There is a single photograph of me from my first day of school back in 1982. In it my best friend and I embrace eagerly on the front steps of the red-brick school building. Our dresses are simple but bright. It looks like something out of Little House on the Prairie.
But a glimpse of that photo brings a stab of agony. I can't remember the day itself, but I remember the sunshine of the summer before, the bike rides and the tree forts. Then I remember nothing
As if I had fallen and been knocked unconscious for several years.I remember only dizzy snatches, fleeting images, fear, confusion and terrible loneliness. I've written elsewhere about the extreme ostracism and bullying I experienced at school--due to a disability, unconventional family background and a stubborn personality. What I know of those experiences comes mostly from the testimony of witnesses rather than from my own memories, which are muddled but still not without their toll.
Now I can't help thinking on that photo and the aftermath as I prepare to send my first child to her own first day of school in a few days time. I try to hold back my anxiety. It's natural that I should have my doubts, given what I experienced. Yet, my child does not have a significant physical disability. She is well accepted by other children and generally liked by teachers. She is suspected of having a learning disability, but that will have to come clear in time and most importantly we do not live in an isolated rural backwater where difference is a brand and a reason to be culled from the herd.
No, we live in the middle of progressive Europe, where the school's motto is "a place for all." Sure, the school has some problems--very large, overcrowded classrooms, new and inexperienced teachers and a population steeped in racism and anti-foreigner politics. But my fear is surely larger than the hazards.
When I took my child for an evaluation to a specialist in learning disabilities, I was told that she is quite bright and probably only has a minor issue with attention that should pass within a few years. But then the specialist turned to me and suggested in completely innocent tones that I consider enrolling my child in the "Special School" in a larger town, rather than in our local school.
Little did the specialist know how well I know the Special Schools. When I first came to the Czech Republic as a rookie journalist twenty years ago, a harried editor slapped a thick folder of documents down on my desk and grumbled that someone would have to deal with it and it might as well be me. I picked up the packet that night--it turned out to be a government report on Special Schools--and read it.
All the way through. In one night.
That was because of what I found within the first few pages: a staggering admission by the government itself claiming that it was channeling almost all children of Romani (ethnic Gypsy) background into substandard schools designed for children with developmental disabilities. My article on the report was in the forefront of a flood of condemnation and criticism of the Czech government by the foreign press. I later produced a documentary about Romani children fighting for a rare chance to leave the segregated, substandard schools and gain a place at regular elementary schools.
I spent years going into these Special Schools, watching with rage stifled into a hard lump in my throat as bright children were forced to study table manners and preschool motor skills in sixth through eighth grades--merely based on the color of their skin. I interviewed officials with a straight face and printed their self-damning words in foreign newspapers, quoted by Amnesty International and the European Commission in their judgments against the Czech state. I was a foot soldier in the wave of largely foreign pressure that finally broke the wall and forced through anti-discrimination legislation.
And eight years after the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Czech state to end such discrimination, a specialist suggested my adopted, Romani, slightly brown-skinned child be placed in a school for those with developmental delays, just after she assured me the child had no such delay.
And now, I try to tell myself my fear is only paranoia based on my own hard childhood on the front-lines of another battle for integration on the other side of the world. I was a foot soldier of another kind then and I took many wounds--wounds I'd rather my child could escape.
Just as I experienced as a child, legally mandated integration does not necessarily mean willing and welcoming integration. The first to integrate public schools in the United States--whether they were African Americans in the 1950s or disabled Americans in the 1980s--often paid a heavy price. Today the Czech Special Schools continue under slightly different names and most Romani children are still segregated in them. But the law says I--as the parent of a Romani child--can defy the social norms and send my child to a regular elementary school.
If I dare.
We attended a Romani culture camp and support group for a week this summer. During the adults-only part of the program in the evenings, we were told in no uncertain terms that we must admit the harsh realities to our children. Both psychologists and a very credible Romani man who rose from a ghetto kid to be the first Romani city council representative in his heavily divided city told us we must tell our children.
They are proud to be Romani. They sing Romani songs and know the Romani flag. Last spring my daughter proudly told her kindergarten class that she is Romani. They smiled. They don't know the word "Romani." They only know the insult " Gypsy" and my daughter doesn't know it because we don't speak such words in our home any more than I'd use the N-word.
Once my children came home talking about how some people called Gyps steal and saying they heard it at preschool. I gently explained to them about prejudice and poverty and social exclusion. But they clearly did not understand. I stopped short of saying, "They mean you. Don't you get it? They mean you."
I wanted to spare them the trauma. I wanted them to be proud of their roots... for just a little bit longer. The harsh words and judgments will come soon enough. I tried to get my kids to homeschool but my daughter refused. She thinks only about being with her friends all day.
And now the door is before us. Looming in my mind, hard red brick. I know that behind that door bad things will happen. Maybe some good things too. But there will be pain.
So, I sit down with my little girl and tell her. I tell her that Gypsy means Romani. I tell her some people have a sickness in their minds that makes them believe lies about people who are a different color. I tell her about the school segregation. We've read about the segregation of schools in America. She has two great story books about Ruby Bridges and can quote the tale. I explain that when I first came to this country, that was the way it was here, that Romani people--like Black people in America--went through slavery and prejudice and school segregation in substandard schools.
She turns to me, her face still unconcerned, and reaches a hand up to my hair, turning gray. "But, Mama,,that was a long, long time ago," she says.
Oh, my child. No, it was not.
The primary anti-discrimination law has just passed and it goes into effect September 1, 2016. That law mandates integration for children of all backgrounds and abilities. Because of that law, my daughter can have an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) if she does turn out to have a learning disability. And she cannot be barred from our local primary school based on ethnic background. But even five years ago, segregation was almost universal and today it is still widespread, due to the lack of legal knowledge and advocacy skills among Romani parents.
My child, you will be the first Romani child to attend your school, much as I was the first child with a significant physical disability to attend mine.
But I smile and give her a hug. "You will do fine," I say. "You are smart and you have many friends. Only remember that if someone says otherwise, it is against the law. The law is about them and the problems in their heads, not about you. You will do fine."
We must both believe it.