Saturday, October 22, 2016

      It's October, but I'm not sure that we've recovered from the summer yet. I'm sorry if that sounds like I'm whining, but what a summer! Between the end of Spring and the middle of September, we had a high school graduation, visits to Sharon's parents in Texas, Paul's encounter with his newly discovered brother in Washington D.C. two memorial services of dear friends,  and Paul's class trip to Spain.  Patrick, Paul Hugh and Sharon all started new university programs.  Oh. Did I mention a wedding? The Wedding. Here are some photos and quick comments.
      In order to graduate, Czech students have to complete grueling written and oral exams called maturita. That's because it's assumed the process shows, or confers, maturity. In Paul Hugh's case, it really did! His results: English, 1, Psychology, 1,  Czech Language and Literature, 2 and Art, 1. Remember that 1 is the best. Paul Hugh graduated with honors. Interestingly, he and a friend were our school's first to choose Art for the finals. They worked together on a graduation project. In the photo on the left, Paul Hugh is defending his work before the evaluation committee. In the photo on the right, he is awaiting the announcement of his excellent results.
      At graduation, the class president traditionally makes a speech. Paul Hugh's was sweet and apt, full of respect and gratitude for the many adults who had brought them so far. And here he is, doing just that.

      Almost as soon as school was over, we received news that our dear friend Mike Packevicz was losing ground in his battle with cancer. Mike was the best man at our wedding, as you can see in this photo.

      Good friends recommended that we not wait until Lucy Rose's wedding to see him, so we changed plans radically and flew to see the Packevicz family in Connecticut. After some precious days with them, Sharon, Paul and Isaac drove across the country to meet Paul Hugh and his girlfriend, Kristina Kampová, at the airport. We all then flew to Texas to see the Nicholsons. Here's Grandpa smiling at the visitors and Kristina helping in Grandma's kitchen.
      Then came the toughest and most exciting part of our journey: getting back to Illinois for the wedding. This included welcoming some of Lucy Rose's Czech friends and of course helping with preparations for the festivities at Pottawatomie Park by the Fox River in Saint Charles.  What a lovely location!  Check it out here:
      This whirlwind adventure had too many highlights to get them all into a blog, but these pictures give a few impressions.
Lucy Rose got to introduce Sheldon to family and friends who feel like family
Wayne and Gina Detmer hosted a fabulous brunch where hymn-singing was a highlight

Paul's birth mother, Diana, got to meet some grandchildren and Sheldon for the first time
Isaac was in charge of preparing a dance for the wedding

Patrick was in charge of preparing a song

Our friend Matěj was in charge of keeping Sharon's folks with us by Skype
Thank you, Prem Thomas, for this great shot of the big moment

      After the wedding and a few days to recover, some of us headed home to the Czech Republic and Paul went to the Washington, D.C. area to have a first meeting with his newly discovered half brother. Wolf and Paul have the same Mom, biologically, and are just two years apart. Wolf is a scientist and leader of a government research agency. He was welcoming and they talked many long hours about family histories, hockey, Baltimore, Washington and even spiritual things.
      Paul got a little more time in Connecticut with Mike and his family before returning to Europe. Almost immediately, though, our dear friend Juanita Chamberlain passed away. Sharon was able to make it to New York for the services and fellowship in her honor.  Immediately afterward, Paul helped to lead the BMA fourth year student's trip to Spain, featuring Barcelona and then the beautiful medieval town of Girona, below.

      Immediately after that, Mike passed away, and Paul went back to the States. He spoke at the memorial service in Connecticut. Many of Mike's close men friends wore bow ties in his honor, as you can see below.

      And finally, sometime in October, we stopped traveling all over. We tried to settle back into school. We're settling back into church. Sharon sometimes leads worship and is once again leading a weekly women's ministry.  Paul still delivers about two Czech sermons a month. Soon B.M.A. will be in the thick of the fall recruiting season, with the trips to feeder schools and Open House day. Isaac is settling into school. He loves having almost four hours of dance classes every week. Paul Hugh is coming home from Slovakia almost every weekend. The leaves are turning yellow and gold and the mornings are chilly. Here's a scene from the mountain over our home. Consider a visit. Definitely pray for us, please.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Czechs Talk About Czech Culture

