Volunteer vacations

An American travels to Poland with a purpose

Imagine a class of Polish 10- year-olds attending English class on a beautiful spring day - after school. Butterflies and the sounds of a football (soccer) game float through the open windows.

My bunch had just come in from break, and one of the boys was missing. The question, "Where's Luke?" started a lot of hemming and hawing in Polish and English, and plenty of gesturing - but communication wasn't happening.

I figured he'd had enough English for the day and just gone home. But one of the little boys seized my bilingual dictionary, thumbed rapidly through it, then raced to the blackboard and wrote, "Luke escape."

I couldn't have put it better myself, and I certainly couldn't have said it as well in Polish.

Call me crazy, but I actually paid money to teach. I was with a like- minded group who had volunteered to teach English in Poland. We were with Global Volunteers, a nonprofit group based in St. Paul, Minn. It offers service programs for people who want to test the volunteer waters without committing to something as lengthy as the Peace Corps, or to get to know part of a country for a few weeks instead of touristing from one site to another.

Agreeing to shut yourself into a room with students who do not share your language gives a person something to think about the night before the first class. Thanks to a couple of days of training before we started, the logbooks maintained by former volunteers of these students, and the library of teaching materials supplied by Global Volunteers, we came out unscathed.

Our students were schoolchildren of every age and some adults. We taught about four hours a day, some of us splitting the time between two different schools.

My teaching experience had been in high school English more than 25 years ago. So it was with some surprise (and delight) that I found myself leading the hokeypokey a cappella for a little singing/wiggling break and passing boxes of crayons.

Global Volunteers encourages a "servant-learner" attitude with its participants, in which volunteers serve by sharing their talents with local people. All projects are selected and directed by locals. My students stayed after school on their own. Their parents and other members of the community drove us to our schools and back.

In the end I think I learned far more than I served, especially about a hospitable country working hard to overcome its past.

The major difference between Polish students and the American students I've taught is that a rambunctious Polish child sent to cool his heels in the hallway for too much enthusiasm seems to suffer real remorse at being cut from the herd. In fact, the students left in the classroom with me would bashfully remind me that so and so was still out there.

In general, children in Poland seemed to be better behaved than their American counterparts and more mature at an earlier age.

However, between classes, Polish teachers tolerate the kind of behavior kids naturally want to exhibit after 45 minutes of learning. Attentive little scholars get up when the bell rings and run screaming and playing down the hall, letting out all the natural energy they have saved up.

Still, they are respectful, and my friskiest students competed to open the car door when I arrived, carry my bag to the classroom, and wash down the blackboard.

On the last day they brought me armloads of chocolates, flowers, little notes, and drawings. Fortunately, hugging is permitted in Polish schools, and we said our goodbyes affectionately.

Because we slept in Polish beds, ate Polish food, and were otherwise immersed in Polish culture, the learning process was continuous.

We stayed at Reymontowka, a restored manor house that served as a rustic hotel and conference center. It's used by everyone from artists to government officials. During our three weeks there, we watched a group of wood carvers create giant sculptures for the grounds.

There were several piano concerts, including a week-long competition that brought out the press.

We were constantly astounded by children playing reams of classical music from memory. We had an evening with the governor of the province and were able to ask him questions through an interpreter.

One night we were entertained by a group of singers and dancers in traditional costumes who shared drinks and sweets with us. More than once, we were feted when someone threw a kielbasa on the barbecue grill.

On weekends some of us booked tours with an independent contractor and took off with an English-speaking guide to visit Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, palaces, castles, cathedrals, and a salt mine.

After I got back home, my friends wanted to know how I could possibly teach English in Poland without knowing Polish. I do know the words for French fries (frytki), ice cream (lodi), yes (tak), and no (nie), and how to find a bathroom.

But actually it worked out well. Taking my place in front of the classroom with the students at their desks, established our roles. I wrote my name on the board,.and they scrambled to find pencils and notebooks to copy what I'd written.

I pronounced my name and made one of those universal teaching gestures that indicate they should repeat what I said aloud. Then I motioned to individual students, and they recited words and phrases after me.

Hands eagerly shot into the air when they knew the answers to my questions. When we really got stuck, we turned to the Polish-English dictionary. And the first student to understand what I was trying to convey would rapidly explain to the others in Polish.

It sounds cumbersome, but in reality it worked well.

The second question my friends always ask is if I would pay to go back.

The answer is an emphatic tak.

Global Volunteers can be reached at 800-487-1074 or on the Web at

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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