Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prague, Week 3

This week, I returned to Prague to pitch in with the end-of-year schoolwork.

My Week
Monday, I dived back into the files. I shuffled papers around, dividing "confidential" from "non-confidential" information, and both from "completely irrelevant" information (old algebra tests, notes about kids who stayed home with sore throats). The non-confidential, relevant information went into a stack to be scanned into a computer, backed up in case of emergency or fire. The confidential and irrelevant information went into a different stack, for a permanent school employee to sort again come August (Lucky them!).

Tuesday, the files were still unfinished, but I could not muster the energy to spend the day sorting papers again (Thank you, God, that I did not grow up to be an accountant or a lawyer!) Instead, I started in on a new and exciting job: revising the school's Crisis Manual. The Crisis Manual is critical document that spells out crucial information such as how to act in case of an emergency, such as a playground injury, an earthquake or a pandemic (bird flu, anyone?). Also included in this manual was the address for the school's "safe house" (a place where the students can go if the current location of the school becomes unsafe) and how the students will get there. Until Tuesday, I didn't even realize the school had a safe house. Every time I read the words "safe house," I felt like a character prepping for action in a Bourne film.

However, the manual did not read like a Bourne film or any other kind of spy movie. It read like a manual. For me, the revising project was still interesting because it was a revising project: very similar to the kind of projects and papers I produced for two years during graduate school. I re-organized the document to make better sense, found and marked inconsistencies in the document, and plugged holes in information.

A Serious Note
Probably the most important hole I filled dealt with child abuse. As any missionary will tell you, English-language schools that offer reduced tuition fill a crucial need in the community. But missionary schools are more vulnerable to certain abuses than similar schools in the US, which are subject to greater scrutiny; in particular, such schools are more open to the physical and sexual abuse of the students. African boarding schools in particular are known for a dark history. To avoid that history, today's missionary schools take extra steps to keep their staff accountable and to keep them watching for signs of potential abuse in the students they serve.

To that end, I created a new appendix within the Crisis Manual listing some signs of potential abuse. The appendix, of course, belongs to the school, and I cannot take it out and post it on the web for all to see. But I can include here a list of signs of potential abuse. Please do not think that abuse is only sexual, or that abuse only happens outside of the church. Abuse takes many forms (including emotional abuse and neglect), and it happens inside the church as well as outside. I urge you, especially those who work with children regularly, to read through the list and keep it in mind.

My Social Life
Among the six weeks I have spent here, this has been the one in which I have caught up with old friends from last year. In the space of five or six days, I

  • joined a friend and her new husband at the park after school to talk and eat peaches
  • watched a number of old "Sherlock Holmes" TV episodes in the evenings with another friend
  • joined yet another friend for lunch on Wednesday
  • participated in a Wednesday night Bible study
  • helped a friend carry her bags to the airport on Thursday
So it's been a busy week. 

As I've caught up with old friends, I've realized that one of the things I like the most about living in a community of expatriates is the proactive nature of the relationships. In the States, people have a set group of friends, and (except for college students), can be fairly certain that this group of friends will be around for five years or more. The stability of these friendships, and their potential to grow over time, is delightful, but such stable social circles have a hard time accepting someone else into the circle. People here describe how their friends move home (to the US or the UK) and spend years trying to make friends, because the social circles of small-town life are so set that it's hard to bring in another person. People aren't trying to be unfriendly; they're just not aware of it, because they are "stuck in their ways", so to speak. 

Expats, on the other hand, know that the relationships they have will not last long, a few years at most. So, they go out of their way to guarantee that they spend extra time getting to know the people that are important to them. There is no chance, no time, for them to get stuck in their ways. 