It was another maturita week. The fourth year students did their oral exams. The school was full of students and teachers in jackets and ties and lovely dresses. I wore my favorite green jacket and a thin green tie. The maturanti either wandered the halls nervously clutching notes and mumbling to themselves, or flopped in sofas, exhausted and relieved. 
As an English teacher, I had a lot to do: there were 29 intensive oral English exams to administer. But there were also long breaks for me while the students fought through Czech, biology, social studies and all the other subjects. During these times I had the opportunity to think deeply about what is going on.
You might have read my essays from previous years. You know that maturita is an intense and important facet of Czech culture. Imagine this iconic moment. On one side of a classroom, there are tables laden with dictionaries, atlases, logarithmic tables, notepaper, and a model skeleton. On the opposite side of the room is a Czech flag. Four students in their nicest outfits line up nervously as if to face a firing squad. The firing squad is the team of teachers who just examined them in four different subjects. The president of the commission, a teacher from another school, solemnly congratulates them, makes a few comments and then reads their scores. There are gasps, sighs, white faces and tears.
There is a gentleman on our staff who is celebrating an important moment of his own during this maturita season. Vlastik Skotnica is the most respected history teacher in our region. Perhaps he is the most respected educator around here of any kind. Many of the Czech teachers who are my colleagues were in his classes long ago. He administered his first matura exams in 1965, the year I was born. This cycle, his fiftieth, will be his last.
I had lunch with Pán Skotnica. Because one of my students had just done a difficult presentation comparing American and Czech culture, our conversation turned to some interesting topics. Pán Skotnica is not just the most eminent history teacher: he has lived key moments in history, such as the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. His insights are fascinating.
The Czech girl who had spoken about America had said things like “America is more open” and “America is more multicultural.” Pán Skotnica described his perspective. He said that a century ago, Czechoslovakia was part of a multicultural, internationally minded empire: Austria Hungary. Czechs went to Vienna and Budapest and interacted with people of many languages and backgrounds. The First Republic — the promising democracy founded by Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk and Woodrow Wilson after the First World War — required the Czechs and Slovaks to think about themselves as an individual nation for the first time. The Nazis, of course, destroyed this. Then the Soviets came in, “liberating” the Czech lands after the Second World War. They explained the Communist occupation by saying they were protecting us (the Czechs) from the Germans, the Americans and all the other evil, capitalist fascists. Germans were forcibly expelled. That was the beginning of an inward-focused mentality, the mentality that strange things, foreign things, new things were bad. This generation, the one taking their tests right now, is the first generation to break out of that isolationist, xenophobic sensibility.
Two weeks before maturita, I had another interesting conversation with another fascinating person. Some of you may know that on Monday nights, I take Krav Maga, a martial art. (If you are surprised, you should be. I’ve never practiced fighting before. Now I am kicking, punching, hacking, strangling, wrestling and boxing every week. The reasons are complicated. The quick version is that I am pushed to stay in unusual physical shape and I have the invaluable experience of being the weakest, most confused student in a class. Every teacher should know this intimately.) I am by far the oldest student in my fight class, but there is one fellow who is 44, so whenever the teachers bark at us to find partners, we go together.
His name is Reinhardt. In 1988, he escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia by sneaking into West Berlin. He danced on the Wall the night it fell. For many years, he lived in Germany and Canada. Then he returned to the Czech Republic. Reinhardt made a bold declaration to me over dinner one night. He said that the definition of the Czech Identity is “We’re not Germans.” Everything, Reinhardt says, depends on being different from those powerful, efficient overlords across the border.
Obviously, Reinhardt has some personal reasons for his views. In fact, he feels more German than Czech. But I have tried out his theory on my Czech students and friends. Some of them growl, “Well, of course that’s what a German would say.” But a lot rub their chins thoughtfully. They add that “We’re not Germans and we’re not Russians.” Yes: there’s always been a greedy German-speaking power coming from the West and a greedy Russian-speaking power threatening from the East. 
Saying that Czechs’ Czechness is mostly just non-Germanness is strange to me. I can think of lots of positive ways to define Czechness without mentioning Germans, Austrians, Russians or Poles. The first word that comes to my mind is “thoughtful.” I often tell the story of our second summer here, watching university students (mostly not Christians) dive into a roleplaying game called “The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.” The idea was that the Bed and Breakfast — the dining room, the bedrooms, the club rooms, everything except the bar downstairs — was trasnformed into a giant simularion of Life and Destiny. One room represented “education,” another, “jobs and vocations,” another “family,” There were no winners or losers or conflicts; just hours of wandering from room to room and talking about aspects of human existence. I expected the young people to end up in the bar drinking famous Czech beer. But they didn’t. They spent hours playing this game and then more hours discussing their thoughts.
When maturita was over, I spent an hour at the BMA graduates’ big party. All the other teachers were invited. Two teachers had brought their violins. One of the graduates, a strapping young man who was class president awhile back, grabbed his accordion and the three of them led a hour of rousing Czech folk songs. I was sitting next to this year’s class president, a girl named Katka. “This is what I love about Czech culture,” she said. I totally agreed. I don’t know which American senior class would celebrate the end of finals week with traditional folk songs. Then again, some kids said that most Czech schools don’t, either. BMA is special.
I asked Katka: if her dream came true and she lived for a time overseas, what would she miss about her homeland? She answered immediately, “Czech thinking.” To define that, she said that she found Americans too happy and friendly all the time. She doesn’t trust us. She wonders if we are always honest. When we say, “:How are you?” we don’t really want to know. But Czechs say what they mean, even if it’s a little bitter.
Back to my senior colleague, Pán Skotnica. He was one of the violinists at the party, by the way. Somehow the lunchtime conversation turned to current politics. He is a very mild, kindly man, and I have never heard him speak ill of anyone before. But he lit into the current Czech president, Miloš Zeman. Zeman is probably the biggest fan of Vladimir Putin in Europe today. To many Czechs’ shame, he is constantly visiting Moscow and singing the praises of the Kremlin. Pán Skotnica ascribed this to bribes and corruption. “He’s bought and paid for.” Then, to my shock, he compared Zeman to Hitler.
“Hitler?” I gasped.
“Hitler and Zeman both got votes from the mass of ordinary and the sub-ordinary voters.” They get a mass of ordinary, uneducated people who don’t really pay attention to the issues and they hold on to power in a “democracy” with this support. 
Later, I asked our director, Petr Hermann, what he thought. Petr is a Czech who is a little younger than I am. His face fell. But the first thing he said also made me gasp.
“Zeman is a picture of our country.”
“What?” Really?”
“On the one hand, his election was a big mistake. A president should have moral authority. This president says, ‘Smoke! Drink! It’s normal!’ and he comes drunk to public functions. On the other hand, he is a picture of our society.”
I am writing this because I want my American friends and family to think about these different perspectives. Even though I spent most of my youth in other countries, I always knew I was an American and I believed that there was something definite, positive and unique in the American experience. That positivism is very different from the experience of many other nationalities. There are many Czechs who define themselves in terms of negatives. I wish they didn’t. But they do. We should think deeply about how this feels and what this means for the gospel here.
Let me close with two remarkable things said by my students. These are the Czechs born after Communism, who don’t have any way of understanding the society their parents experienced, and who are being tasked with building a new Europe. They are also the Czechs who have to do oral exams which sometimes include “a comparisons of the Czech Republic and the United States of America.”
Nela gave the best five minute explanation of American politics I have every heard from a Czech: the three branches, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, everything. At the end she ventured an opinion. “How can it be a democracy if there are only two parties handing power back and forth between each other?” Sometimes I wonder about that, too.

