“Quit now,” I say, “or you won’t live to be as old as me.”
Dagmar does a take.
“I don’t want to be old as you.”
After a stunned pause, we all laugh uproariously. Especially me. I’ve
been insulted! To my face! Does that mean the straitjacket of compul-
sory respect has been a bit loosened?
Well, it does seem that things get warmer. I am invited for another
drink. And now in the classroom I have devised a way to get their views.
I have them all write an anonymous note in response to a question. Then
I collect the notes and deal them back out. People read what other people
wrote, and we can discuss the question in safety. And when there is an
especially insightful comment, I can say so without pegging that student
as a “teacher’s pet,” the Czech term for which, I am told, also means
I can tell from their notes that my students are understanding and
thinking about the texts and what I have to say. And though my class-
room is still quieter than I would like, I can see that they are sharp,
rather dangerously witty, and that they have a remarkable mastery of
both written and spoken English.
OK. Things are going well. Then I get a shock: I’m told by a faculty
member that there has been controversy about the Vaclav Havel memorial in the courtyard. Some of the students—my own students—oppose
its presence. I express astonishment. My colleague shrugs. “The Czechs
have a bad habit of turning everything into kitsch,” he says.
I ponder this explanation. I do know about Communist kitsch,
wherein propaganda is delivered through sentimental or too-cute images. Could it be that my students, though they were born several years
after Communism ended, have an internalized antipathy for patriotic or
political messages of any kind?
Still I am puzzled and, what? Embarrassed because I don’t know
kitsch when I see it? Or hurt, even, because I had thought the Havel
memorial quite lovely? Surely it is one of the least pompous tributes ever
erected to a great man in history: two garden chairs pulled up to a small
round table through which a delicate linden tree grows. On each chair
is a three-inch green glass swirl that looks like a wave. Each chair also
bears a small red glass heart, Havel’s trademark signature. The idea is to
symbolize Havel’s belief in democratic debate, the willingness of people
who may have different views to sit down and find common ground. I