A story from church this morning illustrates how this works. At Bible study Wednesday night, I met a woman here from Zimbabwe. I saw her again in the bus leaving church, and I went over to say hello. She was sitting with a young man (a friend of hers, not a boyfriend) from the States. We swapped locations, and he turned out to be from my home state and a graduate of my alma mater in the exact same major. We spent the next three minutes swapping stories about favourite professors and telling the Zimbabwean woman that one of the English professors there looked just a little like the professor from Back to the Future. (It's the eyebrows.) Then, we got off the bus. I have no idea when I will return to Prague, so I am unlikely to see my Zimbabwean friend anytime soon. Nor will I see the young man from my home state: He is hoping to take a job in the Middle East next year. We said goodbye and left. 

Now, three minutes on a bus in Prague 5 does not make friends or really even acquaintances. But my point is that we had those three minutes on the bus and had to take advantage of it: Ignoring someone on a bus is a waste of time in a community where people sometimes move continents from year to year. I don't think this means people (especially introverts) need to be ultra-social and talk to everyone we see, all the time. That would work horribly for me, and in fact I ended the week rather tired. But I do think it's important to take advantage of the time we have and go out of our way to form relationships. Americans tend to approach love like some kind of accident: We watch movies, at least, where the characters fall in love with as much forethought as they would fall in a pit. And sometimes we do friendships this way, too. This is something we cannot do any longer.

Next week, I am taking a personal trip. Please pray for safe weather (there's "Rain / Thunder" predicted for the day my flight leaves, which doesn't sound good, but I have my fingers crossed!) and safe lodging. I'll update you when I return.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Prague, Week 2

Last week, I was on loan to a church in Hradec Kralove.

For those of you who don't speak Czech, the town name is pronounced like this: "HRAH-dets KRAH-loe-vae". Hradec is about two hours by train from Prague, in the the northeastern part of the Czech Republic. In Hradec, I joined a local evangelical church with a city outreach. We offered English conversation classes to the local elementary schools and to the adult community, all taught by a Native English Speaker: Me.  

What I Did
Essentially, I led elementary- and middle-school children and adults (thankfully not together) in conversations that ranged in topic from pastimes and the weather (yes, really!) to reviews of American literature and Czech politics. 

Much as I enjoyed the elementary students, I am going to tell you about the adult ones (I enjoyed the adult groups more). A little background: We formed two groups (an Intermediate group and an Advanced group), and each group met three times, each time at the church. The classes were always a mixture, perhaps half believers and half unbelievers; the goal was for the unbelievers to begin to feel comfortable with the church's presence in the community and with the church members, so that they would be willing to come again in the future. Especially with the Advanced class, conversation took off and directed itself, because the "students" were confident that they knew what they wanted to talk about, and so I often found myself ditching the beautiful lesson plans I had drawn up in favour of reviewing practical terms (in the case of the Intermediate students) or simply chatting with the students.

Perhaps the best way to give you an idea of these classes is a story: My Advanced group had been discussing Czech culture and history when suddenly one of the women leans across the table towards me. Irene was a middle-aged woman with dark hair, glasses and a passionate expression; she was an English teacher in Hradec, and so her English was quite good. Completely derailing the earlier discussion, she asks, "Do you like Twilight?" Being the blunt person that I am, I replied, "No." She then went on to describe why she, in fact, liked it: She thought Twilight was good reading for teenagers because Edward and Bella had a romantic relationship in which they postponed sex, which was a good example for the teenagers in the Czech Republic. (Incidentally, Irene is not a believer and lives with her boyfriend.) I countered that Edward is a controlling, manipulative and peeping-tom boyfriend, and valuable as postponing sex is, controlling people make bad boyfriends. Another night, we discussed unusual jobs, and one of the women told us about her position at a local hospital, testing for birth defects; Irene told us about working in the States at a hotel and accidentally saying something completely inappropriate to her boss because her English was still poor at that time (Thankfully, he was an older gentleman and responded kindly). 

What made these classes, Intermediate and Advanced alike, so valuable was the way that each one was an "icebreaker": building relationships between the women of the community and the women of the church. In a way, my role in Hradec was that of a catalyst. In a chemical reaction, the catalyst itself is unimportant; the catalyst is the matchmaker who brings two people together but herself is unmarried. In Hradec, my English classes and I were only of limited inherent importance; the church did not expect the English classes to end with or even include a full gospel presentation. English was the "matchmaker" between the church and the community, a way of bringing two people (or groups of people) together in what would hopefully become a longstanding and valuable relationship. 