Honza almost brought me to tears about two hours before I sat down to write this essay. His task was to “describe two or three themes from American history.” He wanted to talk about the Second World War. “If I were American, I wouldn’t go fight for Europeans. But they had the courage to do it.” He talked at length about D-Day and the Marshall Plan. His eyes shone as he talked with gratitude about the sacrifices Americans made for his continent, and my eyes shone as I considered that some teenagers here still think about such things.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Another November

I was just sitting down to write a long blog piece about how the second to last week of November seems to be an annual, many-fronted war zone. Then I decided to check our somewhat neglected blog page and I reread the long story I wrote exactly one year ago.  I found phrases like these: “an epic journey,”  “mysterious incident,”  “the context of confusion” and even “a disaster was brewing.” Such drama. And yet, I remember how I felt a year ago, and I know how I feel now, and the literary flourishes seem appropriate.
One reason that spiritual battles intensify at the end of November may be the Beskydy Mountain Academy Open House. Last year, I described it in detail. It is the cornerstone of our effort to pull in new students and families. Czechs who have no church history and no interest in the Bible bring their young teenagers to investigate what we are about. They see the Bibles in the classroom and hear how we plan to use them. They see our unimpressive building and our attempts to make the best of older rooms and sub-par resources. But if they are impressed with the educational vision and the caring atmosphere, their students apply. If their students come, they begin the great four year journey, hear about Jesus, and have an opportunity to get to know God.
Creating the Open House is, on a practical level, a challenge. But each year, there are attacks on us that seem unrelated to marketing. I don’t think “spiritual warfare” is an exaggerated way to describe the season.
As I do every year, I prepared the way for the Open House by making twelve visits to feeder schools in our area. You can find most of the towns on the map. Besides own town of Frýdlant nad Ostravicí, I visited Frenštat pod Radhoštem, Čeladna, Ostravice, Dobra, Kunčice pod Radhoštem and Hnojnik.

The beginning of the trip was the most fun, since I had the help of a wonderful family from Illinois. The Rolffs are friends from First Methodist Church in Peoria. They love BMA and they want to help lead our trip for a few students to Illinois Central College in 2014. All four of them came with me to visit local ninth grades, play games, and show off the creativity and kindness that we want to be hallmarks of our school. They also hosted a bowling night at the restaurant closest to BMA. Their excitement and unselfish hard work caught the attention of our whole community.

