Like many of my millennial, direction-less peers, I was looking for something to do after graduating from college in May 2009.
I knew Washington, D.C., my hometown, would be happy to add me to the ranks of early twentysomething, non-profit workers who love love love happy hour, “can’t wait to check out that new burger place,” and totally didn’t join a kickball team to meet guys/girls. But alas, I wanted to hold out for a bit longer.
So, I thought I’d try a Gap® year, as some call it. But what to do? Though I used to clap at the end of particularly touching Boston Public episodes, I had never seriously entertained the possibility of teaching. I’m not patient enough to wait for my clothes to fully dry in the machine, so I didn’t see how I’d be patient enough for my students to grow academically and intellectually.
I started by Asking Jeeves about teaching opportunities abroad. Jeeves being no help, I turned to Google — “teach English abroad please help” did the trick. I stumbled upon a program in Hungary (“No, thanks, I already had dinner.” “Please leave immediately.”) of all places, and began the process of trying on the program to size.
While it took me a few days to get on board mentally, I knew it would take even longer to convince my hyper-protective Jewish-American parents to let me go somewhere out of their comfort zone (the Northeast corridor).
After a few particularly whiny phone calls, I decided to take a page from my studies of political science and diplomatic history. I wrote them a five-page “white paper” called “Ez Az Hölgy Fog Mindent Kifizetni, or, Why I Think You Should Let Me Go To Hungary.”
In it, I laid out all the things I thought they’d want to hear, paying special care to a section about how the experience “would further my professional development” or some shit. It worked, somehow.
I had never been to Hungary, but it seemed tolerable and I knew there was a low chance of contracting malaria. Also, I had read that Hungarians embrace sausage and mustaches, two of my passions. So, Hungary it was.
I was assigned to a high school in the eastern bloc of the former Eastern Bloc country, a two-hour drive from capital Budapest. I was told that you can determine the significance of a Hungarian town by the number of McDonald’s it has. Debrecen, my town, had two, which made it quite the regional metropolis.
(One of my favorite things about Hungarian Mickey D’s was that they sold these sandwiches that were supposedly American regional delicacies but didn’t actually exist. The “San Francisco Szendvics” had a fried chicken patty, a slice of cheese, bacon and lettuce. The “L.A. Classic Szendvics,” on the other hand, was essentially a glorified Big Mac, just like what the stars of Hollywood eat every single day.)
If I ever forgot that I was no longer in the U.S., Ukraine and Romania were about 25 miles away. (I was later told by students that Ukraine is the place to go for cheap wedding dresses and even cheaper gas. I never had a need for either.)
I taught 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th graders at Bethlen Gábor Szakközépiskola, a secondary school that specializes in economics. Those high school-age students who don’t end up in a vocational school — including programs for secretaries, electricians, stylists, etc. — must select and apply to a school that specializes in a specific subject matter or academic discipline.
My students ranged in age from 14 to 20, dangerously close to my own age of 22. On my first day, I expected to receive a course syllabus, or a textbook, or some lesson plans, or something. Instead, I was told only to “get them to speak English.”
Without much to go on (and only 50 hours of shoddy, online Teacher of English as Foreign Language training), I had to improvise, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Much to their chagrin, I forced my students to tell me about their weekend on an almost daily basis. Many of them told me regularly that they “enjoyed surfing the net,” which is a thing that Americans no longer say they do. We also played charades and Pictionary often — I mixed in clues and names of celebrities like Justin Bieber and former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.
And, we talked regularly about Lady Gaga (look her up, she used to be big) and the rapper Xzibit (of “Pimp My Ride” fame), who allegedly has more fans in Hajdú-Bihar County than he does in the continental United States.
It was a struggle. My students were perceptive, but it didn’t take much: they sensed fear, insecurity, a lack of preparation and my Axe Body Spray in the air. They could tell that I didn’t really know what I was doing, and that class would stand still if they weren’t willing to speak up and answer my questions about what they planned to do during their summer vacation and WHY.
Some of my students put a premium on learning and improving their English, and seemed to value my “teaching.” Other students didn’t give a shit and wondered why the school brought in another hamburger-eating American to get in their face and make them talk about their hobbies and music preferences. (Edit: I actually do eat hamburgers on a semi-daily basis, and therefore confirmed most of their preconceptions about Americans.)
One time, a student rolled a cigarette during class, and didn’t even bother to offer me a puff. A fenébe! On several occasions, students answered their phones when they rang during class and gave me dirty looks when I suggested that maybe it wasn’t cool for them to do that.
When I wasn’t at the high school, I was teaching at a local military base, home to the István Bocskai 5th Infantry Brigade. Twice a week, I worked with classes of 10-12 Hungarian soldiers, from privates to powerfully-mustachioed battalion commanders.