Where I Lived
Although the original plan was for me to stay in a hostel in Hradec, I wound up staying with the family who originally invited me to help out at their church; I also ate several meals with other members of the church. It was a week of learning to be Czech, which can be summed up with the following stories:  

Perhaps the most delicious, representative Czech meal I ate was Friday lunch. I had spent the morning at the nearby elementary school, and then my Czech guide and I swung by this woman's house for lunch. Lunch began, as is traditional, with a soup. She served a variant of chicken broth, but I have also seen lentil soup, Mexican bean soup, and spinach soup served as the first course. Each one is served with a large soup spoon in a large, shallow bowl; the remainder of the meal is not served until everyone has eaten their soup. After we finished up the chicken broth, our host brought roasted chicken and potatoes to the table; there was also a bowl with washed lettuce. The bowl of washed lettuce sat untouched while our host piled potatoes after potatoes onto our plates (thankfully fewer on mine) and added a few pieces of chicken. And still the lettuce sat there ignored. Not until the chicken was completely eaten and the potatoes vanished did people help themselves to the lettuce.

Honestly, the food was delicious: The chicken was tender and not overcooked, with a sauce of rosemary and garlic and perhaps a little onion; the potatoes, covered in the same sauce, were equally delicious. But I felt like I waddled a little bit as I left the table, after a week of eating lunches of the same size and content as that one. In many ways, the Czech Republic is still "Old World Europe" and its eating habits have not adapted to the health food kick of the Western world; it prefers beef and chicken and rabbit (Yes, I ate rabbit while I was there; it tastes like chicken) to salad and vegetables.

Perhaps the most challenging part of my Czech experience was the shower. Czech bathrooms are often not as carefully constructed as American bathrooms, with their elaborate shower heads and clear shower doors. Most Czechs also shower in the evening. I chose to keep showering in the morning, but I learned to deal with the Czech shower while I was at it. Essentially, the "shower" is a bathtub with an extendable shower hose and head attached to the faucet; there is no shower door or even shower walls. My first morning there, I decided the best way was to put my face to the one bathroom wall and my back to the bathroom floor. The result was Lake American Traveler beside the shower, one that I used up more than two towels in mopping up. After that, I put my back to the one wall and directed the shower stream in the other direction; this was usually a more effective plan.

So many more stories remain of my week there. I talked about the Roma (Gypsy) people with my hosts, talked about Stargate Atlantis with the elementary students, met many believers eager to share their testimony, and so much more. But it's almost midnight here, and so I bid you a very fond, Dobrou noc


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Prague Summer: Week 1

I trust everyone. It's the devil inside them that I don't trust. ~ The Italian Job

I was reminded of this quote on Wednesday, at a Bible study I used to attend and which I revisited. One of the women attending recalled this Oswald Chambers quote: "Our Lord never put His trust in any person. Yet He was never suspicious, never bitter, and never lost hope for anyone, because He put His trust in God first. He trusted absolutely in what God’s grace could do for others". In the Gospels, it looks like Christ trusts people: Again and again, He forgives them and releases them to the world, to their family and friends, to keep living life as the broken and sinful people that they were and still in part are. He trusts them to "be good" after meeting Him. But this is only partly true: Yes, the people who meet Christ will "be good", but they are not good because of some inherent will to change generated from their meeting with Christ. They are good because it is Christ who works in them, "both to will and to do". Christ knows this, and it is His good work that He trusts, not our imperfect righteousness. 

Essentially, this is the (ideal) attitude of the Christian educator (whether they are working at a state university or in a Christian school). An effective Christian teacher tries to give students grace in the middle of academic and personal struggles, whether that grace takes the form of make-up work or extended deadlines or even forgiveness for academic errors that the student has made. In the past, I always imagined this as me giving my students an opportunity to organize her life and meet her responsibilities: in other words, the opportunity to grow up. But hopefully, my students will do more than just "grow up"; hopefully, they will grow in Christ as well and let Him work in them. 