But then I was off on my own. A couple of times, I took with me BMA students who had graduated from the elementary school I was visiting. They were enthusiastic and helpful -- maybe because coming with me meant they had an excused absence from regular classes. 
I was armed with this year’s Crazy Idea. Since creativity is a key value of our educational model, I go into ninth grade classes as a guest and I try to immediately bewilder the students with a lesson plan that they would never expect. One year, I stated that there was a rhinoceros loose in the corridor, and then I nipped into the hall to make hideous rhinoceros noises. My director, Petr Hermann, was with me, and after a dozen schools and a dozen perturbed elementary school principals, he asked me not to repeat that theme. Another year I proposed to teach the new martial art of Komodo, based on the behavior of the Komodo Dragon, and I had my “volunteers” (victims) from the audience get down on all fours for instruction. 
This year, I repeated a simple and successful one from four years ago. I stated that President Obama had initiated an international contest to find the best husband for his oldest daughter. After all, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he wants to foster better international relations. I was a CIA agent deployed to do the final security clearance for the winner -- Miss Obama’s future mate, a young Czech man “in the room with us right now.” Then I picked a likely lad from the among the dazed ninth graders and interviewed him and his friends, usually with many creative and grammatical surprises. After a bit of blbost, a great Czech word which features prominently later in this story, I then gave a serious advertisement for our school, explained how games work into our teaching of English, and played a few more. I closed with an invitation to the Open House and passed out reminder cards to those who expressed an interest. Here’s a copy of this year’s card.
Traveling all over the Beskydy region was tiring for me and tiring for my colleague, Jonny Lobel, who had to be a substitute teacher in all of the classes that I missed. I want to share two specific events from my odyssey, one that was very positive and one that was troubling. 
At the elementary school in the village of Ostravice, I had with me two third year students who had done ninth grade there. One lives with her Mom in the flat attached to her school building. I gave her and her friend space near the beginning of the class to say anything they liked about BMA. The only guidance I gave was that it was an ad, so it would be good if they said only positive things. Of course this is a risk, but it is the way I always do it, and it allows me to hear what these students most value about BMA. I remember one year, the thing I heard most about was the comfy sofas in the hallways where students like to crash in between classes. This year the girl who lives in the school building told the ninth graders that she’s not a religious believer, but she really likes studying the Bible. She thinks it’s great that we read and talk about important life issues. That was an encouraging surprise.
I got a discouraging surprise in the little village of Hnojnik. According to the online Czech-English dictionary, Hnojnik means “dung-cart.” Read on and decide if you think it is appropriate. 
I was given twenty-five ninth grade students and placed in the newly remodeled music room, a beautiful upstairs location with a view of the little town square and the surrounding woods. Even though two of the school’s teachers stayed with me for crowd control, the teenagers showed no respect for their own staff. From the beginning, they were sneering at their teachers and leering at me. I had to work hard to seize control of the class, going up to rowdy boys and touching their shoulders, coming around behind girls, leaning in and demanding they stop whispering and snickering. 
I needed a “volunteer” for my game, and I picked a happy-looking, bright-eyed boy named Matouš. As soon as he stood up to join me in the front of the room, a knot of boys in the middle snorted and called out, “Hah! Černý cigan!”  I was floored. This phrase means “black gypsy.” Remember that the Roma are the key ethnic minority in the Czech Republic, and relations between white Czechs and dark-skinned Czechs are tense. There were no Roma students in the room. Matouš is a white Czech who appears to have a tan. But the boys had used what for an American classroom would be the n-word. 
I demanded quiet, but I didn’t do anything with the racism. I went on with my game.
Every day since then, I have been trying to work out what I should have done. On the one hand, I was in front of a classroom of ill-behaved teenagers unknown to me. I didn’t know which specific boy had made the racial slur. I felt handicapped. On the other hand, I should have done something more than just mutter “Quiet please.” I could have addressed the racism. The student with me, a Christian BMA student leader named Honza, said afterwards, “Czechs always say that we aren’t racist. Then we go ahead and make racist jokes. We are.” 
We bring up racism a lot at BMA, usually in the context of Bible class or the cultural studies we add to the English program. Sometimes students are frank. Some have admitted their bias against Roma. They tell how Roma youths mugged their grandmother or roughed them up on a train. We have had good talks with BMA students about this issue. 
Much harder is the racism among adults, including our Czech Christian friends. Dear brothers and sisters will tell us that Roma children can’t learn like normal “Czechs” (note -- white Czechs are “Czechs”), or they are unusually violent or temperamental because it’s in their blood.
Surely I would have been consistent with BMA’s mission if I had addressed the comment there in Hnojnik. But I didn’t.
Much more sobering is what awaits our son, Isaac, who has beautiful, dark skin and is Roma. How many times a day will kids in his class make jokes, and then say, “Of course we’re not racist!  We’re only joking!” Unkind comments about his skin started in the first week from two first graders. The insults seemed to have died down. But what about the school staff? He is having big adjustment issues. Thankfully, not a single professional has said to us that his genes are responsible for his special needs. We have to pray that he will be treated fairly all the way through.
And so I passed out sixty or seventy little invitation cards over three weeks. Sure enough, the building was packed on Friday, November 22nd, our Open House. Someone counted 69 visitors, which is a record. 
The details of Open House are better covered in my post last year. This year, let me just add that things were much better organized, thanks to our Assistant Director, Zděnka Gemrotová (please see Lucy Rose’s blog, here: (It’s the entry dated Sept. 20, 2012.) Zděnka made me shorten my presentation, made the director lengthen his, and organized 4-5 repetitions of each. Of course I was exhausted, but I was happy. There were some enthusiastic, energetic students, most of whom I had invited on my travels.
One reason for being so tired, though, was outside of school. Church has been exhausting. It’s not just that our pastor announced his resignation some weeks ago. There have also been some crises involving our pastor. I am a reluctant elder. I have been for years now. Each week we have averaged two long, crisis meetings, sometimes with the pastor, sometimes with leaders of the Czech denomination, and sometimes just amongst ourselves. I am currently the only American active on the elder board, so the two or four hour sessions are all in Czech, and I am always struggling because it’s detailed and emotional. 
I have counted our pastor among my best European friends. (He’s Slovak.) I am grieved that the process we’re in the middle of is going to strain or break that. In closed meetings or in gatherings of the membership, I am going to have to say some difficult things. Early on the morning of Open House, we had one of those very tough meetings. 
At the same time as these dramas, the whole school community was gearing up for Stužkovak.  (Pronounce it “STOOSH-koh-vahk.”) This is the annual celebration of the fourth year, organized by the students themselves. Americans have Senior Prom in the Spring, and this has a lot of significance for American culture. A Spring dance wouldn’t work in Czech culture because the soon-to-be-graduates are in a state of terror from March onwards, preparing for their massive finals (“maturita”). Therefore the event usually takes place before Christmas.
The general Czech rules are as follows:
1) Students, not teachers, organize it. The fourth years do it all themselves and anyone else comes or participates at the pleasure of the class.
2) The students must receive class ribbons, symbolic of their membership in the fourth year. The ribbons have their class year and an agreed-upon motto, usually one that baffles the adults.
3) The students are symbolically knighted, usually with a sword. 
4) There is a lot of alcohol. I think that there is less drunkenness than senior events in an American high school, but I’m not sure.
BMA students have done well in creating our own variant of the Czech tradition.
1) Students have always organized it, except for one year when an ambitious teacher created a series of Broadway song-and-dance numbers. Her class was unusually patient. The students are gracious with the faculty, asking their home room teacher to deliver a speech and giving generous thanks to all the family and staff who helped them on their way.
2) The class ribbons and mottoes have always been on the right side of the border between obnoxious and tasteful. Usually they are in the danger zone in terms of their sarcastic humor, but on the few occasions when they threatened to blow it (“We just don’t care!”) they succumbed to administration pressure and came up with good edits.
3) The home room teachers have always been encouraged to come do the knighting, and it has usually been what Czech kids call “strong,” as in, an emotional experience.
4) Alcohol abuse has been muted and left until the end. Only once have I seen an actual drunk person at an event, and that was not a student.  
I have had two home rooms who have organized Stužkovaks. The first was the class of 2009, which included Patrick. This class wanted a subdued, close-knit affair. Only a few people were invited beyond the class and their families, and there were no performances of any kind. There was a great slideshow of the members of the class growing up. When I knighted the students -- using an umbrella, because we couldn’t find a sword -- there were many moist eyes. Several students told me afterwards how “strong” it had been when their eyes met mine during the pinning of the ribbons.
Last year, my class was more ambitious. They were a little awed by the previous tour-de-force of Broadway-style productions, but they wanted to go in their own direction. 
a) They asked me to make a speech. When I asked, “Serious or funny? English or Czech?” one young man quipped, without hesitation, “Mr. Till, make it serious and Czech. Then everyone will laugh.” So I prepared a Czech speech that pretended to be serious. I told the assembled hundred or so people that we were going to do a sample Bible study. The five seconds of horror after I spoke those words on that night remain legendary. Then I played a video of Michael Jackson singing Bad. I involved the guests in a mock English class using the lyrics as a text. But I managed to transition into a discussion of my class’s character, which I said was compassionate, mature and empathetic -- the opposite of the “Bad” in the text.
b) They wanted a single dance, a waltz, which would happen at the beginning of the program. That would be their official introduction. They also wanted me to lead the waltz. I thought this was a deal-breaking, tragic mistake, but I had said “I’ll do anything you need me to do.” So many, many English classes in November were cancelled, the desks and chairs were cleared away, “Moon River” was blasted on the stereo and the students taught me to waltz.
c) They performed a large chunk of the absurdist drama, The Bald Soprano. Everyone loved it. Curiously, BMA students have long had a special affinity for Ionesco.
d) One of our students sang two beautiful solos. 
e) Our class president made a lovely speech.
Paul and sword, 2012
My class chose the best restaurant they could afford, and invited everyone they could. The result was a warm, wonderful evening that brought many to tears. 
This year, the fourth years organized their own dances. Their idea was to do one dance representative of styles when their grandparents graduated. This ended up being a Czech version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” (I don’t think their grandparents graduated in the Sixties, but that’s okay.) Then they did a dance representative of their parents’ generation. This was perfectly chosen: they did a parody of “Spartakiada,” the compulsory folk-athletic festivals organized by the Communist parties of every town. Then they did a dance number from their own generation, which turned out to be much more full of delight and much less sexual than I had expected. 
Jonny Lobel is the homeroom teacher of this group. He was invited to make a speech. In addition, the students had chosen a favorite Lobelism as their ribbon-motto. Jonny frequently scolds them by saying, “Hey guys, that’s blbost.” So that’s what all the ribbons said. If you look blbost up in a dictionary, you will find “rubbish,” “idiocy” or even “tommy-rot.” It means “stupid things” but it is best left untranslated because it sounds wonderful, almost onomatopoeic. So Jonny’s speech was a clever riff on the theme of blbost. He explained how the word strikes us Americans, gave historic examples of his students being goofy, and then turned it around to describe the ways in which his class had actually grown into maturity, wisdom and success. It was pitch-perfect.

