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ETA Alumna Teal Vickrey: Home Alone

Teal Vickrey was an English Teaching 
Teal during her time in the CR

Assistant in 2016/2017 at Gymnasium Vimperk, located in South Bohemia, on the edge of Šumava National Park. During her time in Vimperk, Teal hosted a weekly writing club, encouraged her students to participate in a national writing competition, helped her students to put together a journal with original poems and short stories, and assisted a student with the translation of her comic book. Today, Teal works at a non-profit that focuses on youth leadership. Her organization switched to home-office mode in the middle of March. During the last six months, Teal has adopted similar coping strategies that she learned during her time in the Czech Republic in order to maintain her well-being.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, also a former Czech English Teaching Assistant, mentioned how much her year as an ETA had prepared her for working at home.

An outsider listening (luckily there were none), would have assumed that our time abroad was horrible- if it was indeed something we could compare to a worldwide pandemic.On the contrary our years abroad were such that once they were over, life could never be the same. (Which again, I realize is poorly worded since many have made that very same comment about our current global circumstances... But bare with me.)

What she was reflecting on and what I immediately understood, was that our year in the Czech Republic- as mere 22 year olds filled to the brim with academic ideas, with no experience yet in the real world, who had come crashing down in the middle of small Czech towns where few spoke English, and nobody knew us- were lonely ones.

Teal in California, early March
To be lonely is, one thing. But to be alone, culturally, geographically and in the midst of a close-knit town, is a beauty only a few (Czech ETA’s to be exact) will ever know. Or so I thought, until March 12th of this year when I opened an email from our CEO, saying we were all to plan on working from home... “indefinitely”.

Much like my year spent in South Bohemia, in the the small town of Vimperk, I recognized the symptoms of being alone that settled in when the pandemic began. People feeling removed from the people they loved, the things they were used to and the schedules that they had relied on.

As the school week would come to a close, in the Czech Republic, there were many weekends where I found myself with no plans at all. Either I hadn’t gathered the courage to ask someone what they were doing, or those who I did know were going off on a legendary Czech adventure; hiking or cycling for hours in the Czech nature or spending time at their cabin. The first few times this happened, I laid in bed all day or watched Netflix until my brain hurt. I was frozen by the fear of going out into this new place and having to find something to do alone. I remember I began dancing by myself in my flat. It was a way to fill the time, but it also brought me so much joy. I danced and watched netflix until one day I forced myself to put on my coat. Lace up my hiking shoes. and walk.

I walked to the top of the hill where I could look down at all the “block of flats” ,built under communism, that had since been painted the color of easter eggs. I walked into the next town, and through their small town square, until I found a place where the land opened up into a deep green valley. If I continued walking, I re-entered Vimperk. I returned, cold and ready for a cappuccino at Kavarne Ve Skale. This is where I formed my Sunday routine; walking and sitting in the coffee shop.

When I was sent home on March, 12 of 2020, I still remember the day; I looked at my calendar hung up behind my desk, filled with things to do and realized those color coordinated, scribbled trips and meetings no longer meant a thing. It was now my charge, again, to walk. Walk into the unknown, and find a routine that would keep me sane. This is what I did. I walked, I made bread, I read, I connected with long lost friends on Zoom, I did yoga on youtube, I cut my own hair and settled in.

So here I find myself now, having spent months
Teal working from home
becoming more acquainted with Zoom then I ever needed. In fact working on six weeks of leadership conferences for 700+students, and managing a team ALL ON ZOOM. (Yes I am tired even writing it). Just like my time abroad, loneliness eventually became manageable, we adapted, and in fact, we got used to being alone. Taking trains alone. Drinking Pivo, alone. Even dancing, alone. You see alone can be quite fun, quite revealing and a space where you have no choice but to learn more about that person so painstakingly not going anywhere, you.

The sixth month of working in the Czech Republic I came down with a cold. I assumed I would do what I had always done, and take an over the counter medication that would relieve my symptoms so I could continue working. To my surprise, the moment they learned I had a cold the other teachers wouldn’t let me come to school! To my greater surprise over the counter cold medications were hard to come by in the Czech Republic. Instead they sent me home to heal, and drink tea with honey they had made themselves from the flowers.

That week I stayed home,with probably the worst cold I have ever had in my life, confined to my flat. With periodic visits from the teachers and my landlord, I spent the entirety of the week with yours truly. I realized in that week, that besides the mountain of tissues in the trash can, I had another, even more concerning problem. I didn’t know how to relax! I felt guilty about missing my commitments at the school. I felt guilty about taking care of myself. Something I have later come to attribute to America’s work culture. One where overworking yourself and pushing through, even sickness, is admirable. A culture that is so tied to our accomplishments it’s hard to tell ourselves apart from our 12 font, Times New Roman, resumes. As an overachiever, one who took the time to apply for the Fulbright ETA program in the first place, this was a hard truth to accept. Who was I aside from my outward accomplishments?

Working in Vimperk taught me to put myself before my job. In fact it taught me that my job and myself were separate. People in the town of Vimperk, so admirably took time for themselves. They had such unique hobbies. They could play instruments, play an array of sports, grow magnificent gardens, decipher between the hundreds of mushroom species that speckled the forest floor and make delicious homemade food. They inspired me to find a sense of self and put that self first.

That being said, about 6 months into the pandemic, I was visited again by my ghosts of the past. I couldn’t relax. I felt guilty about taking breaks at work, or signing off for the day before my other colleagues. Yet again I had to learn to seperate myself from my work.

It’s ok to take the breaks you need during the work day. It’s ok to take time off, and you don’t need a good reason to make it valid. Stop explaining yourself! Your mental health and well being during this pandemic, is worth more than this job. You are worthy. Even without this job, and without this position you are worthy! (I don’t know if anyone else needed this pep talk, but it’s one I’ve had to give myself many times.)

Hiking during the pandemic
There was a time where I had gotten to know myself, and I knew my worth and I knew what I wanted. 
That was at the end of my year as an ETA. That year finished and I boldly chose to travel by myself 
across Asia, then Italy and finally back to the Czech Republic over 7 months. These travels were strictly for fun, no grand accomplishments attached. It was terrifying and equally so, liberating!

Knowing yourself is often the hard earned result of spending time alone.

That’s where we are at now. Millions of people around the world. Alone in their homes. Frankly I can’t wait to see the people who emerge. Shaggy, maybe a little pudgier and needing haircuts but ready to conquer the world with a new sense of self worth, knowing life can never be the same!