I’m nearing the end of my first of two weeks teaching English at a summer camp in the Czech Republic. There are trees and cabins and bugs as you would expect and then there is the unexpected. Sort of.
Today, while on a hike to the swimming hole with my student campers in Stádlec, it happened.
“How old are you?” asked one Czech girl of eleven years with big, round, brown eyes framed by blunt brown bangs.
“Guess…!” I said as I smiled down at her.
The three or four other girls, also Czech, walking in front of and behind us on the narrow wooded path giggled to one another in this language I’ve come to start to understand, quite barely.
“Ummm, twenty two…!” she said, her bright face dancing with freckles, her accent noticeable.
“Higher?” they questioned blankly, not knowing what this meant.
I opened my arms wide and then tall and shouted, “More! I am more than twenty-two!”
Once they understood, their inquisitive heads touched as they whispered to one another, trying to come up with another number.
“Thirty-three” another girl of nine years said, but it sounded like sirty-chree. Her blond ponytail bounced as she grabbed my hands happily, hoping she was right.
“Noooope,” I said, shaking my head. My own dark-dyed-purple hair not bouncing, as it was pulled into two big natural powder puffs. To help them, I asked the blond girl, “How old is your mother?”
“She is thirty-seven.”
“Well, I am …”and I counted out to them raising my fingers high, “thirty-eight, thirty-niiiine, forty, forty-one, forty-twoooo,”….
Their gasps were audible; one girl, quite mature for her ten years, stopped in her tracks, pointing a stick she’d found at me, “Noooo!”
I nodded ‘Yes” and kept counting, “forty-threeeeeee,…. forty FOUR!” and of course I then jumped and clapped and raised my arms as though I’d won the lottery. Because I am their English teacher and every moment is a learning moment, every word is a learning word, I had them repeat, “Forty Fooourrr!” and we all jumped and clapped and raised our arms as though we’d all won the lottery.
A peaceful calm settled around us. We continued along the path, twigs crunching below our feet; trees creating a canopy of shade above us. The river to the left beckoned with soft, welcoming gurgles and a wall of jutting stone cooled us to the right. A bird chirped. A frog may have ribbited.
I felt someone grab my hand, I looked down, “Do you have a baby?” my blond pony-tailed girl asked openly. Her bright blue eyes stared innocently, hopeful for me.
I suddenly felt…alone. I shook my head, “Nope.”
She held onto my hand for a bit. She did not ask me anything further. There was no judgement, there was no probing, there was no “Why….?” And her English was good enough to ask and to understand the answer. I simply held her hand and she held mine and we continued on.
Much later, when it was “lights-out” and the girls were fast asleep in their cabins, I was wide awake in my own bunk. Grasping for understanding. I looked up from my bunk, through my window and out into the millions of stars; I asked God, “Why?”
In life, I’ve almost always gotten what I wanted; I’ve worked hard, I’ve followed steps, I’ve put things in the Universe to get what I want and I just don’t have this. And I still don’t understand why.
In the stillness, in the solitude, I wasn’t given the answer to the question, but I was reminded of the now. I have certainly been gifted with these children, right now. And these moments shared with them are mine. I cherish them deeply. So, really, this is what I wanted. This is what I asked for.
Perhaps what I need to learn, my lesson for now, is that asking “Why?” is pointless for some things. So maybe now is the time to stop.