Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Sad Day at the Lyceum

Around 11 a.m. last Tuesday one of the 2nd year students, Kristina jumped out of a 4th floor window of the school. The autopsy discovered that she died on impact.

She was recently taken out of her classroom by the class teacher who talked to her about her absences before she asked to use the toilet. She then went to her dorm room and jumped off of the balcony. It may have been at least ten minutes until someone approached Kristina, lying on the concrete. Again, she fell right in front of the school, where the lady at the front desk must have seen her. She must have called an ambulance and then locked the doors from both sides going toward the front door. We do not know if she told anyone in the school about what happened. A few minutes later, an American pastor David attempted CPR on the girl as he saw a group of Slovak teachers in a circle. Someone took over after him and then the ambulance came and they put a white sheet over her.

I learned about the event from students who were told to return to their classes. All I was told was that a student committed suicide. I hadn't a clue what to do with them. I knew just as little about why these things happen as they do. This was an unteachable moment. I just let them do the thing that I would want to do in their situation, speak with each other in their language about whatever their hearts desired.

After police arrived and filed their report, the students were allowed to leave out of the back door. Kristina's body laid helplessly and hopelessly alone with a white sheet over it while photographers flashed their cameras and journalists interviewed random passersby for nearly three hours before the coroner arrived.

That afternoon we had a two-hour staff meeting. The teachers discussed her family life, possible motives, and a chapel service the next day. I wanted to tell the other teachers that we should leave why Kristina may have committed suicide to the police and let us focus on what we can do. We could not change the fact that a young girl was dead, but we could focus our energy on those students who are suffering and how to be there for them.

The next day was the chapel memorial service. Students spoke about Kristina and people sang songs of comfort for the students. The news on TV and on paper still spoke about Kristina that day and the next and the next.

Kristina was not my student. I substituted her class three times but had minimal interaction with her. A cross and candles have been placed around the spot where she fell. Students frequently come and light a candle and sit for a moment. A picture display of her is on the second floor along with a book for people to write in.

So many questions still remain. What was the lady at the front desk doing for ten minutes while Kristina lay on the concrete? Is there an emergency plan for the school? Which teachers in the school knows CPR? Why is the director infrequently in school in the mornings? Why is there no emergency kit available? These are the logistic questions.

My students have been asking a few different questions. What could I have done? Why did she jump? Why would anyone do this? Did I not show that I cared about her? These are the natural questions. These are the questions I do not have the answers to.

I ask that you kept the Lyceum in your prayers, for healing, guidance, and peace.

Monday, May 19, 2008


May 8th through the 12th we had a 5-day weekend. So a couple friends of mine - Kendra and Alison - decided to go to Krakow, Poland.

We left Thursday, May 8 at 8 a.m. and planned to arrive around 5 p.m. in Krakow. Our journey began in Bratislava, then we took a train to Breclav, Czech Republic, then another train to Katowice, Poland, then another train to Krakow.

We had an hour and a half layover in Breclav, the highlight being the statue of a head.

In Katowice, we had another layover, so we walked around the city and the girls had a cup of coffee. The train station in Katowice is rather confusing as we found out on Sunday. We nearly missed our train going to Krakow because the platforms did not say which direction was which.

Finally around 5 p.m. we arrived in Krakow. We miraciously found our hostel without getting lost. This is a huge improvement for me. The hostel was called "Mama's Hostel" and, naturally, staying at this establishment called for some "Yo mama" jokes.

That evening, we walked around the Old Town, attempted to see the castle, and found ourselves in an dark, empty church with violins practicing in the backroom. The Old Town was an old town. They are hard to describe - open squares, lots of people, historical buildings. In the church, a radius was on display in a glass box. I could not figure out whose radius this was, but I had never seen a relic before, so this was rather exciting.

The next morning we took a bus outside Krakow to the famous salt mines. We saw many brochures for tours of the salt mines and rides to and from the site. These brochures made it seem as if it was difficult to find on your own. Nevertheless, we found a public bus that took us to the mines and paid for a tour in person and saved $25. So, a word of advice: brochures make trips seem difficult on your own, but they aren't.

Upon arriving at the 700-year-old salt mines, we had to walk down 378 steps. The most fascinating thing about the salt mine was the chapels and cathedral. Miners (the guide said on their free time, which I am skeptical about) carved out an extravagant cathedral with a replica of Da Vinci's Last Supper and a salt statue of Pope John Paul II. Though I am not sure how often this cathedral holds mass, weddings take place here frequently. Also, 100 meters below the Earth's surface was a bar and restaurant. Just before leaving the mine, I decided to taste the salt by licking the walls. Yup, it was salty.

