The remedy: Take a Czech lesson
It’s a few nights before school starts in the Czech Republic. My children are sprawled across their beds, breathing soundly. It’s me that can’t sleep. I could blame my restlessness on the mini-heat wave. With temperatures at 30C (again), heading back to school on Monday feels surreal. And, I’m not even the one who’ll be sitting in a classroom.
For the better part of two months, I’ve pushed aside thoughts of preparing svačinky (snacks), helping my youngest memorize vyjmenovaná slova (a series of Czech words with exceptional spelling rules), and attending parent meetings where I sneak peeks at other parents’ notes to make sure I know what I need to know. I have even (gasp) stopped speaking Czech.
For families who blend two or more languages and cultures into daily life, the holiday months can be a time for the less-dominant or non-school language to thrive. When we’re in the U.S. for our summer holiday, my children stop speaking Czechlish and utter fully-formed sentences using English-language vocabulary that I never dreamed they possessed.
When they were small, I remember waiting in the immigration line to enter the U.S. and overhearing Anna tell her younger brothers, “No more český. It’s time to speak English now.” Before a week in Virginia goes by, their accents change – the sophisticated European “a” pronounced “ah” becomes a flat “ay,” the final “g” disappears from words like “comin’” and “goin’,” and, despite my admonitions, their sentences are peppered with instances of “y’all” and “ain’t.”
Like many families in the Czech Republic, our summer has been a string of road trips, both in the Czech Republic and abroad, with pitstops at home to wash laundry, water plants, and check the mail. Our children have hiked and explored, chased iguanas through the Florida underbrush, and camped lakeside in South Bohemia under pine trees so tall that they seemed to brush the night sky.
Apart from a three-day visit from my German aunt, during which I dusted off my tour guide skills and we traipsed through downtown Prague rubbing elbows with swarms of international tourists, we’ve been out of Prague the entire summer.
Now, with school on the imminent horizon, we are home. And my head is spinning. In two languages.
In many ways, the Czech Republic is an idyllic setting to raise (and educate) children. Safety, in general, is not an issue. Nor is the quality of the education my children are receiving in their Czech state elementary, middle and high schools.
During the school year, my 9-year-old son navigates Prague public transportation on his own, traveling to and from school, baseball practices, and Spanish lessons just like his older siblings. Weeklong school trips to the mountains instill independence and self-awareness in Czech students as early as the preschool years. Perhaps the best of all benefits, children growing up in the Czech Republic acquire the resilience that comes from living in a culture where 2nd, 3rd and 4th language acquisition is the norm.
Unlike in the U.S., the incidence of school related violence here is low, and while seminars to combat cyberbullying and to help students look after their own well-being are regular components of elementary school education, there are (to date) no widespread active shooter drills.
In August 2017, the Czech Ministry of Education did create a pilot program where six to eight high schools were trained to respond in armed warfare situations. It seems that the country is aware of the potential for violent conflict, and the need to educate students and educators on how to respond. Thankfully, the “what if” currently looms only in the far distance.
So, if the Czech Republic is an ideal place to send my half-Czech children back to school, why am I waking up in a cold sweat wondering if it’s Monday (Sept 2) already?
I could only think that it had something to do with the cultural and linguistic transition between our summer time rituals (mostly conducted in English) and our school time routine (kids speak primarily Czech; Mom does her best to keep up). Throw in a bit of privileged angst about my own professional development (or lack thereof), and the rapid pace with which we’d left Prague in late June before the final week of school, returning only for the final week of summer.
I’d been on fast forward for close to eight weeks. Maybe I just needed a moment to catch my breath.
Knowing I’d soon be communicating more in Czech, I booked an impromptu lesson with my Czech teacher. When I greeted her at the door, she took one look at me, and said, “Are you okay? Do you really want to have a lesson?” I told her I was fine. I just hadn’t slept well. “It’s the before school year jitters,” she said.
As we sat together at my kitchen table, I tried to tell her, in Czech, what was keeping me up at night. Word by word, she listened, correcting an ending or a word choice here or there, but mostly just nodding.
I confessed that sometimes, even after so many years living here (and so many “back to school” seasons), I am still thrown off by the transition to speaking Czech that coincides with my children returning to school. I am particularly nervous in social settings that require me to make quick decisions about logistics or group planning in Czech.
I recounted my embarrassment after a recent weekend camping trip when I became super uptight in front of our Czech friends about when we would leave the camp. Instead of enjoying the sunny afternoon, I worried about not having enough time at home on Sunday night to do the laundry before one of our children headed off to a sports camp on Monday morning. My teacher nodded. She shared a story of balancing her family’s need to be social with her own need for downtime.
She also taught me to say, “Já ti úplně rozumím,” which means the same in English as “I totally emphasize with you.” After 60 minutes, our lesson ended. I hadn’t taken any notes or written down any new vocabulary. But I felt like I’d learned an important lesson.
When I return to the Czech Republic after being away, I sometimes feel I’m the only one struggling to adjust to a new routine, to readapt to my adopted culture or to remember the correct word to say in social settings. I get annoyed and frustrated easily. Having a lesson with my Czech teacher (who is also the parent of school age children) reminded me that regardless of language or culture, parenting is full of daily frustrations, and the weeks surrounding the transition back to school are challenging for most families.
When children in the Czech Republic (including mine) strap on their backpacks and wave goodbye on Monday morning, they may be wondering whether their teacher will assign seating, or whether they’ll get to sit beside a friend. They may be curious about what’s for lunch, or what kinds of afterschool club activities their school will offer this year. Will they have the same locker or a different one? Who’s going to teach gym class? They may be excited about navigating public transportation on their own, or they may be a bit scared.
There are so many questions about the beginning of school for children as well as for their parents. I’m thankful that my children have the opportunity to start a new school year in the Czech Republic, and I’m optimistic that my own transition back to the school year routine is off to a smoother start.
I’d love to hear from other “Half ‘n Half” families and readers. How do you handle your back to school transition?