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.


 

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