An issue of the C-word

This morning, my neighbor Bela and her friend Tana came over, with three of their own children in tow, for a meeting. They are opening a Montessori style preschool in Mnichovice this fall and I am the obvious choice for an English teacher. It normally probably wouldn’t be worth my while, except that they are planning to expand this preschool to be a Montessori elementary school as well. And, given that the regular elementary school in town has a terrible reputation for low quality and out-of-control social interactions, including bullying, I am highly motivated to pursue any options that would avoid it. Having grown up as the weird, legally blind kid with hippie parents in a small farm school in Eastern Oregon, I can all-too-easily imagine the extreme social isolation, ostracism and physical attacks that a Romani child would certainly face in our local school.

Recently, Dusan and I were discussing the issue with friends and all the Czechs present agreed that they don’t know of a teacher who would stand up for a Romani child, who was being harassed by classmates, and can’t imagine that such a teacher exists. That gave me pause. I always assumed my Czech friends and even Dusan often feel that I exaggerate the problem that our children would likely face in an average Czech school. And yet, I would have thought that most teachers would try to stop such harassment, even here. I knew some wouldn’t, but I had assumed that some would.

Dusan says that what he thinks I exaggerate, or rather simply fear too much, is the reaction of our children to harassment and bullying. He says that he thinks they could simply shrug it off mostly. After all, almost everyone is teased and bullied in school at some point and most people get through it okay. The thing is that I know from experience that there is a vast difference between the occasional schoolyard harassment that “everyone” knows and the very specific, focused and constant ostracism that a child experiences when they are alone and a member of a minority against whom there are strong negative social stereotypes. Beyond that, I have seen or heard of enough examples of Romani children, who are significantly shaken by relatively minor ostracism – the Romani child of an acquaintance in Slovakia who attends a nice, private, international preschool and still at three years old declared that obviously she cannot be pretty because she is “black” or the third-grader who went from a straight A student to failing in everything within a few months when she started to understand the comments of others about Roma. For me, the risks are simply too high.

So, I’m planning on teaching at the Montessori school two days a week this year, even if we end up with a second baby. I’ll end up lugging two small children more than a mile through deep snow to get there and I won’t be making any more than $10 an hour, given that they will cut my pay for each child that I bring with me. But I don’t see that I have too many options. I have to at least try to work things out with the Montessori school. Homeschooling is an option but it sounds extraordinarily isolating in this country where people don’t even do play-dates for preschool age children, let alone any visits between older children who are not already classmates.

That was the background of the meeting. The women came in and settled to drinking some St. John’s Wart, nettle and mint tea that I had put out and the children attacked the toys with a vengeance. We worked through the hours and methods that I would be using in the fall and the various options, depending on whether or not we have another baby by then. Bela, who had seen my troubles with getting Shaye through the snow last year, asked how I was going to get there through the snow, and I replied that I will try to find a parent at the school, who has two children and who I could pay to make two trips to pick up me and my children, or else I will have to get them there by sled and stroller. Both women looked dubious.

“I don’t have much of a choice. As I said before, if you were anyone else who wanted English lessons, I would say that you have to help me with transportation, but because you will be the only reasonable option for my children in elementary school and I won’t be able to afford your school, unless I have the 50 percent discount for teachers’ families, I will just have to do it.”

They looked confused about why I said I wouldn’t be able to afford the school without the discount. They pride themselves that their school isn’t “only for the rich.” The undiscounted rate is $350 per month, per child. That rate multiplied for two children would take about 20 to 30 percent of our family income. Despite what these women with high-earning husbands think, their school is only for the rich, just not only for the extremely rich. Our family income is significantly above average, and if we were to pay for this school it would mean sacrificing all other family luxuries. I cannot imagine that anyone else with a comparable income will be at the school.

I explained quite openly that I am willing to do this because the local school is so bad for any children. They know this well, which is why they are starting the private school. But also, people who are interested in Montessori methods, either as teachers or parents, are the most progressive and western-thinking of the lot in this country. I know that this kind of school would be my best realistic chance to find an environment without constant, overt racism. It will certainly be far from perfect but, if I were teaching at the school, I would be able to oversee the situation to some degree. It is planned as a very small school with only one combined class of lower-grade elementary students. I know that I could make far more money teaching on my own or even doing some sort of office job in Prague but I know of no job I would be able to get, which would pay enough to make up for the loss of the teacher discount.

The upshot is that I have to teach at the school, even if I have to pay so much for transportation that I make almost nothing at it. The teacher discount is worth far more than a few-hours salary.

As the conversation went on I realized that Tana probably had no idea why I was so concerned about the Mnichovice school, so I turned to her and explained, “The issue with that school is that I am adopting Romani children.” This included a glance at Shaye, playing with the others.

She immediately looked alert and said, “Oh, that’s alright. I think having cikanske children is completely normal.” I was at the same time befuddled by her choice of assurance and scared by her use of the C-word. As I’ve noted before. The word “cikan” or “cikanske” is the Czech equivalent of the N-word in the United States fifty years ago. It is extremely and obviously insulting and vulgar. It is also used almost universally, outside of official documents. It is used by the Roma themselves, particularly among young people trying to be cool. So, it completely parallels the use of the N-word. So, it would be like someone saying, “I think having nigger children is completely normal.” It sounds just as bewildering and frightening in Czech as it does in English. My apologies to anyone who is offended by me posting that sentence. You can’t understand the impact of it, if I don’t actually spell the word out in English as well.

