Not Invited to the Banquet? Why Not? A story from my own backyard

May 25th, 2018 | Category: Early Childhood Education, Elementary/Middle School Education, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Zuzana Gorleku

Standing in the middle of an elementary school classroom in Great Britain for the first time, I was forced to consider the homogeneity of my educational upbringing in the former Czechoslovakia.  As a Soviet nation, a communist ideology pressured (pushed) its requirements and restrictions on society as whole.

Under the ideological blanket that covered the most of the Soviet block for almost 40 years, religion was defined as “the opiate of the people,” to quote Marx (2014). People were not allowed to observe religion. This meant that many churches were closed and books, pictures/painting of Jesus were prohibited in and out of homes. It may be hard to understand the extent to which it affected society. As such, the following anecdotes from my life may help convey the message.

One of the earliest memories include my 12-year-old sister Eva, five-year-old brother Pavol, and me six years old on the way to my grandmother’s house every Sunday afternoon. My Grandmother Maria, a typical Eastern European elderly woman with a scarf drawn over her head, slight arch in her back and supported by a cane, would greet us at her door with our weekly bribe—a bag of assorted candies.

As we were lining up on her living room sofa, she made sure that all the windows were closed, blinds drawn, and a small table lamp turned on no matter the time of day. In a darkened room, we watched her as she uncovered the Bible from between her mattresses. Of course, as young children, we did not understand the possible repercussions of this scene; we only had the candy in our sights as she quietly read the text to us. This tradition continued for years, and over time the Bible stories became more intriguing to us than the candies. My grandmother’s ability to explain them to us was incredible. Her love for Jesus was contagious. The repression of religion forced my grandmother to informally develop priest-like skills. With the chair she sat in as her pulpit, she was able to convey God’s story in such a way that it ingrained it into the minds of we three children, so that we would have access to it whenever we desired. The first prayer we learned, I remember to this day:

My dear guardian angel, take good care of my soul. May it always stay clean and Jesus loves it.

Our affinity for these prohibited Sunday school classes, however, did not always go unchallenged. It was Pavol, the youngest yet most outspoken, who was the first to note disconnect between the words spoken within the room we retreated into every Sunday afternoon and the life in the society just beyond the curtains every day. It was Luke 14:13 that, metaphorically, let a little bit of the outside world shine into our readings. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

As we anticipated more to be read, there came the moment. Pavol, who was known throughout the family for what my parents jokingly referred to as “green, narrowed eyes” syndrome, interrupted the reading. Eva and I knew that there was something that he needed to have answered immediately.

“What is a banquet, grandma,” Pavol asked. She went on to compare a banquet to his friend’s birthday party he went to the day before. He was quick to note the disconnect between the verse and his own experiences. “Not all my friends were invited to the party,” he continued, keeping his eyes narrowed indicating his dissatisfaction with my grandmother’s explanation.

My grandmother was visibly troubled by Pavol’s comment. It was as if she knew this conversation was coming but did not expect it this early on. A recent birthday party had taken place to which almost every single child from our small, close-knit neighborhood was invited. The one exception Pavol noted was that his friend Shino did not attend. Shino was a boy who lived a few houses down from ours and he and Pavol would often ride bikes and play together in the lot behind our houses. Shino labored with certain mental limitations. Blessedly, Pavol saw him for a wonderful playmate—whatever limitations Shino had, Pavol accepted him for the person he was. He seemed to be the only one who put his kindness for Shino above the disability. Other children called Shino “moronic” and would not allow him to join the games they played outside. They laughed at him.

Exasperated, Pavol asked my grandmother, who had the role of gauging morality during these weekly meetings, to explain why Shino was rarely seen beyond the confines of the lot. Tears filled her elderly eyes as she was struggling to find the correct words for the first time. Eventually, she said it is simply because, in the eyes of the system we lived in, Shino was different and these differences were considered reason enough to restrict the level of interaction between us and them. Pavol’s childlike brain, conditioned with the blessings and compassion learned from my Grandmother, did not understand her explanation. The only difference he saw was the fact that Shino had the coolest bike in the neighborhood.

Did I understand exactly what she meant at the time? No, not at all. All I knew was that he attended that school. Shino’s school was an old building where kids like him went—the kids who were not allowed in our school.

Later on in my life, when I was an undergraduate student at the school of education, I learned that our school system was influenced by the Soviet science of defectology (Khitryuk, 2010; Vygotsky, 1993). According to this theory, children with disabilities had to be separated from the rest of society’s children. In practice, this meant that an entire school was dedicated solely to those without disabilities, while those with disabilities attended special schools. Shino came back to my mind.

I became increasingly interested in understanding the characteristics that caused an individual to be deemed disabled as well as the way in which they were assessed. To my surprise, children in the Soviet bloc were most of the time not assessed holistically, but rather, the only input taken into account was their IQ scores. This process, for various reasons, had negative consequences for children such as Shino. These children were considered uneducable and never gained access to the public schools the majority of children attended, imprisoning them in a “special,” isolated world for most of their lives.

Years passed by, and I was surrounded by early elementary age school children in Sheffield, Great Britain. There was Nausheen from Iran who knew just a few words in English, little Ben with Down syndrome who loved listening to audio books, and Jaque from Ivory Coast who was very proud of his traditional dress. Their backgrounds, learning styles, skills and abilities varied, yet they were all friends.

My older sister Eva, also a teacher, but in the former Czechoslovakia, was the first one I shared my excitement with. I described the great contrasts between the classrooms of our childhood and the environment where I found myself teaching at the time. The emphasis placed on having these students in my classroom, bringing children with special needs to learn in regular classrooms, and the wide range of courses I was taking for the sole purpose of learning about “the other” shocked both of us.

First, she struggled to understand how they could all be taught, learn, and socialize in the same manner. I explained that these classrooms had multiple teacher assistants, emphasized group learning, modified material according to students needs, respected the individual needs of each child, while also calling upon the children themselves to help each other. All of these ingredients added needed flexibility in such a diverse classroom and simultaneously created a community-like environment where teaching and learning were both constantly happening.

In the years since the Communist regime collapsed in 1989, many special schools have closed their doors, separation of “the others” is diminishing, and these special students have been integrated into society. Important steps have been taken to improve teacher education and professional development programs to make sure that all teachers are prepared to respond to the diversity of students, with the end goal of opening society’s doors to inclusive practices in education. Even though there are still several obstacles to overcome, administrators, teachers, and parents have embraced the ability to  “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” to the banquet. LEJ

References

Khitryuk, V. V. (2010). Fundamentals defectology scholastic allowance. Osnovy defektologii Uchebn posobie (Russian). Moscow: Izd-vo Grevtsova.

Marx, K., In O’Malley, J. J., Jolin, A., & Marx, K. (2009). Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of right.”

Vygotsky, L.S. Rieber, R.W. & Carton, A.S. (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vol. 2. The fundamentals of defectology. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Author Information

Zuzana Gorleku is an Associate Professor at Concordia University in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Diversity. She has lived, studied and worked in three different countries. Prior to joining the faculty at CUC, Dr. Gorleku was an ESL / BE professor at East-West University, St. Augustine College and National Louis University. Dr. Gorleku completed her graduate studies at the University of P. J. Safarik in Slovakia and Loyola University in New Orleans. Dr. Gorleku’s professional identity is centered around teaching ESL / Bilingual and international students.

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