24 Apr Classes- at Home and Away- An Essay
I sat in the dark classroom, watching as a huge banner of Stalin spread itself across a large projector screen and a soft instrumental soundtrack filled the room. I shivered. I think all of us did. We’d just seen a man beaten to death in a car in Soviet Russia and now an eerie face that seemed to capture all hatred loomed in front of us. For the two hours of the movie we were in Soviet Russia instead of a classroom in Prague.
The movie, “Burnt by the Sun” was the weirdest one we’d watched to date, and we’d seen a lot of weird things. In that dark classroom in Prague we’d watched movies, once a week, from the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, Poland, all about something horrific like WWII or Communism. Some were what you’d expect, a Jewish shopkeeper being torn from his home while the town is Nazified, a war movie showing Germany and Russia tearing each other apart. But “Burnt by the Sun” was the weirdest, maybe because it was mostly non-violent and showed a wonderful relationship between a young girl and her father, all before he was killed by the government he had devoted his life to.
I didn’t understand everything about the movie as I tried desperately to read the fast-moving English words on the screen and watch the characters’ movements at the same time. I told myself I’d Google it later. I didn’t want to admit that I’d missed something to the students next to me, and the professor wasn’t one to describe in detail a movie we’d just seen for those of us too slow to grasp it.
We sat in the darkness for a few minutes more as the film wrapped up and the credits began to roll. When the lights came on it was like we’d all just woken from a bad dream. I squinted, moving slowly to close my notebook. We were supposed to take notes on the film so we could write an essay due next class, but I’d only ever seen a few lines hastily scrawled on anyone’s paper since class started a few weeks before. If I couldn’t understand a movie it wasn’t a good idea to write and take my attention away even more. But also it was hard to write about those movies. I didn’t want to write the nasty stuff and I wasn’t good enough in film studies to get technical about it.
Our professor opened the windows at the front of the classroom, making the room even brighter with early morning sun. If my eyes didn’t water when looking into the bright sun I would’ve had the perfect view of Prague Castle. Across the river on the hill it was right in my eyeline. That’s how I picked that seat, and how I picked Prague to study in. The castle was way more inviting than the oil refinery in my college town back home.
“Tak,” our professor said. “Well,” in Czech. “Like you know, essays are due before next class. Our next film will be Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” It’s based on the book “Roadside Picnic,” by the Sturgatsky brothers if you’d like to do a little research before viewing the film.” She was a big woman who sat at the desk in front of the class during the films. She would never watch the movies, though I’m sure she’d seen them loads of times. She always read or did paperwork. Her English was accented but she had no trouble speaking, unlike my Čapek Class professor who stuttered violently in English while speaking smoothly in Czech, making it hard for our English-only brains to grasp what she was trying to say.
As she talked about the final essay my mind was on the film we’d seen instead of her voice. I felt intellectually drained after that class as if instead of sitting in a dark room watching a movie, I’d been giving an hour-long oral presentation about something I wasn’t familiar with.
The other students must have felt the same way because as we left the room for the bright and bustling hallway, nobody spoke. It felt like we were leaving a funeral, not a film classroom. We were sad and a little shocked and felt like we had to gain a good distance away from the building before we could speak or joke again.
It’s lucky we only had that film class once a week. It might be very depressing to have it two or three times. In fact, most of our classes were only once a week in Prague. Not all of the classes were that depressing, though it seemed they were generally more so than back home. As a whole, my classes in Prague, all literature, with the one film, centered around WWII, Communism, or some combination. And these were horribly depressing topics. At home it seemed we’d read so many different books that there was never a central topic, but in Prague they were all similar. And it was depressing.
Even the classes themselves, the start of them, were scarier than at home. At home, at my small university, it was easy to go into a new classroom every semester. It was either full of the same students, had the same professor, or at least was a topic that I was confident in.
None of this was true in Prague. The students were all new, a lot of them were from Europe, and besides knowing how to read, I knew nothing about the topics we’d be learning about. I feared the professors, and, even though I knew they’d speak English, I feared they wouldn’t understand me, or I wouldn’t understand them.
