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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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?

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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.