Use these stories to change the world! (IV)

D. Learning
The heart of your work in the Stories Exchange Project may lie in the stories offered in the Learning menu of Stories and Responses here at this Web-site.
And what better subject for classroom discussions than classroom discussions?!
Irena and her students at the Jan Patocka Grammar School have already begun to discuss the difficulties and joys of discussion in “Most people condemn things they know nothing about.”
My task is not to make conclusions but to learn to share ideas.
So we sit in a circle and I ask only one question which everybody has to answer.
And I try to make them listen to each other’s answers.
Zuzka It was difficult at first. We didn’t know what to say.
And when we began to understand, we all spoke at the same moment, and interrupted each other.
But little by little we learned how to discuss things.
Teachers seldom ask us our opinions. We’re taught definitions.
I think it would be much better if we could discuss things.
That’s why I liked the Project. And I think it would be good for everyone.
As the stories demonstrate, learning can – and should – take place anywhere, not just in the classroom.
Listen to Ludek Novak, formerExecutive Director of the New School foundation (Nadace Nova Skola) in Prague:
“We can’t lock up education in schools. Education is very complex: it’s the process of our whole lives.
Education is not only about getting information: it is also about finding a way to yourself, about understanding yourself, discovering your identity. If education goes in this direction it can benefit the whole society.
It’s all about individual initiative.
It’s not about someone at the top saying that something has to be this way or that: it’s about people wanting something themselves – and doing it.
Experiential education emphasizes individual initiative, independence, and responsibility. I’m convinced that these principles are the bases of free and democratic society, that they will enable us to become free citizens of free societies.
Politicians have talked a lot about freedom during the last ten years, but behind their words there was none of the activity which I’m proposing.”
It was in Bosnia, while serving as an election commissioner, that Ludek had one of the most important learning experiences in his life:
“The volunteers were from many countries. I counted: there were representatives of twenty-two countries in Europe and North America. So there were many other languages. I didn’t speak them, but the other people did.
What was important was that I was meeting people with different ways of seeing the world and what was happening in Bosnia.
For the first time in my life I realized that that I’m not alone in this world, that there are many other people and that I should respect them and learn how to live with them. That was important, because I didn’t agree with some of them.
And I had to learn to be responsible – for things I do, and for things I don’t do.
That’s what I learned in Bosnia.”
Ludek told us all this in December 1999 at the first of six training workshops we held at the EastWest Institute in Prague for new participants in the Stories Exchange Project.
And why don’t you talk with Ludek?
He may have some good ideas about where you can find interesting opportunities for experiential learning – in addition to the Stories Exchange Project, which of course takes experience as the beginning, middle, and end of learning.
Send him an e-mail:
But you may also want to have a close look at one of the stories in the Learning menu here at this Web-site. “She played first violin”
This brings us back to Maticni Street in Usti nad Labem, where the wall went up: the wall that we replaced with a café-tent (“How can Roms have a white tent?” in the Being a Citizen menu of Stories and Responses).
And it brings us back to the topic of “special schools” which Eva discussed with Helga: schools for mentally retarded children in which some seventy per cent of Romany kids in the Czech Republic have been placed.
Honza Cerny and Lucka Conkova don’t think that poor living conditions in Maticni Street and other Romany neighborhoods should prevent kids from getting an education which can prepare them to become productive members of society and responsible citizens of a new democracy.
This is a story about school and a bathroom.
It was in March 2000 that we talked the whole thing through – in the kitchen of Josef Lacko, whom people here call Piani. He lives in the Novi Svet housing estate, and does his best to help the people around him.
There were five of us there: Piani, his wife Gizela – who really has the gift of the gab – his sister-in-law Ruzena, one of the kids, and myself. As you can imagine, everybody put in their two cents’ worth.
Piani began it.
“Ruzena, my sister-in-law, asked me to go with her to see the school director about where her boy Kája’s going to go to school. So I went: why wouldn’t I?
Kája goes to a special school in Nestemice. The director there is an older woman who has been teaching for thirty-three years and no one can tell her how to do her job.
We went through all the normal stuff: Kája is learning well, and he doesn’t make any trouble. Though his mother, Ruzena, complained that he doesn’t obey her: since his dad died, she doesn’t have the help of a firm hand at home.
Anyway, I asked the director: ‘If Kája is learning so well, why can’t he go to a normal elementary school: why can’t he move ahead? He’s not going to learn anything at a special school.’
The director said that Kája was a clever boy, but he was better off there at her school than he would be anywhere else. ‘On top of that, the elementary schools are full.’
I started to say that it was nonsense for him to stay at the special school if he has what it takes for normal school and understands Czech well – but the director said that I was Kaja’s uncle not his father, that she only speaks with parents, and that his mother is the one to make decisions about him.
So I went outside and waited.
I waited for about twenty minutes on the sidewalk.