I mean, for starters, even claiming that a white person having “Romani children” is completely normal would be ridiculous. It isn’t normal. It’s so uncommon as to be bizarre in this place and time. Slapping that word into the sentence makes it incongruous and frightening. But I didn’t react verbally. I had known that we would have to address the issue eventually but I had hoped it would not be in the first meeting. And I didn’t want the conversation to be sidetracked at that particular point. So, I let the comment slide for the moment, although I assume I must have stiffened or looked somehow shocked, because she later brought it up.

“I guess you don’t like that I used the word ‘cikanske’,” Tana said.

“Well,” I said, trying furiously to quickly assemble my thoughts into a calm and reasoned argument. “You have told all the teachers to study these books on ‘respectful communication’ and ‘respect-based teaching’. I feel that if we are going to focus on respect, that we should not say rude words in front of the children.”

“And you think that word is rude,” she replied.

I almost blurted out, “You bet I do!” But I caught myself and rephrased it. “Yes, I know it is rude. It has been profaned…”

Tana interrupted, “I am just not comfortable with these new fads, where people are supposed to use a fake, made-up word – like Roma – that has only been around for ten years. And besides they call each other cikan.”

I am pleased to say that I didn’t start blowing smoke out of my ears or shouting or anything of the kind. I simply explained that they are hiring me because I’m a linguist and as a linguist I know that the word “Roma” and “Romani” has been around for at least a thousand years and has always been the correct term. I explained how the same thing had happened in the US and how the fact that young Romani teenagers call each other “Cikan” in a joking tone, does not make it an okay word for a teacher to use in front of children. Those same teenagers use cuss words in every other sentence, after all.

On the bright side, they both listened and didn’t interrupt me anymore and in the end Tana said that she understood the problem – that it isn’t about what you mean when you say a word like that but how the word is used in the rest of society that colors its meaning. She didn’t go so far as to agree openly to my suggestion that not using such words should be part of school policy. It will be within a year or they are going to be looking for a new English teacher. That I can guarantee.

So, I still believe that the Montessori school will be far better for my children. My herbalist friend, Ivan, who is a teacher at a regular school and my friend would not even have that discussion with me or let me finish a single sentence on the subject. At least, these women listened and at least they want me to teach English at their school and for them it will probably be a fairly minor sacrifice to make an official policy to ban racial slurs in order to keep me. But it is still yet another nasty reminder of just how high the cliffs are that we have to climb.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Brook
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 15:09:24

    Wow! It is so hard to believe that this happens in a ‘developed’ country. So sad! It makes me want to move over there and open a school for those poor kids!


  2. Peter Farnam
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 17:48:29

    Good Job! (On all levels :-})


  3. Lindsay
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 18:10:35

    I often find myself pretty shocked that Czech is actually behind Slovakia in these respects because I would have expected it to be the other way round: you being the bigger, more successful of the two I guess. Here Ciganske (Gypsy) does not have the very negative meanings you seem to have in Czech (am I right in seeing it as the same root word?) I much prefer Roma myself and always use it – when used by whites Gypsy is often negative. But here the Roma really do use Gypsy/Ciganske a lot (Ciganske Diablo are one of the biggest bands here, the Ciganske Bashavel is one of the biggest festivals etc.) Course you know I agree about the racism – look at the issues we’ve had. No way would I put either of the girls in Sk school. Being in the international (like you no way could I afford it if not working there) is great because they are not the only non-whites. Couldn’t you look for a job at one of the internationals in Prague? We have a sister school there and teaching staff in Sk all get free education (including local hires) for their kids. Best of luck with it all. Hopefully we’ll make that play date happen soon 🙂



  4. Julie Farnam
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 19:45:05

    It’s overwhelming, really. I sure wish I knew some black people my age that I could talk about this with. This is a huge social change and a battle that will be felt and has been felt for generations. It is really frightening to imagine Shaye and “Rye” being in the front lines of what our minorities began in the 50s and continue to struggle with. And they will, more than many Romani people, just because of what they’ll be exposed to as adopted children — of you — and in our family.


  5. ariefarnam
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 20:46:05

    LIndsay, I don’t know about more advanced or less so. I know many Roma and not only teenagers use those words, but less-confident people of minority groups often use whatever insulting word is used by society about them. Partly, it may even be a healthy way to try to take back the power, to neutralize the poison of such a word or to de-profane it in order to de-profane their own name. That does not mean that it is even slightly acceptable for a white person to use those words or that I want my children to hear them in my house. I would be surprised if these terms are not commonly used as insults in Slovakia as well. It doesn’t matter what the speaker means. It matters what the listener hears. If the child hears an insulting word, because that is how the most often hear the word used in school and in the media, then it tears down their inner self, period. Many words have been abused and thus ruined throughout history. And in any event, yes, the root of Cikan and Cigan is the same, both come from the Romanian term for “slave.” Back a few hundred years ago all slaves in the area in and around Romania were called the root term of that (which I can’t spell off the top of my head), whether or not they were ethnically Roma but many were. So, no great choice of connotations there.


  6. Ember
    Jul 02, 2011 @ 11:10:53

    You handled it well, Arie. I’m glad you didn’t blow smoke out of your ears, and I’m so very glad that they stopped to listen to you. The cliffs are steep, but with friendly support, even the steepest cliffs are sumountable. 🙂


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