(Welcome to a special series on GrowingUpAustin.com, A Lithuanian Story – All the Way From Texas. I am traveling to Lithuania this summer to teach storytelling at A.P.P.L.E., an education conference that I first taught at almost twenty years ago. The new conference is fully of mystery and adventure. The first conference gave me stories I have been telling ever since. So, I decided to write about the trips here. If you have just joined, here is a summary of the posts. I’ll return to writing about hiking, live music and art for Austin kids when I get back in July. Information is always available at AustinKidsHike.com (hiking), AustinKidsDance.com (live music) and AustinKidsDraw.com (art).)
When I started this series, Babs asked this question, “What was Lithuania like the first time?” I’m answering this in parts, today’s story is about how my idea of bravery completely changed.
At the beginning of my trip in 1995, I thought I was pretty brave for coming all the way to Lithuania without knowing what I was doing. Well, I mean, without knowing all the answers ahead of time or knowing what to expect. I took a leap of faith and it was going well so far, well, I mean, after I found the conference.
In bits and pieces, I learned more about the context of the conference. The mission of the conference was for US and Canadian teachers to share Western methods of education with Lithuanian teachers in an effort to promote Lithuania’s new democracy. That seemed like a lot. I wasn’t sure how that worked.
Lithuania had gained independence from the Soviet Union and communism just five years before. The new democracy was young and there were still big questions about how it would work and if it would work. Some American educators of Lithuanian descent, some of whom were born in Lithuania and had left after WWII, wanted to help their home country. Education is what they knew, so they started the APPLE conference.
There were a few themes of the conference. One was computers, since under communism, the schools didn’t have computers. Another was Special Education, because the communist system institutionalized the differently-abled, without teaching them life skills or potential work skills. Another was English, because Lithuanians spoke Lithuanian, an ancient language that was a derivative of sanscrit, which was very cool, but not able to support business or cultural communication with other countries.
One of the American teachers told me about when she taught during the first year of the conference. The first year was done in secret, without permission from the government. Gaining independence from the Soviet Union wasn’t a ON/OFF switch that was triggered in a specific moment, it happened in steps and stages, with gaps and overlaps along the way. The American teachers didn’t want to wait until all the shifting people in power agreed or all the required forms were signed, so they started probably earlier than they should have, when communist security was still in place.
This American teacher had been born in Lithuania and had left with her family when she was a little girl. She was proud of her country and its promising independence. She had watched the 50 years of communism from afar, not able to help. Now was her time to do all she could, in any way she knew how.
It was the last night of the secret conference and the teachers were having a meal at a restaurant. All visitors were assigned government “guides” during their trip and these guides were watching them eat at the restaurant. At the end of the meal, this teacher stood up and started singing a Lithuanian folk song. The other teachers joined her. This was an act of protest that was outlawed by the communists. You could go to jail for something like this. You could not be heard from again for something like this.
The government guides were on alert. They were watching her, the one who was leading this singing. She knew she was at risk.
When the song was over, she said her goodbyes and got in the car of a friend. She hadn’t checked out of her hotel, but she knew she couldn’t go back there. Her friend drove her to the train station. She bought a ticket on the next train that was leaving the country. She got on the train and didn’t look back.
Was I brave to come to Lithuania? No, I was not brave. She was brave. To come a year too early instead of wait. To be defiant and break the law before the laws were changed. To love her country and act for her country before it was safe. She was the brave one.
Stay tuned for a story or two about this year’s trip, just one month away. Am I ready? No, most definitely not…