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The European School: a microcosm of EU integration

Czech and Slovak students don't dwell on their countries' communist past.

Two 13-year-old boys, German Till Lembke (left) and Greek Byron Maniatis (center) listen to then-European Commission President Romano Prodi (right) after a debate at the European School in Brussels Mar. 7, 2001. The European School educates the children of EU civil servants from around Europe. (Thierry Roge/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — When my 16-year old son Samuel started a new school year five years ago at the European School, he returned home with some news: His new classmates included five Czechs and two Slovaks.

I was surprised. During the 1980s, I often visited communist Eastern Europe. None of my friends there could imagine having their children study in the West; few even managed to cross the Iron Curtain to visit Western Europe.

Once communism collapsed, travel was freed and a Czech friend even managed to attend my wedding in Paris in 1992. He drove — it’s only about a 10-hour ride. But my friends who worked in the European institutions in Brussels resisted the idea that the Czechs and other “East” Europeans soon would be ready to join the European Union.

It took until 2004 for the Czech Republic and Slovakia to gain membership and begin sending officials to Brussels. The European School educates the children of European Union officials: High school students take half their courses in their mother tongue and half in a second language. But the school still was not ready to offer to provide a “Czech” and “Slovak” mother tongue section, so the new Czech and Slovak students were bundled into my son’s “English” section.

Berlin Wall anniversary

The transition was difficult. Many of the newcomers spoke poor English and struggled to understand and be understood. The science teacher, Alison Newman, grew frustrated as the new students babbled away in Czech or Slovak. “Speak English,” she thundered.

Yet, it soon became clear that the East Europeans were above-average students. Their math and science training was superior. “It’s like they have calculators in their heads,” my son said.

Socially, bonds soon formed with the English language students. The Czechs and Slovaks were, on average, taller than their fellow students in the English section and strong basketball players. A Slovak boy invited Sam to his birthday party and language differences vanished as the boys and girls smothered each other in paint-ball warfare. A timid Irish boy, often the butt of teases, gained crucial confidence after he began dating one of his Czech classmates.

But I was surprised that little discussion occurred among parents or children about the past. During a party for class parents, I explained how I had covered the collapse of communism. Few of the Czech or Slovak parents expressed interest. Some even seemed embarrassed, an embarrassment that I took, perhaps incorrectly, to reflect that most had been apparatchiks and few dissidents under the old regime.

I had kept in touch enough with my old contacts in Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 movement to know that the two former secret service agents assigned to track me during my reporting trips had thrived: One had become a multimillionaire public relations agent and the other a quite comfortable spokesman for a bank. After all, the old communist apparatchiks had the linguistic and political skills to thrive in the new European Union.