I spent the evening talking intensely with people, or getting a little weepy over the slide show of the fourth years’ four years. This class has had the most conversions to Christ of any of our ten at BMA. Seeing images of them at the orientation retreat in 2009, or serving children at the local school for special needs kids made my heart full and reminded me why all of this is worthwhile.
Jonny and ribbons, 2013
So did my conversations with students. A lot of my home room from last year came. They were eager to tell me about their successes and failures at university, or even the end of a long, tough romance. And my new home room, the first years, made up a huge contingent -- 15 of the 27 girls came, all dressed beautifully, and ready to do line dances and circle dances when the program was over and the music pumped up. Of course I had to join them for a little bit. Paul Hugh was there, too, and when he saw me joining the circle, he grabbed me and said in a voice full of doom, “Father, think about what you are doing.”
In the whole evening, I saw no one out of control. This was a relief. After the church crises and the Open House I truly didn’t want to end the day with disciplinary situations. Instead, I saw beaming, satisfied parents, proud, moist-eyed teachers, and students who were all in love with the idea of being part of the BMA family. Whenever I told a Czech that I love the tradition of Stužkovak, they said, “Yes, but BMA is special.”


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Tills Head to America

Dear friends,
We thank you and we thank God for the opportunity to come and visit in the summer of 2013.  Here is a rough schedule of who will be coming where and when.

May 26th : Patrick graduates from Brown University (Sharon, Paul, Paul Hugh, Isaac and grandparents).
May 27th - 29th:  Tills in New England  (Sharon, Paul, Paul Hugh, Isaac).
May 29th - June 14th (or something like that):  Tills with the Whites in Milford, Pennsylvania (Sharon, Paul Hugh, Isaac.)
May 29th - June 14th  BMA and Lucy's graduation in the Czech Republic (Paul and Lucy)
June 14th - June 20th  Tills with Chamberlains and New Testament Missionary Fellowship in New York (Sharon, Paul, Lucy, Paul Hugh, Isaac)
June 20th - July 9th  Tills in Illinois, with possible trips to family and friends in Texas or the Mid- West (Sharon, Paul, Lucy, Paul Hugh, Isaac).

Please pray for Isaac's visa paperwork.  He has a Czech passport.  He talks about his trip to America almost every day.

- Paul.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Friday, November 23rd 2012

Isaac and Daddy on the way to school.


      Friday, November 23rd was a long day for me, but it’s good to write about since all the twists and turns tell something about what things are like in this season of our lives. It was the day after American Thanksgiving, but of course our Czech school was in full swing. A small group of Americans and Czechs gathered at our house on the following day, Saturday, for the turkey and fellowship. To get from Thursday to Saturday was something of an epic journey.
      I was out of the house at 7:10 with Isaac. We walk to school together almost every morning now. Eight years ago, I was trudging down the same hill with Lucy and Paul Hugh. I am glad to still have a little boy who wants to hold my hand. We usually play a game while we walk. This time Isaac wanted to pretend that we were sleeping (while we were walking) and then he made different animal noises. That would get me to wake up and say something like, “Oh no! Isaac, wake up, I think there’s a cat in our house!” We were visited in our bed by two cats, a dog, a horse and a cow before Isaac decided that we were actually in a hotel. That prompted me to call the manager (Isaac) and complain about all the animals that kept waking us up. He sent us to another room (“number twenty seven three”) but there turned out to be a cat meowing under our pillow there, as well.
     At nursery school, I dropped off Isaac where he was welcomed by the other students excitedly. Every morning, every other child there seems to light up when Isaac walks in, and they call “Izy! Izy!” (That rhymes with “Size 3,” not “Fizzy.”) His teacher greeted him very affectionately as she does all the nursery schoolers. I gave him the daily stern warning to obey and earn a good behavior report. Then I kissed him on the head and he was off.
Isaac gets to work at nursery school.
      I didn’t go to BMA first, but to TGM. TGM (named after Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk) is one of Frýdlant’s two “zakladní” schools, meaning elementary (grades 1-9.) It’s a feeder school for us. Over the last few years, one of our most effective recruiting moves has been to place an American teacher in the TGM ninth grade, giving two hours of “English conversation” a week. This year, it’s my turn and I teach every Friday morning. My first move after opening up the language lab where I teach was to head to the bathroom. When I visit schools, and I visit lots, I tell myself that there is always something to be learned from the bathrooms. How well is it kept up? What’s the graffiti like? TGM is a bit baffling. TGM keeps its boys’ bathrooms spotlessly clean -- amazing clean considering the population they’re intended for. But curiously, there is never a drop of soap in the soap dispenser and never single a paper towel in the sparkling white paper towel holders. There’s no other way to dry hands so I have to wave a lot. It’s a good thing that on this visit I checked for the other critical paper product before taking a seat. Each one of the pristine cubicles was free of toilet paper. I had to wander around the hallways until I could ambush a school secretary. She of course keeps it in her closet.
TGM students respond to the Household theme: check out the camel
More on Households: do you think a boy or girl drew this?
      I have 15 TGM students and teaching them is a blast. Each week, I simply use a few of the many great games and activities the BMA team has developed over our eight years together, and for the ninth graders, everything is new and wonderful. But I am responsible for giving the students a grade, so I have developed a system of oral testing, and on this Friday, I revealed it to the victims. I showed them ten cards on which were written questions like “What did your family do last summer?” Then I showed them a deck of more than fifty cards on which were written vocabulary words from our first two months together. We covered themes like “time,” “shopping,” and “transportation" and "households," so these cards had words like “noon,” “expensive” and “motorcycle.” First, we played a big, crazy game with all the vocab cards. The winners got lentilky, a cheap candy that I knew in England as Smarties and which has kind of become my trademark (lenTILLky -- ha ha.) Then, I sat down with a courageous volunteer and modeled the test. He pulled a random question card and five random vocab cards. He had to engage in a conversation with me. I started with the question, and each time he answered, I gently prompted him with another question like, “Oh, what happened then?” or “How did it feel?” His job was to give me at least ten full sentences (subjects and verbs, please) but also creatively work in the five vocab words. Unlike some of the written quizzes I have given, there were no points off for technical mistakes. Everything depended on his ability to generate creative, original conversation that might be fictitious or even a bit silly but would be meaningful. 
Silly but meaningful.


