks twice and then says with a voice softer than butter, “I have a better idea.”
He blinks again.
“Let’s eat Marika instead.”

DING DING DING.

Final bell. We vote to save Dan (it’s a close win) and he whoops and jumps around like a madman, causing some to regret their generosity almost immediately.

The shy kids go back to being shy and the princesses and giants and little dragons push and shove their ways back to their desks. Everyone is tussling with or teasing someone else. Everyone is friendly and happy – or at least amiable and content.

Their echoing footsteps disappear with the sound of their shrieks of laughter as they round the bend at the end of the hallway. Lunch time.

As I lock up their classroom I think to myself that if I ever get stuck on an island, I hope it’s with this crew.