My soldiers were preparing for a NATO intermediate language examination that, if passed, would bump up their rank and salary. My job was to help them to speak conversationally about a host of intermediate-level topics like politics, the environment and the economy.
In contrast to my high school classes, our conversations were at a higher level. More “I support the Fidesz Party because of their position on the European Union” and less “I must wear pants every day because my mother tells me to.”
I liked teaching the high schoolers, but I loved teaching my soldiers. They were nice to me (and to each other), seemed to value class time and genuinely wanted to improve their English pronunciation skills.
Our classes together had a routine. First, I would write a topic on our “blackboard,” which was really an erasable marker board propped up on an upside-down chair. (My “desk” was always strewn with Coke bottles and candy wrappers. On several occasions, soldiers brought me sandwiches out of concern for my health.)
After that, I’d give some history and explain the most commonly held views (and why) on the subject. Then, I’d go around the room and solicit opinions from my students, not letting them get away with “I agree” or “No politics for me.” I’d keep asking “why,” “why,” “why,” like a five-year-old.
We worked through most of the major topics pretty quickly. They explained to me (from personal experience) why the tribal customs of Afghanistan make it difficult to build up trust with the local elders, and I explained why a former boxer named George Foreman is now known primarily for his ubiquitous line of miniature grills. It was a fair exchange of information.
One day, in the hopes of generating a more lively conversation, I thought I’d give something a little more “risqué” and “controversial” a shot. So I wrote “abortion” on the board. I knew what to expect.
Without overly generalizing, Hungarian men as a group are perhaps even more casually chauvinistic than American men. One of my favorite fellas from the class was a soldier named Norbert, who went by Norbi (most Hungarians, even burly, machine gun-firing ones, go by a cutesy nickname). I called Norbi “The Hungarian Tom Cruise” (in my head) because of his strapping good looks, battled-tested cool and excellent performance in the Hungarian rendition of Jerry Maguire, Gerri Maguiroszs.
Once, Norbi drove me to Budapest. Another time, I ran into him in Debrecen’s town square. I asked Norbi what he had planned for the weekend. “I will drink whiskey, have sex with my girlfriend, and make her clean my apartment,” he said, beaming.
So yeah, I kept that in mind when I asked Norbi and his classmates — Bálint, Marci, Csábi (pronounced like ‘chubby’), Balázs and Robert — for their thoughts on a reproductive health issue.
The first few soldiers made good on my book-cover reading, rattling off broken-English versions of the same lines of reasoning you hear from American pro-lifers. I did my best to rebut their claims, or at least to explain in English what somebody could retort.
And then I got to Peti. Peti, short for Péter, looked the part of a Hungarian soldier, or any soldier for that matter. He was jacked, as Hungarian bros don’t know to say, with a shaved head and an abundance of salami sandwiches always at his disposal. Peti had served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Kosovo. (My soldiers told me they preferred Kosovo to Afghanistan because it was less dangerous and, more importantly, because they could buy American whiskey at the commissary.)
Peti listened quietly as his classmates spoke. To my surprise, he looked angry. As they continued, his face grew redder. And when it was his time to talk, Peti let them have it. “Why does it matter to you what a woman chooses to do? It is her body, it is an issue for her to decide. A man should not tell her what to do.”
I was shocked. They were shocked. He looked shocked. As Peti continued, it was clear that he had tapped into a passion, a conviction, that he never knew existed in him.
Abortion is certainly not a kitchen-table topic in Hungary, a country where female subservience is visible even in societal naming conventions. While it’s not as common as it used to be, some Hungarian women, upon getting married, literally take their husband’s entire name and simply add né to the end of his first name to feminize it.
So, as I watched Soldier Peti reveal his feminist side in a barren military barracks in a former Eastern Bloc country, I knew it was unusual. I also knew I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was.
People surprise you all the time, and it was unfair of me to assume that he wouldn’t take a progressive stance because of what he looked like, where he was from and what he did for a living.
Looking back, this exchange, which only lasted a minute or two, is one of my favorite memories from my year in Eastern Europe. But it wasn’t the first time I was surprised.
I was surprised when one of my shyest high school students waited after class for me one day and invited me to go on a day trip with his family.
I was surprised when one of my soldiers brought me a container of homemade pig lard (the Hungarian equivalent of a box of chocolates), when all semester I thought he hated me.
And I was surprised when, on the last day of school, one my classes gave me a poster that read “Never Forget Us” and featured three photos we took as a group (as well as my Facebook profile picture, of course).
But that’s really why I went to Hungary in the first place: to be surprised. To get off the beaten path (high school-college-office job), to see new places, to try new things, and to meet people who would remain on my mind years later.
Jeremy Barr is a writer/journalist/wannabe comedian based in Washington, D.C.