With the parents of my daughter’s classmates at a pub
Sitting alone at a table for two, I looked at the faces of the Czech parents crowded at a long table in front of me. I wondered (not for the first time since moving to the Czech Republic 16 years ago) what I had gotten myself into. Moreover, how was I going to get myself out of it, without embarrassing myself or my teenage daughter.
I was also curious if the waiter was ever going to come take my drink order. If I stayed, I would need refreshment.
The pub was called Stará Praha, and its stone walls, crackling fireplace, and vintage memorabilia set a warm, if kitschy, atmosphere. Our group was tucked into the back room.
A waiter wearing a black vest came to ask who was in charge. “You made a reservation for 12 – there are 20 of you,” he admonished Anna’s classroom teacher.
A fit, young history professor, who talked fast and smiled often, Anna’s teacher gave a sheepish grin. “I didn’t know so many parents would come,” he replied.
Half an hour earlier, in the official part of the quarterly třídní schůzka (class meeting), which was held in Anna’s gymnázium (secondary school), Anna’s classroom teacher read aloud to parents from prepared notes.
I sat in the front row. Anna and her classmates were in their first year of a six-year bilingual French/Czech gymnázium program (which encompassed the equivalent of grades 8-13). It was the only bilingual French/Czech state-funded program in the Czech Republic, and competition for the 60 spots had been tough.
Anna’s professor fielded questions about how the “echo” in one classroom had been resolved, why first-year students like Anna weren’t allowed to buy sweets at the school canteen, and how to decipher our children’s electronic report card, which was a mix of percentages and points, depending on the teacher.
I took notes as Anna’s professor told us the dates of the upcoming French homestay, including what would be expected of us as host parents and what we should expect sending our children to a host family in France. Dates and times were the hardest to catch.
Even though my husband, Radek, is Czech and I’m American, from the first day of Anna’s preschool experience 11 years ago, I became the self-appointed parent in charge of our three children’s academic education. As a teacher and a rather nerdy student in my own school days, this role (for the most part) suited me.
On a daily basis, being Chief Academic Officer for my family meant: checking backpacks for leftover snacks or molded fruit, collecting toilet paper rolls for art projects, and labeling underwear for škola v přírodě (a weeklong school trip in nature). Lacing ice skates, baking chocolate chip cookies, and (upon request) even giving presentations on American holiday traditions were within my repertoire.
Helping with actual Czech homework was a bit trickier. Over the years, the kids and I developed a mode of operation: when Samuel needed help, we asked Oliver; if Oliver didn’t understand, we asked Anna; if Anna wasn’t sure, we used our lifeline, my neighbor M. whose grammar was impeccable. Our system might not have been traditional, but it worked.
Attending the quarterly class meeting was just another parental responsibility. Ordinarily, I wasn’t required to speak (at least not to the group), and I usually found a parent who was willing to fill in any blanks in my notes afterward.
Yet, when I received an email invitation to my first třídní schůzka at the gymnázium, Anna’s professor also (uncharacteristically) invited parents to join him for an informal social gathering. Since our children would be classmates for six years, one of the parents had suggested we parents meet, too. The teacher thought it was a brilliant idea.
I had my doubts. On one hand, I wouldn’t mind meeting the parents of my daughter’s classmates. On the other hand, Anna told me that her classmates were already making jokes about the meetup on their class Instagram account. Having your English-speaking mother join a Czech social gathering could bring more attention to yourself than you’d like. At least, that was the way I saw it.
The time crept past 6:30 p.m. Anna’s professor stopped talking and glanced at the school clock. “I should call the pub to say we’ll be late.”
I tried to guess which of the parents, if any, would be continuing on to the pub afterward. Should I join them?
When the meeting ended, I called Anna for advice. “The meeting is over. Have the boys had their showers?”
“Yes, Mom.” I could hear Anna yell to her brothers, “Guys, get in the shower!”
“The parents walked on ahead of me, I’m not sure if I can find the pub.” The excuse sounded lame, even to my ears.
“Mom, I want you to meet the other parents. Just go.”