  There are two reasons for this approach. First, I am charged with teaching a “conversation” class to this group. Someone else at TGM does formal grammar, spelling and so forth. Second, Czech language education puts enormous stress on memorizing lists of information. Actually, most Czech education does this. “Literature” class, for example, puts a premium not on reading and understanding texts but on memorizing lists of movements, the names of representative authors, the dates of their lives and the names of their works. I believe that American education could do with a stronger dose of facts to undergird the curriculum, but when it comes to teaching a living language like English, list-memorizing is woefully inadequate. When I came to the Czech Republic, the dramatic culmination of a student’s high school education was the oral exams in the spring of the fourth year. These are called “maturita.” They used to require the student to speak for fifteen minutes in front of a committee on a topic chosen at random from a pre-published list. I liked some things about the format, such as the maturity called forth by the young man or woman who had to deliver a fifteen minute monologue to a panel of well-dressed professionals in order to graduate. There’s a reason the ordeal was called “maturita.” But a lot still depended on memorization of lists.   
Our Patrick doing one of the last old maturity in 2009

      The government has recently revamped “maturita.” It is still the be-all and end-all of high school, the word which a teacher can utter in a crowded classroom to instantly cast a spell of silence. But for all the language departments, the government has greatly expanded the test. Students must now write two essays, work on pages of grammar, and engage in conversation with their teachers as well as deliver a monologue. The speech has been mercifully shortened to five minutes. There are actually three conversations as part of the test, and no amount of memorizing can prepare the student for them.
      A few weeks ago, one of my BMA students -- a girl in my home room, which is the fourth year -- asked me for some extra help for English maturita. She’s nervous. Interestingly, her mother teaches at the the same zakladni school, TGM. As are many teacher’s daughters, this young lady is serious about her education and very diligent. We spent an hour together in the upstairs hall outside my office. I gave her some prompts to make conversation. At first, she flatly refused. I urged her to try and not worry about mistakes or details. In all other situations, this girl is unfailingly respectful, but at this point, she became unbelievably stubborn. She would not speak with me, even in a casual, simulated English conversation, because she had not gone home to prepare the material.
      On the one hand, you can understand a student’s resistance to engage in a conversation with an adult in a foreign language. There are many, many times I seize up and don’t want to use my Czech. In fact, on this particular Friday, I ended the day loudly declaring that I wasn’t going to speak Czech again for another week. I know this is pretty donkey-headed, but as you will see, this was a very long day and I was stressed. (I have spoken Czech faithfully each day since.) On the other hand, a fourth year student preparing for maturita has to realize that conversation without preparation is a part of a living language and will be a part of the dreaded test. So I worked hard to coax my student out of her stubbornness and in the end she was speaking cleverly and effectively. However, she canceled our next appointment for extra help. I wonder why.
      After my TGM classes, I walked across town to start my BMA day. The first event was a difficult one: meeting with a student who has been skipping school. Because I am the home room teacher for the fourth year, I have to keep track of their absences. What American schools do in the secretary's offices and on computers, Czech schools do in old-fashioned class books. Information must be recorded in a thousand tiny little boxes and only a blue, ball-point pen is acceptable. Early in the game, I protested that I make a lot of mistakes, especially with Czech spelling, and that a pencil would be better for me. The rest of the staff was shocked. Their reasoning was that if the class book were written in pencil, people would write false information, or make illegal changes. My argument -- that people can lie in blue ballpoint pen as well -- fell on deaf ears.
Students and me outside my office.
      One young lady had missed lot of classes in a row, and still hadn’t returned to school. I called her mother to ask if anything was wrong, and the mother stiffly reported that the daughter had gone off to school regularly every morning. We quickly established that the girl had been lying to everyone for two weeks. Thankfully, the mother was willing to come in immediately for a conference. That happened on Thursday. Between the phone call and the conference, mother and daughter had it out together. The Mom was able to tell me about some of the trouble. But the daughter maintained that someone at the school had said something that angered her. This was the reason for her skipping school. However, she could not reveal the name for fear that this staff person would give her a bad grade on maturita. The mother promised me that her daughter would return to school on Friday so that I could speak to her myself. The “I have a secret” defense is a very tricky one. On the one hand, a student who says that she has a secret problem with a teacher must be listened to. Teachers must be held accountable for what they do and say with students. They must be held to a very high standard. On the other hand, there is nothing more convenient for a creative student who has gotten herself in trouble. If she blames a mysterious event and refuses to give names or details, she can play the victim and get away with all kinds of behavior. The secret nature of her accusations makes the staff scurry around feeling guilty and playing a guessing game, instead of asking the student to take responsibility for her own actions. How can a professional educator know the truth when a student makes a mystery accusation? That is itself a great mystery. In this week’s case, the only relatively good thing was that mother and daughter maintained that the nameless teacher’s offense consisted of unkind words, and nothing more than words.
      As soon as I got to BMA, I met with the student in my office. She asked if we could close the door and I said that no, I don’t meet in our little office with girls, alone, behind closed doors. We could speak quietly in the office with the door open, or we could choose one of my colleagues and proceed with doors closed. She preferred the former. She then proceeded to make a very long and eloquent apology. She ended with a pledge to work hard to regain my trust. I offered her my forgiveness and my assurance that I wanted to be back on a trusting basis. I still had a list of things to cover. I wanted to make sure that she had no problems with me personally -- that I wasn’t the cause of the trouble. No problem. I wanted her to promise to apologize to the secretary whom she had spoken to rudely. Maybe she will. Then I wanted to discuss the secret problem. She became very animated and suggested that this was more about her than about anyone else -- her bad emotional reaction to stress. I gave her two choices. First, she could decide that the mysterious incident wasn’t important and she could move on. Second, she could choose a support team -- me, the school counsellor or the director -- and meet with the offending staff person to deal with the problem in a mature way. I said that no third option -- continuing to complain about a secret problem but giving no details and making no progress -- was available. The student said that she wanted to move on. I told her that I really wanted to work on the problem if someone on the staff was speaking offensively. She didn’t want to pursue it.
      It’s nice to have the student back in the program. It’s nice that I wasn’t accused of anything. These days, when students or parents talk about terrible offenses, I have the sinking feeling that they are going to accuse me of something super-Christian. Last term, a girl in my home room dropped out of school. For three years I had been begging her mother to come to parent conferences to talk about the fact that her grades across the board were very weak, that her English was in serious peril, and that her attendance rate (she came to school about 70% of the time) wasn’t likely to help her academically. I pleaded that they find an English tutor. They did, but the girl didn’t show up for the sessions. Her grades got worse and one day, without warning, she transferred out of our school. At the new place, she started telling everyone that the Christians had persecuted her by being too aggressive with the faith. A few weeks later, another young lady in my home room made a similar move, telling everyone about the over-aggressive Christians. This second young lady failed to mention that she had been twice punished for cheating but we hadn’t kicked her out and had given her many second chances.