When Ruzena came out, I asked her: ‘So what happened?’
Ruzena said, ‘I signed the agreement for Kája to stay at the special school.’
‘For heaven’s sake! Why did you sign?’
So Ruzena described the whole conversation. The director had told her that at other schools they would laugh at Kája because of what he didn’t know, or they would haze him and beat him up.
Also, after all, she knows how they live on Maticní street. They don’t have bathrooms, and you know how it is not to have hot water for washing clothes and bathing. In the special school nothing bad would happen to him because of that, but God knows how it would be elsewhere.
‘That’s idiotic!’ I said. But it’s her boy, and I can’t decide for her.”
So that’s Piani’s little story. It probably surprises you, but such things do happen even in March 2000.
But this was important to me: I work for a foundation that worries about these kids’ education, so I couldn’t let things stay where they were.
I said, “To me it’s obvious that Kája should go to an elementary school.”
Piani’s wife Gisela said, “So they can beat him up and laugh at him for being from Maticní Street? Are you going to take him to school and stay with him all day? You’re not! You see?”
And Piani: “But what will become of him?”
Ruzena: “And what about the money for textbooks? You have to pay for that. And notebooks. And we don’t have a bathroom.”
Me again: “You mean he won’t go to an elementary school because of a bathroom?!”
So we talked around and around for about a half an hour.
Finally I didn’t know what was what anymore, so I went to the office to look for Lucka Conková, who was visiting. “A Rom can do a better job of convincing Roms,” I said to myself.
And I was right.
It turned into a concert in which Lucka played first violin.
After half an hour it was clear that everybody in the room had started to be concerned with education a little bit more and many things were explained.
But when I went home, I wasn’t in a good mood: the entire future of Kája Kulena had almost been decided by the fact that of the thirty-two flats in Maticní Street, not one has a bathroom.
I went over to Honza’s place and we were talking about the fact that there are kids at special schools who are smart, who should attend normal schools, and Honza and I tried to select children whom we think need to be transferred to normal schools, and we want to arrange it for them. Some of these kids are really smart.
So I was sitting in the office and Honza came over and said, “We have a case here. Please come down to the flat and talk with them.”
So we went to the flat.
I was pretty nervous because I didn’t know them, and it’s very hard for me to talk with a forty-year-old lady who is dealing with the future of her son or grandson.
There were five or six people sitting around a table in the kitchen and they said, “We know you from somewhere. Where is Martin?”
Martin is my boyfriend, and he works with Honza.
So I said, “Where do you know Martin from?”
And they said, “We know Martin from our old house: we were neighbors.” And I asked, “Whose son is Kaja?” and one lady raised her hand and said “Kaja is my son.”
I asked her why she didn’t want him to be transferred to a normal school.
She said she didn’t have money for books. And he would have to commute.
I explained to her that you don’t have to pay: books are free, textbooks are free. And I told her that the school in Sedlice is a school where many children from low-income families go, so the school cannot ask the parents to pay. I told her not to worry about his being there with high-income kids.
And as for commuting, he actually had to commute to the special school as well.
She said, “I graduated from a vocational school and it was no good for me: I didn’t need that vocational school.”
I told her that even if she does not use her vocational education it still looks better to have at least a vocational school degree. I explained to her that it’s much better to be a graduate of a vocational school than of eight grades of a special school.
I stirred up the discussion.
They started talking about education, and I think some of them got to understand that education is important.
And I hope that Kaja will be attending our normal elementary school starting in September this year. _______________
So here’s proof that learning can take place anywhere, and that education is, as Ludek says “the process of our lives”: it doesn’t stop when you leave school – whether that’s a “special school,” an elementary school or a vocational school.
This may be a story about school and a bathroom, as Honza says, but it also takes place in a kitchen. The kitchen becomes a sort of classroom for everybody who sits around the table.
And the story may be focused on Kaja, but everybody from Piani to Lucka learns in the process: “everybody put in their two cents’ worth,” and everybody learns.
But just because there’s so much learning going on in this story, it’s pretty complicated. And in order to learn as much as we could from it, one morning last year in Prague we decided that acting it out would give us the best chance of paying close attention to all its details.
We divided a group of about thirty people into three smaller groups and we asked each group to analyze the story together, and then to put what they learned into a performance of the story.
There were three Pianis, three Ruzenas, etc. etc.
After each performance, all of us talked together about what we had learned by seeing each group interpret the story in their own way.
And then after all three discussions of the story, performances of it, and discussions about the performances we all talked together about the different things we learned from each version, and, in turn, from our discussions about each version.
We learned a lot.
It could have gone on for much longer than it did, and we kept on talking over dinner.
But of course you don’t have to have thirty people or more than one discussion of the story, performance, and discussion of the performance. One of each is enough—- and you only need five or six people.
Try it? You may learn a lot.
