She played first violin

[In the Czech Republic a "special school” is a school for retarded children to which Romany (Gypsy) children are assigned if they do not pass an examination which emphasizes skills in Czech language and culture.
Maticni Street in Usti nad Labem was the location of a wall which Czech residents built in 1999 between themselves and their Romany neighbors.]
Honza CernyUsti naad Labem
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.
Lucka Conkova
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.

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