Monday, December 20, 2021

Teaching High School Boys in Slovakia

Slovakia, Summer 2005

I'm not very patriotic.  I grew up in an era where gay people were never, ever mentioned, but by the time I was in college, they were mentioned a lot.  Every time I turned on the tv or picked up a newspaper, I heard an elected official screaming that I was an abomination, a cesspool of disease, a depraved psychopath who wanted to destroy society.

Voting was easy: I simply picked the least homophobic candidate.  Unfortunately, in presidential elections, the other guy usually won.

In 2000, the staggeringly homophobic George W. Bush beat Al Gore.   Everyone watched in horror as gay rights legislation came to a screeching halt, and state legislatures began issuing homophobic proclamations.

In the 2004 election, it didn't really matter who else was on the ballot.  We would have voted for Count Dracula.  But George W. Bush and his platform of homophobic hatred won again!

A lot of gay people were seriously worried.  Not just about being deprived of civil rights -- about round-ups and concentration camps.

We closeted our resumes, stopped going to gay venues, and researched escape routes for when the knock on the door came.  Barney moved to Costa Rica. Yuri moved to London.  I emailed contacts everywhere in the world to see if they could hook me up with a job.  France, Germany, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Turkey....

Even working in a bar in Friesland seemed like a good idea.

Finally in the late spring of 2005,  an internet friend named Doc (top photo), who lived in Vienna, told me that they needed someone at the gymnasium (high school) where he worked.  I could get a work visa for the summer, and then apply for a permanent position in the fall.

Vienna!  That sounded great!

"It's not exactly in Vienna.  It's my summer job at a gymnasium in Levoča, Slovakia."

I looked it up in an atlas. A small town of 14,000 near the Polish border.  Sort of isolated.  But within a six-hour drive of Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Warsaw, and even, if you were so inclined, Zagreb.  We would go on a lot of weekend trips.

"What would I be teaching?  English"

"Well, maybe English.  Sure."

He sent the papers a few days later.

Only after I signed the contract did I realize that it was a vocational school.  Students took 2- or 3-year courses in auto shop, cooking, and clothing design, plus the usual history, science, and foreign languages.  I would be teaching food service management.  Maybe I could ask for an English assignment in the fall, Doc said.

Why food service?

Apparently I told him about working at the Carousel Snack Bar and the Augustana Student Union Snack Bar, for 6 years, but he didn't realize that those were part-time jobs while I was in high school and college, twenty years ago.

Also I may have mentioned that I was taking a cooking class.

Teaching food service management doesn't sound difficult: scheduling, menu preparation, hiring, food safety practices, no big deal.  But the students didn't have the academic skills for a regular high school.  The boys were loud and obnoxious.  The girls were worse.  And none of them understood English or German well.

I had a small apartment provided by the school, but for meals I had to eat in the cafeteria with the students -- mostly potatoes.

And I had to use their gym -- there was nothing good in town.

And I had to be strictly closeted.

Levoča was in a conservative region of a highly conservative country -- Bratislava didn't even have a gay pride festival until 2011.  

There were no gay venues in Levoča, not even cruising grounds, no bookstores with English or German sections, no Chinese restaurants, no museums, nothing to do except watch tv and go to Catholic masses.

At least there was some beefcake at the public pool.

Doc didn't have a car.  We had to take the train to the station at Spišská Nová Ves‎, and catch another train to get anywhere.  During my 10 weeks in Slovakia, we went to a race in Kosice  and to the Tatralandia Water Park and took the train into Vienna and Budapest.  After the summer session ended, we rented a car and drove to Prague, Frankfurt,  Munich, and Vienna.  But other than that, we were stuck in Levoča.

In July, one of the colleges I applied to last spring came through with a job offer. In Dayton, Ohio.

Dayton had three gay bars, weekly "bear parties," lots of Chinese restaurants, an art museum, and a Barnes and Noble.

No contest.  At the end of August I flew back to the U.S.

Even with a homophobe in the White House, there's no place like home.


  1. Ironic. Leaving the country due to homophobic president only to wind up being closeted in the supposed place of refuge.

    1. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. But at least I got a chance to go to Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, which I had never visited before.

    2. My opinion of Trump: "Oh, a racist president. That has absolutely never happened before."



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