      I’m not sure which broke my heart more: the rumors the students spread, or the simple fact that neither those two girls nor their parents ever faced me to tell me about their concerns. The first mother, who resisted so many of my appeals for parent conferences, sneaked into the main office one day because she needed a certain transfer document from our secretary. I met her there by chance. I asked her in my best Czech and politest manner if she could please help me. I had heard that her daughter left because of certain reasons, but no one had told me the truth directly. Could she please tell me their concerns? How could we have done better? The mother made an awful face and told me that it wasn’t worth discussing. I said that it was. She said that it wasn’t and brushed me off and left.
      So I am glad that on this particular Friday, I had a student sitting right across from me making an open apology. But I wasn’t satisfied with the meeting. If one of my colleagues is speaking unkindly to our students, we have to work on it, and this looked like a lost opportunity. On the other hand, what if my student is just an accomplished actress and none of it, including her accusations and apologies, was real? I think time will tell. All of this gave me just enough time to finish preparations for my very important teaching assignments.
Invitation used at feeder school visits: write me for the explanation of the komodo dragon!
      Starting at 11:30 a.m., Friday was officially Open House Day. This is a critical event in the life of any school that competes for students. Our school is the only one in the region with a rising number of applications every year, but we can’t take anything for granted. Open House Day must be a hit. For several weeks, I have been visiting the feeder schools in the area, doing demonstrations classes and inviting students to our big day.
      My first class was supposed to be a “normal” class, part of the actual BMA curriculum with actual BMA students. Visitors would be welcomed into the back of the room to observe. I had everything prepared. In fact, I was very excited. It was a third year class, evaluating the essays they had just written and drawing some lessons about how to write good essays and especially good paragraphs. I wanted to use several examples from the real homework (with names removed) and I needed to scan them into my computer. But our very fancy new Xerox scanner/printer/copier refused to oblige me. The toner cartridge is low. “But I don’t want you to print anything!” I shouted at the smug little beast. He was unimpressed. Without a proper cartridge, he was unwilling to show off any functionality whatsoever, even ones requiring no ink. Thank heavens for my little phone. I took pictures with my phone, uploaded them onto my laptop, found the necessary cables and thought I was perfectly prepared for an awesome Open House.
      This, unfortunately, was not true. Our creative team of four had thought through the Open House carefully. Since previous Open Houses have felt chaotic, we agreed on some principles to help this one run smoothly. As it turned out, every thing we decided got turned upside down. 1) We agreed that those doing presentations (mostly the director and I) could each stay in our own rooms to avoid moving around, juggling our limited supply of chairs and confusing people. For simplicity, I would get my home room. Instead, I had to teach the first Open House class in a different classroom, then move myself and my visitors downstairs, and -- both times -- get volunteers to scramble to find chairs from all over the building. 2) We agreed to a specific schedule so that it would be clear who was giving which presentation at which time. In the end, two competing and contradictory schedules were written and posted. No one knew where to go or when. 3) We agreed that a small number of responsible first year students (3-4) would be chosen to act as guides in case visitors came and needed to know where to go or what was happening. The entire first year class appeared in the halls claiming to have been chosen as guides. They spent most of Open House having a wonderful time flirting with each other, laughing, joking, playing chess, play-wrestling, moving chairs to and fro and occasionally meeting visitors.
      At a critical moment in the early going, I sensed a disaster was brewing. The stairs and halls were jammed with people. Half were the first years just being silly. Half were visitors of all ages looking very confused. The crowd was so thick that no one could make progress in any direction even had they known which direction to choose. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I leapt up the stairs to a commanding height, and used my very loud voice to announce in Czech exactly what was supposed to happen next. This got everyone moving and I felt satisfied until I learned that my colleague, Jonny, had just succeeded in settling a dozen visitors in his classroom, had just started a promising demonstration and then watched it fall apart as his visitors hustled out the door to find out what the other American was shouting about.
      Within the context of confusion, there were some very effective presentations. My work with essays went exactly as I intended. My next presentations were overviews of the whole program, and I had great participation and great interest from the visitors. The most dramatic moments came in the overviews when I explained how we use the Bible in English class. There’s always a moment when those new to BMA frown angrily as if to demand an explanation for our outrageous position. I explained how we do read the Bible every week, and we have open conversations about important spiritual concepts that students really care about. I confessed that I am a believer and I do share my views, but that I do it respectfully and that students are encouraged to express themselves with that same respect. In the end, a few people stayed on to tell me how excited they were about our educational philosophy. I had at least two conversations with parents who were thrilled that we seem to care about students, their ideas and their spiritual well-being more than just lists of information.
A portion of one student's great effort.
      I think my favorite presentation was my first one, the one in which I projected students’ essays on a big screen and used them as examples to talk about how to write good paragraphs. In each case, I eliminated the names and I said at the beginning of my talk that I we weren’t going to play detective to find out who wrote what. Even so, when I richly praised something a student had written, it was fun to watch her glow quietly in her seat. In fact, the best of the essay examples was written by one of the weaker students, and she used her essay to advance an argument that I totally disagreed with. I told them how the key was not agreeing with me but using language and logic in an effective way. In the last five minutes, I handed back the kids’ homework. I had graded them using the system that the Czech government devised to grade the written part of maturita. Many students mobbed me afterwards to ask if they could rewrite their work for a better score, and I encouraged them all to do so. Open House Day ends when the visitors stop coming. After doing my presentations many times, encouraging the first years to start their weekends elsewhere and starting the process of cleaning up the mess of displaced furniture and refreshments (which this year, for the first time, included Oreos) it was four thirty and it really looked as if we were done. I was exhausted and my throat was sore. I put on my coat, hat and scarf and called Sharon to tell her I was ready to walk home.
      As I headed downstairs, my colleague Jonny informed me that a new pair of interested families had just arrived. Before I could rip off my coat, Jonny graciously offered to give them a brief presentation of everything they needed to know. I took that offer and hiked home. I thought to myself that there are two kinds of schools. Maybe all institutions of any kind can be summed up with the same dichotomy. There are schools that have excellent structures in place, with smoothly running systems that project an image of sophistication and security to newcomers. Then there are schools that are constantly trying to catch up because their organizational systems are non-existent, new-born or just a little hare-brained. BMA is not the first. It is the second. But the thing about the first kind of school is that sometimes, unlucky students get caught under the weight of the well-polished structure. By “unlucky” I mean the students who want to ask tough questions, or have unorthodox perspectives, or who are afraid, or who are drowning in English class, or who don’t come to class at all. Efficient and effective systems put these people in their places (sometimes, just out) and move on swiftly. At BMA, we try our hardest to catch those people. We use any creative approach to find them, hear them out and most importantly give them another chance. As this story shows, we don’t always succeed. We have occasionally lost the ones we tried to reach. But it broke our hearts.
      Of course, the perfect school balances good systems with flexibility, creativity and a personal approach. We want that balance. By creating a new, functioning board of directors, for example, we have taking a giant step towards maturity. But right now, I am at peace with the fact that my school is of the second kind -- the very personal, slightly crazy kind -- but is one in which the believers try their hardest to meet each person with the love of Jesus.

