Finally posting my first column from visit to Slovakia last week

Socialism ended about a year before I first visited Slovakia 18 years ago. Equating Slovak life back then to life in the United States around 1900 is a fair comparison. However, even in the less than a year I was here, the country and the people changed. Seeing its future trajectory was clear.
Pre-World War II, Czechoslovakia was the sixth most industrialized country in the world. The area continues to have a literacy rate near 100 percent. The people are hard workers and incredibly handy. Almost every Slovak knows how to fix things.
My visit to Slovakia shows that their evolution toward a completely modern culture has been on warp speed.
When I was here in 1993, barely anyone had a car or a house. Everyone relied on public transportation, and most everyone lived in a small flat. I’ve visited two sets of friends thus far on my trip. One family was deeded their family home back through the process of restitution after Socialism ended. Restitution was, and continues to be for some, a massive quest for historical proof of ownership of land and buildings so that property is returned to its original owners after being State controlled throughout the Socialism era. My friends who got their old home have worked for years to restore it.
My other friends have built a huge, sparkling and beautiful home on a hill overlooking the city. It is majestic and impressive. They have three cars and a rolling landscaped lawn. It is like nothing that existed when I was here before.
Both families agree on many of the consequences of many of changes the changes that have taken place since Capitalism took its old. The most obvious is the change in wealth and the new buildings and restoration. Ancient city centers, drab and dirty when I was here before, now glisten and glitter. The difference is remarkable, and even though I expected the change, it blows my mind.
Ancient cathedrals built in the 14th century now stand beside glass and steel shopping malls that sell any and everything under the sun. When I was here before, the selection from food to fashion was limited with few, if any, choices. The real estate market has exploded with prices comparable to most cities in the USA, if not higher. When I was here, a home would have sold for about $10,000 that today sells for more than $200,000. That’s a big change.
The other big difference is the ability for Slovaks to travel now. For so long, they were not allowed to travel. Then they were so poor that they couldn’t afford to travel—or if they did travel, they couldn’t afford to eat (which many of my friends did). They would take one change of clothes and fill their bags full of food for the trip. My friend whose family has built the big new house told of his first trip out of Slovakia.
“I was there for two weeks, and the whole time I was there, I only bought one ice cream,” my friend, Dominik, said. “I ate from my bag for the rest of the trip.”
All of my friends agree that the country isn’t nearly as friendly as it used to be, especially from one Slovak to another.
“Before we all took the bus, or we all took the train. We all lived in a bloc of flats,” my friend, Zorca, said. “We knew everyone and everything about each other. Now we drive cars alone. We live in homes with neighbors not so close. It is very different.”
In a philosophical turn, my friend Roman said, “They opened the big door, but they closed the little door.”

LSS: Back again.

I believe most of us can look back on our lives and pinpoint one decision that changed everything. Of course, there are thousands and thousands of decisions that change the course of our lives. But I believe most of us can narrow the field and pick one that really set us on the course that we’ve been traveling.

For me, that decision came back in 1992. I had moved to Washington, D.C. and couldn’t find a job. I was temping and decided I had nothing to lose by accepting an appointment to teach English in Czechoslovakia. Between the time I got my assignment and the time I got there, Czechoslovakia decided to split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in the so-called Velvet Divorce.

I arrived in Slovakia when the country was 12 days old.

It was January and it was freezing. Actually, in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains (or Tatry as they’re called in Slovakia) in a small village called Stara Lubovna where I ended up teaching, it was -27 F on the day I arrived.

I was given a one room flat in an old Communist era building and was paid Slovak wages — $133 a month. The principal at the college prep high school where I was teaching understood my motivation in being there and created a special schedule for me. I taught from noon Mondays until 3 p.m. Thursdays. I could travel every weekend if I wanted.

And I did.

I also taught a lot of private English classes, including one set of classes to an 8-year-old girl. Her name was Adrianna. She was a brilliant student. Her mother and I taught together, and her family kind of adopted me.

When Adrianna graduated from high school, I did whatever I could to help her come to university in the United States. She worked hard and was accepted to Sewanee. She continued to work hard and do well, earning numerous scholarships and fellowships around the world, culminating with finishing her law degree at Harvard this spring.