I’d walked into each class at the beginning of that semester seeing a room that was completely foreign, like classrooms weren’t a universal constant. Really they were exactly the same as at home with either long tables and chairs set in rows, or individual desks, still in rows. The professors always stood or sat on a table in front of the room and they spoke to us in the same way that all professors do: with a strong voice.
It was nothing I couldn’t handle but the topics were different too, and they were what really made it difficult. At home I read the books, sometimes watched films, and maybe felt moved if the story was very touching. But I never felt the pull, the sometimes constricting sadness that I felt with every story, every film, in Prague.
Sometimes the literature classes weren’t as bad as the film. We would read Russian and American dystopic novels that (I comforted myself) weren’t real. We read Čapek about war and death. We even read Eastern European Romantic writers which is the writing style and shouldn’t be confused with love stories.
In Prague the books we read were picked to purposely show us Prague and Eastern Europe’s history. They were picked to teach us, Americans, the important moments, writers, and people of the region. But it just so happened that they were mostly depressing.
At home we would read books from England, America, maybe a few in translation, but infrequently it was to learn about the place. We always spoke about the work with some sort of distance from it. We would sit in the classroom, usually in a circle, and talk about the themes, characters, or writing styles. We didn’t usually talk about the history behind the story. If we did it was quickly pushed to the side or forgotten.
But in Prague, we were stuck in that place. When we walked out of our classroom we walked down streets we’d talked about or we’d see historical references to what we’d talked about.
Another class in Prague was based around the writings of Karel Čapek. As an important Czech writer, we learned about his life, his connections to political leaders in Prague, his works like War with the Newts, and RUR in which he created the word “robot.” We went on a fieldtrip to his home in Prague. We took the tram, our small class of eight students followed our tiny professor, sometimes having to jump off the tram at the last second when we didn’t notice she’d gotten off. We went outside the city center to the Vinohrady neighborhood. I, and most of the students, assumed that we were going to a museum, or at least a small exhibit but we actually went to his house. And we couldn’t go inside as someone was living there now so we just walked around outside while the inhabitant’s dog barked at us nonstop until we left.
Seeing that this house was still in use seemed to give it more life, or more validity than if it were a museum. Museums feel staged. Even ones in homes that recreate the time they are exhibiting are stale and un-lifelike. But not being able to go inside showed that this wasn’t stale. It was real and right in front of me. This wasn’t Shakespeare or even Hemingway, who seemed far away and unattainable.
The way we learned about Prague, in a classroom with novels, essays, and films showing some of the worst moments in history, was both difficult and rewarding. While it felt like everything we learned was horrible and depressing, we were almost given a crash course into the history. Back home, we didn’t need a crash course because we grew up with that information whether we learned about it in school or from our family. Had we taken a “crash course” of American writing and history the way we did in Prague it might have been similar. We might have wondered why everything seemed so depressing and why it seemed we were never allowed to read anything fun or uplifting.
If I weren’t American, and I went to an American school, I wondered what I’d think. Had I read The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, or American Pastoral I might come up with some pretty weird ideas about Americans and the history. Had I watched Civil War movies, or those about Colonial settlement and the destruction of Native American people, I’m sure the ideas would be negative, the thoughts on the country and region as a whole would be depressing, just as the history of Central and Eastern Europe seemed depressing to me as an outsider.
And even though these stories really were depressing or sad or scary, they were made even more so by the fact that they were new, and I knew nothing about them. Reading, as an American, those same books I’d thought about before, is still sad, or strange, but I’m not looking at it from the outside. There is still a sense of sameness to it because the country is mine, and I can imagine it as an insider.
It was the same for going to classes. While the classes in Prague and Pennsylvania were essentially the same, the one professor, the students sitting in chairs at their tables, the taking notes, the listening to lectures, it seemed much more frightening in Prague because of its newness and the way it seemed more exaggerated by my foreign mind. And leaving the classroom after the disturbing movie, the sun was bright and warm again. And all thoughts of the movie ran through my head as I found a café to sit and write my essay.
Do you feel the same way? Tell me your thoughts or experience in the comments below.