We finished our tea then left the office with Marco locking the door behind him. I followed him outside toward a staircase that lead up to a landing. At the top, gathered around a blue-grey door, a group of young teens stood quietly talking to each other.
“Okay, these are my kids,” he whispered over his shoulder as we climbed the stairs. “They are some of my favorite. They ain’t nothin pretty to look at. You know fourteen: awkward and gangly shit goin on.”
He unlocked the door and the kids filed into the room. Marco flipped a light switch and dim fluorescents blinked on with three quick sounds of sparks against glass. The lighting barely made a difference. There were no windows except for a small succession of rectangular ones at the very top of the wall that illuminated the ceiling but little else. A giant chalkboard was attached at the front wall. Other than the chalkboard, the walls were bare accept for a map of the United States, and a couple of magazine photos of zoo animals with poems about nature written in English below the pictures. Marco’s desk was in front of the chalkboard. Three long tables were arranged around the room to connect to the teacher’s desk forming a giant square leaving a huge empty space in the middle like the mush pot in a game of duck, duck, goose. It was as sterile as an unemployment office.
“You can sit here,” Marco said. pulling out the chair closest to his seat. The kids filled in the seats around the tables.
“They all have the same names,” he whispered. “It can get confusing.”
He turned his attention on the students, and his tone changed completely. It was smooth and low and calm with an even cadence. He sounded like a teacher, like a professional. He sounded like a Mr. Reynolds.
“Does anyone know if Petr Hrušínský will be coming today?” he asked the class after looking around the room.
They all shrugged and looked to one another to see if anyone had the answer.
“Hmm well okay.” He said, as he rifled through some papers he had pulled out of his bag. He sat up straight, clasped his fingers together and smiled. “How is everyone today?”
“Good. Good.” Various kids mumbled and giggled.
“Great!” One boy yelled out and slapped both of his palms on the table. The other children laughed.
“Good. Thank you Petr Kostka. ” He moved his open hand in my direction. “This is my friend Annabelle. She is also from the United States, and she will be sitting in on our class today.”
“Hi,” said Petr Kostka. “We don’t speak English.”
The class began laughing and giggling. Petr Kostka beamed and looked over at his classmates then adjusted his round gold-framed glasses. His eyes were like cloudy grey agates and he pulled his blonde hair back into a loose ponytail. He was skinny and pale and dressed in a white t-shirt and blue jeans that were cut off at the knees. I looked at the other kids. Marco was right. They were all skinny and pale and gangly, that awkward growth spurt when limbs and torsos don’t match and nothing feels right in your skin. Totally cute and little but wanting so badly to grow. I could still remember those feelings.
Marco stood up and the kids quieted their laughter. “Alright class, today is an English conversation day.”
There was some groaning.
“No, listen. Today we are going to play a game. A murder mystery. You’ve seen those old movies about finding out who the killer was, right?”
“Like Humphrey Bogart?” asked Petr.
“Yes, exactly like Humphrey Bogart. We are going to pick three people to be the detectives and have them leave the room. Then once they leave, the rest of you will decide who the murderer and the victim will be.”
The kids looked around, whispering among themselves. A girl in a lavender turtleneck spoke up. “Petr Hrušínský?”
“Good idea, Lenka,” said Marco addressing her with his pointed finger. “Since he is already gone today, we’ll have him be the murder victim. Okay now who wants to be the detectives?” he asked.
Two boys with shoulder-length shaggy hair raised their hands, and a young girl with a Dutch boy cut and overalls raised her hand.
“Okay. Good Jakob and Otakar thank you, and Hana you three go outside.”
They stood up and maneuvered around the desks to the door Marco was holding open.
“I’m stepping out with these three for a moment to give them some instructions, I will be right back.” He followed the kids out and shut the door behind him, leaving me alone with the class.
The room was silent and all the kids stared at me. I smiled a tight, uncomfortable smile, but it was a smile. I heaved an unexpected sigh. I hadn’t been around this age group since I was this age group. I couldn’t believe how quiet they all were. I remembered that when I was a kid, whenever the teacher left the room there would be an uproar. These kids all just sat and silently stared at me. I began to feel mildly uncomfortable. Now I was the awkward one all stretched too tight in my skin. I wondered when Marco was going to get back. How long could it possibly take to tell some kids how to be detectives?
The boy named Petr Kostka leaned over and whispered something to the boy beside him then he crossed his fingers like Marco had earlier and recited, “To be or not to be that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” He stopped and stared at me.
I wasn’t certain what I was supposed to do so I clapped. Marco came back into the room leaving the detectives outside the door.
“Okay. They are set. Now, we need a murderer.”
After some deliberation and murmuring the class chose a skinny introverted looking boy named Josef Voskovec.
“Okay this is what I’d like you to do, “ Marco said to the class. “You each need to come up with an alibi of where you were the night that Petr Hrušínský was murdered. You need to say where you were, what you were doing and who you were with. Don’t forget the time of day.” He walked back behind his desk. “Now the goal is for the detectives to figure out which one of you is the murderer. Alright I’ll give you all a few minutes.” He sat down and leaned to me but in an after thought he addressed the class again. “All in English. This all needs to be in English. No tricky stuff.” Then he leaned back toward me and whispered, “So what do you think?”
“Wow. It’s really cool Marco. They all seem to be really sweet and smart,” I said.
“Yeah its funny, huh? I really like it,” he said. “Never knew I would like teaching.”
“How did you find this job?” I asked.
“I saw an ad in the paper, I applied, and they called me in for an interview.”
“You don’t need an English degree?” I asked.
“No just a degree in something. I mean they don’t know my degree is in nursing, but they didn’t check and it’s not like a nurse can’t teach.”
“You have a degree in nursing?” I asked.
“There’s a lot about me that you don’t know, Anna,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Okay,” he stood up again. “Everyone ready?”