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Post details: Tableau

Tableau

In 1991, I left Central Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the Upper East Side of the North American continent together with a hullfull of mildly claustrophobic sardines. But that was only the beginning. After I squeezed through the rabbit hole of a Boeing 747 doorway, I found myself in a land that would have plunked even Alice into the state of Deep Wonderment: the Czech language was no longer widely spoken, although checks were readily accepted; movie tickets did not come with pre-assigned seats but rather with detachable coupons exchangeable for elephant sized pop corn vats that would have fed a family of four for several days. It became even curiouser when I learned that denizens of this Brave New World could apparently coast through High School without ever sitting in a physics class. Now I am all for individual plans and self-guided tours through the gardens of destiny, especially in college when you already have a pretty good idea of what flowers and shrubs you want to see, but I think that in High School the choice of subjects could be a wee bit more mandatory.

There will always be enough near sighted parents who smother their kids with double loveburgers with an extra cheese every day and they will gladly enroll their off-springs in an endless sequence of Earth Science, Pottery and History of Peoples of Tanzania in the name of Paris Hilonesque adolescence. Imagine the horrors if some ruler-toting schoolmarm had the nerve to confuse their precious darlings with thermodynamics or trigonometry. I am not saying that teenagers should suffer through four years of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, history and geography like many of my classmates did, but at least a few tidbits of quantitative reasoning should regularly appear on their educational plates. Sure the mortgage industry might become temporarily disconsolate that it couldn't push overpriced and exotic financial products onto algebraically clueless population, but in the long run the nation would be much more competitive. After all, basic knowledge is not an urban myth. It may taste bitter, but avoiding it or watering it down is eventually self destructive.

The rigid and mostly uniform curriculum of High Schools in Czechoslovakia enabled very different Modus Operandi. Each year's worth of freshmen was divided into group of students called "classes" - usually about 30 kids - and this group then navigated the waterways of secondary education together. They had one fixed classroom and it was the professors who commuted from one to another. Such stability of environment promoted camaraderie and created strong bonds between the classmates. The social ties were further strengthened by paired desks, so that you had not only a group of familiar classmates each year, but also a carefully chosen deskmate with whom you could play tic-tac-toe during particularly boring classes or make bets on the results of oral examinations that were often conducted in front of the blackboard, in a PG-13 tribute to public hangings. But no matter what you did, it was always clear that you were part of a larger group, a larva surrounded by a tightly knit social cocoon. It felt like being raised by the proverbial village.

The four years long canoeing trip on the choppy river of knowledge culminated in the rapids of the so called "maturity exam", usually administered in late May by a daunting panel of pedagogues, both internal and external. All graduates spent about half an hour on the preparatory "sweat chair", only to be plunged into two hours / four subjects interrogation whose purpose was to decisively end the innocent period of childhood and also to determine their ability to survive in the real world without unduly embarrassing the institution. But before they were released to wilderness, they had an honorable duty to announce their coming of age to their fellow townmates, which was effected by a plywood board with photographs commonly known as a "tableau". The most visually oriented minds of the class would prepare a design for it and as soon as the tableau was bedecked with the portraits of the whole pack, it was displayed in an agreed upon shop window.

If you take a walk through the streets of Czech towns in late Spring, you will see them on almost every corner. Some in a plain rectangular arrangement, some in more sophisticated geometric formations, some stylized into humorous motives - such as a train of cars or a flock of birds - and some peppered with cartoons or caricatures. The tradition is clearly a win-win situation for all the parties. Students get to showcase their creativity, the shop owners rake in extra business from passing acquaintances that are lured to the tableau, proud parents have an opportunity to exercise their index fingers and youngsters from near and far can catch a preview of dazzling members of opposite sex that are about to hit the dating market.

This year I visited my hometown around that time and when I took a stroll through its streets I ran into a tableau of the class 4D of the local Grammar School. The exact same class I once attended myself in a long gone geological era. Interestingly, it was placed in a small contact lens shop. I guess that's one way how to think of all that imparted knowledge.

tablo

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