Chance of a Lifetime In Levoča
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Slovak Republic
- Personal Essay
"What am I doing here?" I asked myself as I walked down the sidewalk on a beautiful September morning. I asked myself this question and gave many different answers over the next two years. Here was Levoča, a small town in eastern Slovakia. And the most obvious reason I was there was to teach English as a second language. But there was so much more.
I had left my home in the mountains of North Carolina, and my job as a teacher in a program for adults with developmental disabilities, to join the Peace Corps in Slovakia. I was one of the first Volunteers with a vision disability placed in Eastern or Central Europe. (I am considered totally blind.) After three incredible months of language and cultural training, attending classes with other trainees and living with a host family, I was completely on my own.
Levoča (pronounced LEH-voh-cha) is a small town nestled in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains in eastern Slovakia. The town square is dotted with many old and historic buildings, some dating back to the 13th century. My home was a small three-room apartment, located in a school dorm built around 1350. I cooked on a one-burner hot plate and washed my clothes in a bucket. At the same time, I had a cell phone and regular access to the Internet. This contrast between old and new seemed to characterize all of my experiences in Slovakia. Emotions ran to the extreme. Highs were exhilarating. Lows were heart-wrenching. Successes left me feeling as if I had climbed the highest mountain. And setbacks brought intense frustration before I was able to come up with solutions.
All of my students who were learning English were visually impaired, like me. This similarity based on our disability created a bond between us right from the start, especially among the high school students. In a country with a 25-percent unemployment rate, these smart university-bound teens with disabilities were concerned about their future and questioned their chances of finding work in their chosen fields. Seeing me there, fulfilling a lifelong ambition, helped them to believe that their dreams could also come true.
My students ranged in age from 8 to 19; grades 3 to 12. They came from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and were on varying intellectual levels. Their skills in English ran from beginner to well advanced. Though some instructors would have found these differences challenging, I loved the change. It was wonderful to go straight from a lecture on American politics with my high school seniors, to singing a lively rendition of "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" with my adorable third graders. Materials were in short supply. I transcribed books into both large print and Braille for all of my high school students and many of my elementary school classes. I used magazines and cassettes sent from home to add to my classroom supplies.
My teaching style was, as it is now, very informal. My students called me Lorie. I sat on the floor with my little ones and joined in all their games. I often invited my high school students to my apartment where we cooked together, listened to music, and shared our hopes and dreams. In this way, I forged friendships with many students that are still intact today. It is amazing to read a letter from one of "my kids" today describing their college experiences.
My level of independence greatly increased during my time in Slovakia. Growing up in a rural community, I had never shopped or gone to the post office or to a bank on my own. But in Levoča, everything was within walking distance. I was so proud the first time I went to our small three-aisle grocery store and came out with everything on my list. Bank tellers, postal workers, and shop assistants grew to know me. They learned to understand my heavily accented Slovak and always served me with a smile.
At least once a month, I took buses or trains for weekend visits around the country to stay with friends and reconnect with my initial host family, with whom I had become very close. My fellow travelers were always patient with "the blind American with the big bag and the white stick." They answered my questions, gave me detailed directions, and even guided me when I must have looked too confused to go any further on my own. I never failed to show up at my destination, and I usually made a new friend along the way.
Because I took the chance to teach English abroad, I now have many memories—like that of my student Jana, who approached me with a homework question early in my Peace Corps teaching experience. Since she was shy, she asked a classmate to translate her question into English. Over the year, her confidence in her ability to speak English increased dramatically. When I spoke with her just before she returned to school the following year, she told me of her summer travels to Croatia and how proud she was that she had been able to communicate with young people from many countries because she spoke English. Now, long after I have left Levoča, I receive letters from Jana describing her international travels attending conferences all around the world. Sharing my dream of volunteering to teach English in another country has helped her own dreams to become reality. I was proud of myself for taking the chance as a person with a disability to live in another country, teaching English and learning Slovak. Now, I can be proud of Jana for learning a foreign language and traveling the world, too.