XII. They Don’t Like to Speak English Here

by valerie shultz

July 20, 2011

0542 hours

Yesterday was day number two of camp.  It was not necessarily more fulfilling than the first day, but more relaxed and more productive as far as interactions with children.  We knew the routine from the day before and we knew what to expect, so the energy that was put into figuring those things out on day one was able to be directed to the children today.  We were told before we came the children would be shy about or hesitant to speak English with us.  They don’t like to speak English here.

But they are doing it more and more.  Some of the kids greeted us in the morning with smiles and handshakes.  No hugs.  That’s still too blue.  Children who I was convinced didn’t understand a word of English suddenly greet me in English and when I ask how they are, tell me they are tired, or hungry, or having fun.  Nobody complains.  These children are the most gracious and well-behaved children I have ever met (well, other than my own little monsters back home, of course!).

We again eat breakfast with the children before doing our morning opening.  Prayer and fellowship is always a part of the day and I cherish this time, and I adore hearing the children hum along even when they don’t speak the words.

We break into small groups and I was in the English room, doing a lesson on The Nativity Story.  We make little origami books with the kids that they will get to keep and take home, and we review vocabulary words and do another writing exercise.  We find that we have to ask our translator to translate for us because it doesn’t come naturally, but when he does it, he does it well.  Or at least, given I can’t understand his translation, he seems to because the children are so responsive.  It’s amazing to see their little faces light up, and even when they don’t understand our language, they relate to the stories we are telling them.  They know about Jesus and the angels and the wise men.  They know about the shepherds and the sheep.  Especially about the sheep.  The children love to pretend they are sheep!  Ethan got a video clip of the kids outside, crawling around and ‘eating’ grass as they pretended to be little sheep.  He also recorded the drama module today as each group acted out the nativity story.  We watch it, and even though we can’t hear audio as we watch, all of our hearts melt at watching the children speak their English words and act out Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn and Jesus being born.

And this is where the process comes together and why it now makes so much sense that English be taught in a Bible-camp setting.  When the kids cannot understand our language, they understand the stories and that serves to bridge a gap between Polish and English.

I have heard and read many things online about mission trips to Poland.  These trips are being criticized and devalued because people don’t understand the purpose of Christian mission trips in a Christian nation.  But Poland is not just Christian, it is Catholic and has been for centuries.  Approximately 98% of the country is Catholic and by many it is viewed as a critical component of the Polish culture.  This creates a great deal of strife between the Lutheran people and the Catholic people, and I believe it is fair to say the Lutheran people are severely oppressed there.  So our mission teams are not just Christian, they are Lutheran and they are serving Lutheran congregations in Poland, although the children in the camp are welcomed from all congregations.  The children from our camp in Szklarska Poreba came from a handful of different denominations.

Our day continues and at lunch Joanna surprises us with a Polish lesson.  She has a prayer written out and she takes turns picking on each of us and having us repeat a section of the prayer.  It gave the children a good laugh as they unconvincingly tell us how great we did.  We then do a prayer in English and are served our meals.  For breakfast we had this wonderful oatmeal with some little square things in it which are still a mystery, and a slice of tomato and a radish, and bread.  They have bread at every meal.  Lunch is a tomato soup with the little stars in it, and crepe-type things.  One crepe has a layer of sweetened cheese in it.  I hear someone call it cottage cheese but it’s more like a ricotta cheese- a hybrid of the two perhaps.  The other crepe has peaches in it.  Dessert for lunch?  Yes, please.

After lunch is our third group and then a scavenger hunt Carol put together.  The children didn’t really know what a scavenger hunt is, and Carol had the difficult task of explaining it and trying to make it make sense to them.  She must have done a good job, though, because soon enough children came running in to search out items on their list, and they were having FUN with it!  A silly band, a cross, a hug from Pastor Dave, a high five from Pastor Sebastian, leaves, a three-leaf clover.  Sebastian hides and once we see him run down the hallway with a trail of children after him.  The kids come in to the room we are at first asking for various items in Polish, resisting the rule to ask in English.  They don’t like to speak English.

But they do speak it.  And you can see that each time they do, they begin to be more comfortable with it.  The children don’t know what silly bands are (apparently only silly Americans wear silly bands) and Toni tells them it is like a rubber band.  Child after child walk in, very confidently, and ask, “May I have a rubber, please?”  Courtney and I try very hard not to laugh as she pulls a silly band off her arm to hand to the child.

After the scavenger hunt is over, we are served tea and these enormous donuts.  They are delicious.  They are ‘I wish my mouth was bigger so I could devour this faster’ delicious.  We eat and we talk about our day, our concerns, and there are a great deal fewer concerns today than there were yesterday.  We mostly talk about the kids and the different experiences we’ve had with them.  Everyone has their own special interactions with the children.

Mine was with Wiktor, who came to me and said he wanted to talk to me.  He said he liked my name and asked if I knew that it was the English version of Valkyrie.  He goes on to talk about writing and mythology, and says he loves mythology and likes to read it as fiction.  This young man is incredibly intelligent, and at one point I tell him so.  He looks at me with surprise in his eyes before thanking me.  Wiktor is the exception at the camp.  He loves speaking English.  I ask who he is going to practice English with when camp is over, and he points to me and says, “You!”  I speak again, a little slower this time. (David Fiala should have said, ‘Speak softer, speak slower’ instead of, ‘Speak softer, walk slower’ because the Poles seem to walk about the same speed we do anyway, especially as we gawk at everything we see and stop to look at everything that is neat.  That is neat!  Oh, that is neat!  Oh, do you see that??  It’s neat!)  Wiktor responds to me.  He won’t, he says.  “Nobody likes to speak English here,” he tells me with a slightly dejected tone.

I ask about his mom, who he previously told me likes English.  “Oh, she loves English!” he says excitedly.  I tell him to make a point to have one conversation with his mom every day in English, no Polish allowed.  Perhaps during lunch when they sit down to the table, they can speak only in English the entire meal.  He looks at me like I just handed him a winning lottery ticket.  “I like that idea,” he says.

I pass another boy, Daniel, on the stairs on my way to the water closet.  I stop for a second to ask how he is.  “I don’t know,” he responds.

Well, let’s figure it out, I tell him.  I ask if he is tired.  “No,” he says.  I make a face and make a growly voice and ask if he is angry.  He laughs and tells me no.  I believe him.  The smile on his face is genuine.  Then I ask if he is tired.  He gets an A-ha look on his face and says, “I am HUNGRY!”

Which is good, because Pastor Sebastian and another camp helper have prepared a bonfire for us to cook dinner over.  The kids gather sticks, which for the most part are taller than they are and bigger around than their kielbasas, and they have so much fun cooking their dinner over the fire.  And sadly, it’s time for us to part ways and head to the parish house.

Wiktor finds me and gives me a hug and says he will miss me.  I assure him I will be back tomorrow.  Today is today, and I’m not thinking about the end of the week.  I can’t go there yet.  I must enjoy what today has to offer.  But I already know the end of the week is going to be difficult.  Saying goodbye to these faces is going to be sad.  But these kids, who don’t like to speak English, are doing it for us.  And if they take that experience and one day realize they can do it for themselves, I will feel like I have moved mountains.

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