Now she’s getting married. She’s marrying an American fellow in her tiny Slovak village, and I plan to be there.

I’m flying into Krakow, Poland, where another former student and his family will meet me. I’ll visit with other friends along the way and then join the wedding party with Adrianna’s friends from her hometown and around the world.

Adriana is now the same age I was when I was living in Slovakia. She has come to visit us occasionally during her spring breaks, so I know firsthand the amazing young lady she has grown to be.

I am touched to be included in her special day. I am also emotional about it. The last time I was in Slovakia, I was young, but the culture was older than anything I had ever experienced. It was pre-Internet, pre-email, pre-cell phone — and in Slovakia, it was the birth of free expression for a new generation.

In fact, even using a landline phone was complicated. Administrative officials, who rarely smiled and spent their days behind desks in small offices, controlled and operated most of the phones. Back then, making a call home required careful navigation through a bureaucratic process akin to moving to a new state and getting a driver’s license, never mind the language barrier — it not for the faint of heart. There were a couple of televisions in the village that ran continuous loops of Slovak news or soccer. For fun, we danced, sang, played games or cards.

I lived life largely with little to no knowledge of what was happening in the world. But life, for me, was lovely. I walked most everywhere I went — or took a bus or train to get to other cities.

Mementos of Communism were everywhere when I was there. Many statues had giant tarps over them, waiting to come down. The sides of government buildings had sticky residue where huge sickles and hammers had once proclaimed their dominance. America, long kept from them, was still novel and beloved. In most cases, I was the first American female people there had met. Some would take trains in from villages to try out their burgeoning English with me.

It was a time full of promise. Everyone there expected life to get better, with few probably realizing how good it was. Life in Slovakia these days is pretty much like life here, from what I understand from friends.

My second trip to Slovakia likely won’t have the impact my first one did, but I’m looking forward to going back and seeing for myself how much the place and its people have changed.

LSS: Looking for our fast friends in Japan

Faithful readers will recall our March effort to fold 1,000 origami cranes to send to Japan. In Japan, 1,000 cranes strung in 25 strands of 40 creates a senbazuru, which represents hope and recovery.
Our family’s effort quickly gained momentum. For the five days before we mailed the cranes, someone was knocking on our door every hour or so throughout the day and evening dropping off bags of cranes.
If you’ve ever tried to fold a crane, you know those were little bags of love.
Many people came in and sat at our table and folded more cranes. It was beautiful. When we reached our goal of 1,000, the cranes kept coming. All in all, we mailed 1,873 cranes from Acadiana. The Bezos Family Foundation, through Students Rebuild, donated $2 to the Japanese recovery for each of those cranes. Within a few weeks of our cranes arriving at the Students Rebuild office in Seattle, people from around the world kept sending them.
All in all, the organization received one million origami cranes—900,000 more than their target goal. Organizers are partnering with Architecture for Humanity and shipping the cranes to become an art installation in Japan. They’re using the money to build an orphanage and a school in the Sendai area.
Skip a few weeks forward.
In April, my 13-year-old daughter, Greer, and I visited England. We made a trip to the English city of Bath, a city first settled by the Romans. The city, so named, because it was loved then and now for its warm healing waters. In fact, Greer and I toured the bathhouse the Romans used 2,000 years ago.
The entire structure has been excavated down to the very stone floor the Romans used. We entered on the street level and toured the upper portion of the building before going down steps to the stone floor surrounding the warm green pool, still fed by the same spring. When we stepped out onto the smooth and polished stones, I was in awe.
Upon entering the area, we practically bumped into two Asian girls. One tall and one short. I asked them if they would take our photograph by the bath. As I handed my camera to the shorter girl, I realized their English was marginal. That always makes me happy. I love speaking with people learning our language.
After the girl took our photograph, she motioned to ask if I would take a picture of her and her friend. I did. When I finished I counting to three and taking the photograph, I asked the girls where they were from.
“Japan,” one answered.
I asked, “Where in Japan?”
The tall girl said, “Tokyo.”
Because of what happened next, I cannot remember where the other girl said.
I smiled and in the way I speak with my hands, arms, legs and toes when I’m trying to communicate with someone who’s trying to learn English, I said, “In March, we folded 1,000 origami cranes for a senbazuru for Japan.”
I knew they would recognize the word sebazuru.
They did.
Both girls put their hands together and began bowing to us saying, “Thank you,” over and over and over.
Greer and I recognized their sincerity immediately, but they kept saying, “Thank you.” Then, I saw a single tear roll down the check of the taller girl.
Followed by another.
I know well the reticence of emotions in the Japanese culture. If you were watching, you probably saw on television families who, after four days of searching, reunited in the ruins of the tsunami after, simply stand and bow to each other.
No tears. No embrace.
The taller girl’s tears began to fall in abundance and within a moment, she was sobbing uncontrollably. I opened my arms and she fell into them, silently sobbing. We stood there the four of us.
They didn’t know our names.
We didn’t know theirs.
Still don’t, in fact.
Tears began to roll down Greer’s, the other girl’s and my own cheeks. It was one of those experiences you can’t believe even as it’s happening—powerful and compelling.
Finally, the Japanese girl regained her composure and we began to smile and laugh.
She said one more, “Thank you,” and the four of us posed for a photograph. Arms locked.
I don’t know why our tale of a senbazuru touched her the way it did. I don’t know if she had or lost family in the tsunami. I don’t know if it was just that moment of realizing how connected our lives are and that people in one place genuinely care about people in another.
Whatever it was, the four of us shared a remarkable moment that will stay with me.
I wish I knew her name.

