I’m sitting on my balcony this morning—having a bit of a Dorothy-esque, we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment—as the premature, mid-October snow drifts lightly down over the courtyard outside my Martin, Slovakia apartment. I can hear muffled laughter filtering up from the pub beside my building. An old, sweatered gentleman smokes a cigarette on his balcony across the way, and we both look down at the yard, where a handful of neighborhood children roughhouse with their dog in the crunchy, frost-covered grass.
No, this isn’t Kansas, and it certainly isn’t Georgia either, my home, where in my imagination the cool, clean air has just begun to fill with the scent of fallen leaves and smoke from a campfire somewhere not too distant. In the back of my mind, though, sit the recent images of Georgia I’ve gleaned from news article after news article: houses half-submerged in brown water, government officials declaring states of emergency, here and there a FEMA outpost crowded with surprised-looking people.
Yes, I do worry about my home, my friends and family, though at the same time I can’t help but find it just a little funny—though heart-warming—to know that they are worrying just as much about me as I adjust to life in this little European country about which so many people know so little. They have many questions: “Is there a lot of poverty?” “Is there enough food for everybody?” “Do you have hot water?” “Isn’t Slovakia in Russia?” “Is it safe there (read: are there any terrorists)?” “What the heck are you doing over there anyway?”
And I answer. Yes, there is some poverty in Slovakia, but where isn’t there? Yes, there is plenty of food. Yes, I do have hot water—everyone does. Russia? Not quite. Slovakia actually shares a border with Austria. In fact, the capital, Bratislava, is only about forty miles from Vienna. Terrorism is most certainly not a problem. The final question will require a longer answer.
I am here in the Slovak Republic as a part of the J. W. Fulbright Program, a U.S. State Department-funded venture whose aim is to promote international peace and understanding through educational exchange. Since the program’s launch just after World War II, 144 different nations have taken part. Some Fulbrighters study in universities, some conduct independent research, some pursue involved art projects, and the rest serve as teachers.
As for me, my grant involves the latter two. During working hours, I serve as a lecturer in English at Milan Hodža Bilingual (English-Slovak) Grammar School, a selective, public secondary school in the nearby village of Sučany. I plan and teach eight literature classes a week, in addition to teaching six English language classes. While it may sound like a lot of work (and it can be), this is actually quite a light teaching load by Slovak standards. Outside of school, though, I spend the rest of my time working on a collection of new poems—the other purpose of my Fulbright grant. Despite the big transatlantic move and the anxiety of learning the ropes at a new job—both of which can be in turn inspiring and distracting—I have been doing my best to put pen to paper as often as possible.
But let’s go back a bit. My teaching experience here is not something that can be summed up in
a couple of sentences. Teaching is easy, and yet, at the same time, it is a very difficult thing to do. It is a profession full of contradictions, surprises, false starts, laughter, headaches, intense frustration,simple joys, and on and on, ad infinitum. And this is just my first year doing it. And in Slovakia, no less. So while I might not be able to sum up the whole experience in this article, I would like to share with you three small pieces of advice I received before departing from West Georgia that have had an enormous impact on me as I begin my life as a teacher:
• Don't worry— you'll be great. This was Dr. Davidson's response when I came to him during office hours, having just learned that I won the Fulbright grant and freaking out more than a little about the idea of actually having to follow through on this thing and come teach stuff to Slovak teenagers. His encouraging but characteristically laid-back advice didn’t help my nerves much at the time, but I see now that he really did have quite a profound point. Whenever the task at hand begins to feel a bit overwhelming, I know that all I have to do is stop worrying and have a little confidence in myself. So far, this strategy has yet to not make me feel better.
• “Remember: you know more than them.” This bit of direct, no-nonsense, practical wisdom could have come from no one but Dr. Hipchen, master of the can-do attitude. Even when in the middle of a literature lesson I find myself faced with bone-chilling blank stares or the kill-me-now grimace of teenagers the world over, I remember this hard-edged quip and think, hey, I do know what I’m talking about, and I can teach it—I know I can. Once again, it all comes down to self-confidence.
• “Always come to the classroom with lots of planning, but without a plan.” This jewel that Dr. Fraser gave his Pedagogy & Writing class has become an integral part of my developing teaching philosophy. That man’s passion for teaching is like a beautiful disease—highly and beneficently contagious. Thanks to him, I know that if I come to a class discussion armed with ideas and am willing to follow the natural flow of the conversation as it unfolds, I can trust the ideas of my students—no matter how tentatively offered—to lead us to new and interesting places inside and outside the text at hand every single time.
To these three great educators, mentors, and friends—as well as everyone else in the English Department with whom I have had the great pleasure of working, studying, and sharing my life—I want to express my utmost gratitude. I wouldn’t be here without all of you. I am truly blessed.
So no, I am not in Kansas anymore, and Georgia seems just as far away, though only spatially. The place and the people are right here with me—and they will continually be—as I live and teach and write here in Slovakia, this strange and wonderful little country where even snow, as unfamiliar as it may be, reminds me of home as it flits and swirls in the cold mountain air.