The trstenica as teaching tool: Lay on with a will

WITH ONLY days to go before Slovakia's študenti return to school and thousands of long-suffering učitelia to their despairing staff rooms, it's time to map out the battleground for the year ahead.
Sure, in Slovakia too teachers will find a few apple-polishers (šplhúni, lit. rope-climbers) among the ranks, a few bonzáci (snitches) to rat on the grázli (scoundrels), a bifľoš (brain) or two to leaven the ranks of the incurious, but it's still a tough old world in there.
If, as Martin Amis writes, the average press conference is no fortress of shrewd enquiry, the average Slovak classroom is a Cuba of education-resistant solidarity.

WITH ONLY days to go before Slovakia's študenti return to school and thousands of long-suffering učitelia to their despairing staff rooms, it's time to map out the battleground for the year ahead.

Sure, in Slovakia too teachers will find a few apple-polishers (šplhúni, lit. rope-climbers) among the ranks, a few bonzáci (snitches) to rat on the grázli (scoundrels), a bifľoš (brain) or two to leaven the ranks of the incurious, but it's still a tough old world in there.

If, as Martin Amis writes, the average press conference is no fortress of shrewd enquiry, the average Slovak classroom is a Cuba of education-resistant solidarity.

Start with the average written assignment (sloh). Apart from the earnest efforts of the šplhúni you'll receive pages of copied (odpísané) assignments from previous years, and even a few digests of outdated Cosmpolitan magazine articles.

What's the word for plagiarist in Slovak? Plagiátor. In English the word has a long and decorated history, incorporating such meanings as 'seducer' and 'rapist', but in this country they had to import a definition. Still, there is something almost Shakespearian about the expression 'chváliť sa cudzím perím', or praising oneself with another's feathers. They understand, the little angels, but they seek haven in the coy language of Štúr.

Or assign a written exam - go on, I dare you. Vyzývam Vás. Just keep an eye out for crib sheets (ťaháky), without which students find studying a ťahačka (a slow, laborious task). Listen for the whispers (našepkávanie, or prompting) that spell cheating (podvádzanie) in its million varieties.

Before I go any further, I should admit that I was an expert cheat in my student days. I preferred to be the bifľoš who knew all the answers and finished my tests early, and thus was duly despised by my classmates. But there was something fun in defeating the teacher's vigilance, and I can't count the staffroom garbage cans we emptied to reassemble an examiner's discarded exam carbons, the codes of tapped pencils that gave answers to multiple choice questions, the passed-around test papers.

Having since found myself on the other side of the teacher's desk, I have taken stock of my options to beat podvádzanie. In Slovakia, ripping up someone's test paper has met blank incomprehension from both students and school administrations. That leaves you with sending kids to the corner (do kúta), assigning lines (písomný trest, or written punishment), giving them a detention (nechať po škole, or after school), and in a few blissful cases the strap (trstenica) or a smart ruler (pravítko) across their quivering hands.

Having gotten the strap, lines, detentions, the corner and even, in one mutually embarrassing encounter, the ruler (I almost felt that if I didn't cry, my desperately miscast French teacher would), I recommend what Slovaks call 'sitting on someone' (sedieť na niekom) who is taking the mickey (zosmiešniť) out of you.

But it's a paltry arsenal, and one I could never really bring myself to use in this country. For all that I disapproved of the cheats, there is something appealing about a student body where kids unquestioningly help each other against a perceived common enemy, rather than guarding their test papers, as in Canada, with a hostile, acquisitive arm.

If only that common enemy weren't education itself.

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners appreciate the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands September 16, Vol. 8, No. 35.

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