Friday, February 3, 2012

In the Cold

Before the Freeze


Europe freezes as deadly cold spreads west
European weather forecasters have warned the severe cold is likely to persist in many parts of continental Europe for at least another week.
      What a great day to hide indoors.  Everyone is freezing.  Actually, today is a holiday -- the day between first and second semesters at each of our schools.  I can recover from jetlag and take a breather.  I'm thanking God today for our house, the new roof, the new door, and our little mini-fireplace into which I keep piling more and more wood.
Daddy's birthday dinner
Reading Ionesco in the dark
      I am very thankful for our December and January.  Patrick was here, so we got to be all together -- a rare treat.  For example, we celebrated my birthday at a restaurant in Ostrava, and on the way home, our kids did a dramatic reading in the back of the car.   
      Patrick has gone back to Brown.  Lucy and I made a whirlwind tour of the Chicago area to raise money for BMA's new project (see the BMA page) and to look at colleges.  This brings us to the prayer requests for our family.  Each of our oldest three kids is looking at momentous changes educationally.

Patrick with his great love

Patrick is a Junior at Brown and has fallen in love with architecture.  We're proud of him: his passion is leading him to proactively scout the way ahead.  He's working on a portfolio and searching for graduate school options.  He needs prayer for the future, and for his ability to stand strong for the Lord on his campus now.

Lucy from a Patrick photo series
Lucy just returned from an intense look at Chicagoland universities.  She is praying about fine arts programs.  Candidates in the Chicago area include the Art Institute, Columbia College, Northern Illinois and Wheaton.  She also remains interested in the Rhode Island School of Design.  Please pray for the applications (Fall 2012) and the decision (Spring 2013.)
Paul Hugh plays carols

Paul Hugh would like to enroll in BMA in the Fall.  He has also been accepted at a nearby arts high school.  The Czech high school admission system is tricky and not designed to be helpful to the students.  Please pray that he will be with us at BMA in September, along with two of his friends who are interested in spiritual things.

Izak and Magritte

At our creek before the freeze

Izak's official adoption papers are in and we thank the Lord.  He loves nursery school and we pray that we can help him with cultural issues like the myths about friendly little devils that Czechs share in the winter.  He needs help learning about friendships -- how to keep friends, and what kind of influence they have.

Sharon adds that she needs prayer because "parenting has become an extreme sport" around here.  Please especially pray for her continued bonding with Izak.
I add that I am more deeply aware this week of spiritual warfare surrounding my homeroom class -- a group of 27 delightful kids with many interested in the Lord but many interested in competing, counterfeit spiritual systems.  
Thanks for reading, thanks for praying, and thanks for supporting us so generously.
Paul for all the Tills

Parenting is an extreme sport