The previous night, I did not sleep well because some girls that were staying in our room thought turning on the light and using their outside voices was acceptable. I hoped to sleep before this night; however, around 4 a.m., I realized this would not happen. We stayed in an eight-person dorm, and we occupied three of the beds. Five other people would go out just as we were going to bed and each would return on the hour starting at 1 a.m. Each person would take at least thirty minutes to stop walking around the room, turning on the light, and walking around the room.
The next morning, tired from a night of annoying college girls coming and going in the wee hours of the morning, we took a bus to Auschwitz.

We saw Auschwitz I first where we received an English tour. The guide took us into different buildings to show us artifacts and where people were shot, hanged, and imprisoned. Though I enjoyed hearing stories from the guide, I wished we had more time to look at displays. In one of the buildings, there are displays of suitcases, shoes, kitchen utensils, glasses, and the like that were left by prisoners. I wanted to stay at look at the suitcases and shoes for a few minutes, but the tour guide merely said, "And here's the suitcases. And in the next room you'll find the shoes." I understand that the tour guide had a schedule, but people want to stop for a few minutes to look at thousands of shoes. In Auschwitz I, we got to walk through a gas chamber. The gas chamber looked nothing more than an empty room with burners just outside the room.

After the tour of Auschwitz I, the tour guide took us to Auschwitz II - Birkenau. Birkenau is where most of the prisoners were sent and then selected for extermination or to work. Two train tracks go into Birkenau, and in between these two tracks is where the selection took place. Then those selected for extermination move directly to the gas chamber. The gas chambers were exploded by the Nazis before fleeing. So all that is left is ruins.

The sheer size of Birkenau makes your jaw drop. My roommate Larry likes to say that Auschwitz I looks like a small college campus, but Birkenau goes as far as the eye can see. If you can see in the picture, each chimney was part of a building. The camp is split in two. The side that I was on must have been at least 15-20 chimneys by 15-20 chimneys. Each of those chimneys could have been where prisoners lived, lavatories, or workplaces. The buildings were poorly built so any heat that came from the chimney soon left. The tour guide said that 400 people could live in one building alone. She said that 8-12 people would sleep on one row of a bunk. They would all have to lay the same way. If privacy wasn't taken in the living conditions, the lavatories surely took those away. The building with toilets had three rows of holes. Holes were on each side of something that might be called a bench. When using the restroom, which only happened twice a day, you would be back to back with another prisoner. I cannot even begin to imagine what living in Birkenau must have been like.

After the tour was over, we returned to Auschwitz I, which is 3 km away from Birkenau, and we went into one of the museums. There is an exhibit on each country, or group of people, that was sent to Auschwitz. We went to the Roma/Gypsy exhibit. Many people still have very strong prejudices against the Roma.

After walking around the exhibit, I saw a guestbook, which I couldn't help but to look at. I couldn't believe the things that were written in the guestbook. I flipped a few pages and the first thing I noticed was a "Good Night White Pride" sticker. I have seen these stickers around Slovakia and Czech Republic. The first thing it made me think of was "To Kill a Mockingbird" which we recently read in class. In the book, Atticus Finch says that it is wrong to hate anyone, even Hitler. I found the hatred and damnation of Hitler and the Nazis all over the guestbook. I flipped a few more pages and found a comment about something the Chinese did to the Japanese. Then I looked below that comment and saw someone ridiculing the person who wrote that comment because the Japanese did something else to the Chinese. A few more pages and I found another comment about how one would think the Jews in Israel wouldn't persecute the Palestinians after all that happened. In between, I kept seeing this phrase: "Never again." Sadly, millions of people were killed during WWII and it has happened again and again and again. When will the suffering and hatred end? Will it end?
Leaving Auschwitz, I wondered what I was supposed to take away from this experience. Was there anything to learn at Auschwitz except for the fact that hatred and suffering exists? I wanted to read a hopeful "Never again" but all I saw was a delusional "Never again." How do we make hatred never happen again?
I had been listening to this song by Michigan's own Sufjan Stevens called "John Wayne Gacy, Jr" about the notorious serial killer. After telling Gacy's story, Stevens notes, "And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floor boards /For the secrets I have hid." Stevens, speaking metaphorically, has spoken truthfully. Though most of us have never done anything to get us put in jail for a lifetime, we have all committed acts that we would rather hide and have had thoughts we wish we had not.
So perhaps it's not about what happened over sixty year ago, but what we are doing now. Maybe what I am supposed to have learned from Auschwitz is that I must attempt not only say "Never again" but also impliment "Never again" in my life in my small and large actions. I guess it all goes back to the whole log in the eye thing.
The next day we began our adventure home at noon. Planning to take the same route home, we had a three minute layover in Katowice and missed our connection. We had to wait two hours for another train that could take us to Bratislava. This train, however, went through Bratislava. We arrived at our second destination a half hour late and boarded a train at around 8. After stopping a few times for thirty minutes at random towns, we realized we would not make it home before midnight. When we arrived back in Bratislava, we didn't care what time it was. We were just glad to be back. It was 12:40 when I arrived home. A trip that was supposed to take eight hours took over 12.
A big thanks to Kendra for the pictures.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Update Coming

I apologize blogger friends for the lack of updates. Two weeks ago, we had a holiday and I went to Krakow, then we had a rather unfortunate week of school and I found my arm in a sling.

