When people talk about strangers, children almost never come to mind. There’s something about the innocence of the younger generation that overrides the distinction we make between the familiar and the foreign, even if the children are from a completely different culture and speak a completely different language. Perhaps it’s easier to feel like we know them because they don’t yet have the instinct for decorum and self preservation that keeps most of us from exposing all of our character upon first meeting.
But that doesn’t mean children aren’t worth getting to know, and it certainly doesn’t mean they are fully intelligible at first glance. In Prague, I’ve taken on an internship position in a Czech elementary school to help students there lean English. It’s nothing complicated—I just have to talk to them and assist the teacher with the lesson. Since I don’t understand any Czech, the students are more motivated to speak English to me.
I have to admit, for the first class, I had no idea how to interact with the children. They were at different levels of English, and some had less confidence in speaking than others. Usually, whenever the teacher left me alone with a group of kids, there would be one translating everything I say to the others, and they would mumble back a response at best. There were kids that wanted to rush forward with the content, and there were ones that weren’t learning much at all because they were too shy to participate. Even though I couldn’t help but feel close to them, they were still alien to me, and I grappled with this distance, struggling to forge a path forward.
One girl in particular left a very strong impression on me that day. When she first entered the classroom, the teacher was holding her hand and speaking to her softly, and she was wiping away tears as if she was scared to be there. Throughout the class, I tried to pay extra attention to her and make sure I acknowledged her every time she raised her hand. It turned out, however, that she is one of the most advanced students in the class, and she loves speaking to me in English and always has more to say. Whatever she was upset about on the first day, it had nothing to do with her concern about the class. I had judged much too quickly, assuming that her worries came from the same place that mine did, but that was obviously not the case.
As the kids and I grew more familiar with each other, I began discovering more about their individual personalities. Olia likes to take charge of situations, and sounds better at English because she is more confident. Hugo is quiet, but he speaks well and is usually dependable during chaos, but Ollie’s attention is always wandering somewhere else. The kids interact differently when alone with each other than when with the teacher or with us, but most of them are always eager to show off their ideas and the things they’ve done. I learned who I should be patient with, and who I need to push a little, who needs help and who can totally handle a conversation with words I don’t know myself in some of the foreign languages I’ve been learning, even though I’m already at an Intermediate level.
I also learned that not all of the children are from Prague, some are from smaller cities in the Czech Republic; one girl was born in Slovakia, another boy is from Ukraine. I realize that the children have much more complex lives than what I imagined in the very beginning, and they slowly begin to realize the same about me. After I did a presentation about myself, and the children found out that I speak Chinese, it became another game between us to ask for simple words in Chinese. I learn to see these words in a new light as well, because of their reactions when they hear it.
Just like with the adults, I can often see the Czech culture shining through their eyes. I see glimmers of the few Czech people I’ve really met, and I come to rediscover my own culture as well. It is an interesting exchange, not at all hindered by its simplicity. I wish I could stay with these kids longer and get to know more about them as they grow up.