This is not to say, of course, that rules cannot be enforced. I do not, for instance, accept papers submitted willy-nilly at the end of the semester without explicit permission. But I do work with students who acknowledge that they're having trouble getting a paper ready to submit, and I will continue to work with them, because I expect them to grow in Christ and experience more of His grace in every trial, including the academic ones. 

It's been a busy week here in the Czech Republic. On Monday, I toodled in to school and said my hellos to people. I got a lot of double-takes from people who didn't know that I was coming. On Tuesday, I headed in again and got put to work reviewing material for the school board manual. On Wednesday, I started reorganizing the student files, and after that, on Thursday, I brought my iPod into work for more files. 

The student files are stuffed full of, in some cases, seven years worth of records; the records include everything from excused illnesses to standardized test scores. It's a big job and will likely take several more days for me to complete the student files. But the fact that the files need reorganizing is in itself good news: CISP is reorganizing the files in preparation for beginning the process of ACSI accreditation. The school has been waiting to begin ACSI accreditation for years, and in fact, they've even started down that road a few times before running into new roadblocks. Hopefully, some of these roadblocks have been cleared away, and the school can begin the process in earnest this time.

So, tomorrow morning, I'm back to "doing my bit" and organizing some more files. I'll turn up my Avatar soundtrack and wade right in.

Future Events
Next week, I'm off to Hradec Kralove for some short conversational English lessons. Please pray for smooth travel and lodging (I believe, but am not sure, that I will be staying with local believers), as well as good connections to the other people in the town.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Back in Prague

So I find words I never thought to speakIn streets I never thought I would revisitWhen I left my body on a distant shore.

In "Little Gidding," Eliot envisions a poet he considered to be his master (usually identified as W.B. Yeats) speaking to him in a Purgatorial vision from beyond the grave. I find this line rather appropriate now, though I am admittedly taking these words out of context. 

I am back in Prague, in "streets I never thought I would revisit," less than a year after I left. 

Sorry I didn't let you know sooner! I meant to write a blog post the last week in May, but with all the packing, time slipped away, and I was boarding a plane and listening to automated reminder to turn off all electronic devices. 

So, here's what happened: Last year, I somehow did not use all the money that I raised for support; more was paid into my checking account by my sending organization than I actually used. In an effort to use the money (originally given for missions) responsibly, I set it aside and planned to take a short-term trip over the summer. I looked into going to China, India and Brazil, but it worked best for me to return to Prague and volunteer here. 

I will be here for five weeks (It's going to go by so fast. Five weeks is a blink of an eye compared to the six months that I stayed last time.) During that time, I will volunteer at the school where I worked last time (various organizational and clean-up projects, I believe). Also, I will spend time teaching conversational English at a church plant about an hour from Prague. In early July, I will spend about ten days working at an English camp with the same church plant. 

Prayer requests:
  • Safe travels. I will be bouncing around the Czech Republic quite a bit, as you can tell, so please pray that I get from Point A to Point B (and sometimes Point C and Point D) without a hitch. 
  • English lessons. In the years since I've started teaching, I've come to rely heavily on knowledge of my students to tell me whether what I'm teaching is profitable, or over or under their heads. In teaching conversational English, I know the ages and approximate ability levels of my students. Please pray that what I teach will be relevant to their level, not exceedingly dull or exceedingly difficult (Knowing me, I'm more likely to accidentally teach something exceedingly difficult.)
So far, the weirdest feeling has been how familiar the city feels. My first memories of new cities (Beijing, Berlin, and Prague the first time) always include a distinctly alien element: the script-like lettering of Chinese and the unusual signs, or the brilliantly-neon flashing ads in Berlin. Entering Prague this time, I recognized words, store names and places that I had been. 

About the blog: I plan to post more while I am here; however, with all the traveling, I'm not sure how often that will actually be. So bear with me: I promise to gather more stories and pass them along to you. 

Thank you for your prayers.