I signed off with Anna and agreed to find the pub. The teacher said 200 meters. It couldn’t be far.
Years ago, having to sit by myself would have been reason enough to turn around and walk out. Now, I just angled my chair toward the group and waited. When I caught the waiter’s attention, I asked for a small, unfiltered Staropramen beer. I noticed that other mothers were ordering coffee or tea, but I overheard several of the fathers ordering large beers.
Anna’s professor stood up. In Czech, he said, “Since some of you are curious about who your child hangs out with, please say your child’s name and the names of your children’s friends, and whether or not your child studied French before being accepted into the bilingual program. Let’s go around the room in a circle.”
He turned to me and smiled. “Mrs. Prucha, should I translate for you?”
I groaned. My cover was blown. I said, “Ne, děkuji, ja to snad zvládnu.”(No, thank you. I hope I’ll manage it.)
As we introduced ourselves and named our children’s friends, there were chuckles. Some parents gave extra information – where their child sat in the classroom, if their child had friends from elementary school in the class, or how far away their family lived from the school. In the pauses, Anna’s professor added humorous anecdotes.
The waiter brought our drinks. We made a toast to our children.
I learned that several of Anna’s classmates also came from mixed families (Latin American, French, another half-American) and others belonged to Czech families who’d lived abroad. While it was not a prerequisite for the students to know French, many of them did, although there were also a few beginners like Anna.
When my turn came, I gave my name and where we lived but didn’t mention any of Anna’s friends by name.
“I know my daughter has friends,” I said in Czech. The teacher smiled, and a few parents laughed.
Small groups begin to split off. I took a deep breath. This was my moment to disappear. Then, the woman sitting closest to me angled her chair away from the long table and leaned toward me. “I live in Roztoky,” she offered.
With relief, I began to talk. I told her how my family liked hiking and biking in the woods between her village and mine. We chatted about her three sons’ involvement in their village Boy Scouts, and she gave me her take on the French homestay from experience with her older children. Turns out, she also used the same older-helps-younger homework technique as I did. (As best as I understood, she had 5 kids, but I wouldn’t swear to it.)
A few times, I got tangled up in my Czech, and I could tell the mother was having difficulty figuring out what I wanted to say. But, she was patient, and we persevered.
Another mother came up to join us. Then another. We spoke in Czech until the Czech mother of the other half-American student came up. She switched the conversation to English. I switched it back to Czech. She tried again in English. I answered her in Czech, nodding to the other mothers who’d been chatting with us. It seemed rude to switch to English in the middle of the discussion, especially since I’d bumbled along for as long as I had.
When the other mothers began talking about their sons, I took the opportunity to greet the mother of the half-American in English.
“I love talking with you in English,” the mother of the half-American said.
“Me too,” I replied.
We talked about her time in Boston, compared sweet potato recipes (she called them “yams”), and shared our daughters love of all-things Harry Potter.
It was 11 o’clock when I got home, but Anna still was awake. “How was it?” she asked.
“It was good,” I told her. “Your teacher is really nice. He made us all introduce ourselves and tell who our child is friends with. It was kind of like being in school.”
Anna groaned. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope, not kidding.”
“That is SO embarrassing. Who did you talk to?”
When I told Anna that I had spent most of my night talking to the mother from Roztoky whose son was in her class, Anna groaned again.
“Did you talk to any mothers of the girls?” I told that I had met her American friend’s mother, and Anna seemed pleased, if a bit miffed that I hadn’t listed out her friends by name.
Looking back, I was grateful to the parent who suggested the get-together as well as Anna’s professor who organised it. I was glad Anna pushed me to go (even if she might have had second thoughts once she heard my report).
Since our children were embarking on a six-year journey to learn a new language and culture, it seemed only fitting that we parents should stretch our comfort zones, too. Sitting alone at the beginning had been a small price to pay for the warm goodbyes I exchanged when I left.
When Radek asked me how the třídní schůzka had gone, I said, “Oh, you know. It was the usual.” After serving as Chief Academic Officer for years, there was no way I was going to let him take over for me now.
Especially not if future class meetings ended, as this one had, at the pub.