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.”