But once you’ve assigned all the parts, be sure to take the time to discuss all the relationships among. And pay special attention to how their relationships change as the story moved forward.
Here are some of the things we found ourselves saying about the story as we prepared to act it out for each other.
We started by thinking together aboutPiani. And first we tried to see how he relates to the people around him before the story really gets under way.
We did that in order to watch him learn to relate differently to people during the events that he tells about – and in the discussion in the kitchen.
Why did he go to talk with the director in the first place? we asked. We weren’t asking what his purpose was, only how did he get included in the conversation? What gives him his authority?
Try asking that yourselves.
How does he relate to Ruzena, his widowed sister-in-law, and to Kaja, her son?
He’s her brother-in-law and Kaja’s uncle, but what other role does he play in relation to each of them?
How would you describe the way he speaks to the director of the “special school”?
Why do you think the director tell him to leave?
She says that she won’t speak with him because he’s not Kaja’s father. But do you think that is really why she refuses to speak with him?
Does the director’s refusal to include him in the conversation put Piani in a different relationship to Ruzena?
And does he seem to learn anything from being excluded from the conversation between the school director and Ruzena?
Do you think that might have given him the idea of inviting Honza to come and talk with Ruzena and himself about the situation?
And of course Honza does something similar when he goes to get Lucka and asks her to play first violin.
Notice how authority goes back and forth, up and down, until at least Honza sees that you can make a situation better for everyone if you – if youdelegate some authority, we’d say if we were talking about democracy.
And isn’t that exactly what we’re doing in this Romany kitchen: learning about how to build a little democracy?
Let’s go back over this.
Piani is a very stubborn and forceful speaker, but his objections to the director of the special school just make her throw him out of the conversation.She uses as an excuse the fact that he is not Kaja’s biological father. But doesn’t she do that precisely because he is in fact OVER-playing the role of Kaja’s father, the male authority in traditional cultures, very much including Romany culture.
But look at what Honza does.
He’s the white male, but he knows that he can only make Ruzena understand what Piani has been insisting on, that the little boy have a chance to get a good education, if he, Honza, does two things:
 — if he takes cue from Piani and asks for help as Piani has asked for HIS help
 — if he asks for that help from a woman: from a Romany woman.
That way one Romany woman convinces another Romany woman to stop making her son a victim of her fears about what would happen to him because she didn’t have a bathroom.
So Lucka plays first violin.
But this discussion in a kitchen in fact becomes a concert because two men, one Romany and the other white
 — have been forced out of a conversation between two women, one white and the other Romany;
 – have accepted their diminishment of authority;
and instead of trying to re-assert it as Piani originally did
 — call for help, the Romany man asking for help from the white man, the white man in turn asking for help from a second Romany woman.
This is a concert, as Honza says. But it’s an improvised concert that can inspire further improvisations.
And like the improvisations by Czech students and artists in 1989 that ended up being called the Velvet Revolution, these can turn out to be stronger than any attempt to impose authority.
Is that something like how you see it?
What matters is what YOU think, what you come to think after looking together at all the details and changes that make up this story. Whether or not you act out the story – and we certainly have found this a good way to take a good story apart and put it back together again.
Good stories are not only about gradually changing relationships among the people in the stories.
Good stories can change OUR relationships too: our relationships to ourselves, to each other, to people like the people in the story.
But stories can do this only if we pay as close attention to the changes they tell about as we just have to this story of Kaja and Ruzena and Piani and the director and Honza and Lucka.
And by the way: who’s story do you think this is? Doesn’t it belong to each and all of the people in it? And doesn’t it belong to us too once we get into it by paying attention and, like Helga in Terezin, by not turning away from drawing what we see?
But try it yourselves, and see what happens.
Of course there are a lot of other stories here at this Web-site that you can better understand by acting them out.
Another story in Learning, “Romanek solved his problem in his own way” might be a good choice. It’s got some similarities to “She played first violin.”
And there are other stories in Learning that you might like to act out and then discuss.
For example:
“I survived this and I’ll survive other things too” (In this one the Lucka who played first violin tells about how she stood up to harassment from a white classmate.)
“I studied with them like any white Czech woman “
“A teacher can make the biggest difference”
“I hope that she’ll be strong enough”
BUT please remember what a discussion is. (And remember too that it was in a Romany kitchen that you learned this!)
A discussion creates a space in which you can
 — express your own thoughts
 – get new and different ideas from your classmates
 — make compromises.
It’s a concert, in which each person plays first violin for awhile and then passes the bow to someone else;
in which each player can question and play variations upon tunes proposed by other players but lets each player be heard
so that an interweaving of voices is created which is more beautiful and true to the humanity we share than any single voice can be at any given moment.
As Irena says
“My task is not to make conclusions but to learn to share ideas.
So we sit in a circle and I ask only one question which everybody has to answer.
And I try to make them listen to each other’s answers.”