When I sling off the sling, I hope to speak in detail. The sling should be off this week.

Hope all is well with you whoever you are and wherever you are.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Budapest - Two Great Cities - One Great Place

This past weekend, I travelled with three friends, Sonja, Rado, and Alison, to Budapest, Hungary. We left Bratislava Friday after school and took the 2 1/2 hour train ride to Budapest. When we arrived, we attempted to find our hostel. After wandering around the city for about an hour, we found the hostel. Figuring here would be where we would put our bags down, we let out a sigh of relief. First day = no problems. So they thought. Nevertheless, they were not aware of my travelling curse.

We walked into the hostel and the receptionist said, "Sorry two groups of people booked the same room. There is no room here for you."

"What do you mean?" We asked. "We have the confirmation e-mail in our bag."
"Someone must have booked the hostel 5 minutes before you did. This doesn't happen often but it does happen."

I laughed quietly and then asked when he found out about this problem.

"When I came in to work this morning," he responded.

"And why didn't you communicate this problem with us?" I asked.

"Usually we do, but today was a busy day."

Yeah, another busy day at the hostel. I'm not sure what that means. I wanted to ask, "You were too busy to send us an e-mail or phone us?" But I figured I would get nowhere, so I sat down and just laughed and told my friends of the curse.

The hostel receptionist was nice enough to at least find another hostel for us. Yet the problem with this hostel was that it was above the city and the only directions we had was, "Go up the hill and you'll find it."

Nevertheless, we did have an amazing view of the city. For those who do not know, Budapest is made up of two cities: Buda and Pest. Buda is on the west side of the Danube and Pest on the east. Buda is the hilly, beautiful side, and Pest is the side of buildings upon buildings.

Saturday morning we woke and made our way to the market where we ate some fresh Hungarian food and enjoyed some freshly squeezed orange juice. It definitely beat Minute Maid.

Afterwards, we walked up the castle hill to catch another view of the city. I never get tired of looking at castles.

After crossing back into Pest, we found a number of shoes just laying by the riverside. Sonja explained that these are supposed to represent those who were taken during the Holocaust.

Hungary is known for its' spas. We all brought swimsuits and made our way to one of the famous spas in Buda. We sat in a pool of warm water for nearly two hours. During that time I remembered that my family (except my mother) was running in the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon. Their bodies were tired and worn. Mine was relaxed to the max. I'd prefer the spa to the run.

That evening I realized why they called the country Hungry. We went to a Hungarian restaurant and the waiter and waitress pestered for about ten minutes about what we wanted to eat. We ordered soups and a meal. The soups took 30 minutes to arrive and after that the meal took 45 minutes. Sitting at the table, waiting for our food, we realized anyone who visited the country must have continuously been saying, "I am so hungry!" It's true. Look it up on Wikipedia. Nevertheless the food was delicious and we even had live music. A violinist even placed his violin right next to my ear, thinking it might please me. Little did he know.

Sunday morning we walked around the city and found Heroes Square. Heroes Square is something like a mini St. Peter's Square.

Then we found a park where a festival was going on. At the festival, I found three things worth noting. The first is a t-shirt a woman was wearing. This woman's shirt should say, "Help me, I don't know my masculine and feminine forms of words very well!"

The second was the American hot dog stand. I love hot dogs but never in my life will I buy a hot dog in Europe. In Slovakia they call them "parky" and they are just about the most disgusting thing I've ever eaten. During our training this last fall, we were each served four on our plates for breakfast. This was the only meal I did not eat all of. Anyway, the American hot dog stand had an interesting umbrella. What flag is that next to the U.S.A. flag? Yes, the Civil War is over, and the South lost.

Last, and saddest, was this fake car accident and a wooden person we found by the car. This wooden man was wearing a sweatshirt that looks much like a shirt my roommate Larry owns. This was a rather sad sight. Poor Larry. Fortunately, when I returned to the apartment. Larry was still alive! and wearing this shirt (not really but it would have been funny).
Budapest is said to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I will have to agree. On my top ten list of most beautiful cities, Budapest falls within the top ten. I only have about 7 cities on my top ten list, though. Seriously though, I did enjoy Budapest more than most cities, even Prague, especially because it wasn't as touristy as cities can become.
That's all for now. Thanks for reading. Thanks to Alison for the pictures.