LSS: School’s on its way

It was a total fluke.
I’m not even sure what I was searching around for on the Internet when I saw a tiny ad pop up that said something along the lines of, “Virtual School in Louisiana?”
I thought, “Yea, right, there’s no virtual school in Louisiana.”
Google knew, as Google so often does, that I had been investigating virtual school options and sent me a little heads up that something new was on the scene.
And that is how I learned that I was wrong. Launching this month, Louisiana does have state supported and accredited virtual schools.
A little background, a virtual school is an institution that teaches courses entirely or primarily through online methods. Friends in several other states have been giving virtual schools a try for a couple of years. Through them, I’ve learned that virtual schools, like any other school, have their advantages and complications. Virtual schools are demanding and rigorous but allow the flexibility of travel and more control of the daily schedule.
Even virtual schools have to meet extreme standards as defined by each state’s department of education. Not everything the student learns is online, especially for the younger grades where students typically spend less than 20 percent of their learning time online.
The students have real teachers who regularly monitor their progress. The students take online assessments and have to send work into their teachers for forma evaluations. However, each student also has a learning coach at home to help keep things organized and provide help as needed. The learning coach knows exactly what the expectations of that day or week’s lesson is. At the end of the year, for state-accredited and supported virtual schools, students must comply with the state’s standardized testing requirements.
At first I was skeptical. Really skeptical. I kept asking more and more questions. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For my family and daughters, the virtual school option seemed like an answered prayer. Even still, our decision to enroll required much research, conversation and consideration.
A state supported and accredited virtual school in Louisiana is a sure sign that things are changing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, Louisiana spent an average of $6,519 to educate each student in public schools. Though I’m uncertain what the state is spending on its virtual school options, the general cost of a virtual school education is less—and is, for some students and families, simply a better, more effective, option.
Even still, for some people the whole thing is difficult to embrace. Specifically for my parents, in fact. They are both retired educators. They’re completely bumfuzzled over my family’s non-traditional schooling choice. Before I worked with families making non-traditional educational choices, I too was concerned about the same issue my parents have expressed: socialization. I’m not concerned about that at all any more. For our family and many others I know, a non-traditional school choice allows the time and energy to be involved in activities the children most enjoy.
I don’t know what all this school year will entail. I’m sure we’ll have challenges, and I’m certain the year will be unlike any other we’ve experienced. I have friends who are interested in virtual schools but don’t want to sign up until the see how the whole program works. They’ve told us that we are their guinea pigs.
When our boxes and boxes of supplies were delivered last year, my daughters and I got that same giddy school supply feeling of years past. Just like teachers around the state, my husband and I will spend much time in the next week getting our family’s classroom set up and ready—in what we used to call our den.
Yes, times they are a’ changing, but in some ways, they stay the same.
It’s early August. It’s burning up outside. And in our home, we’re ready to bring on a new school year.