Hurray school!

Aa, Aa. The Bohemian children simultaneously learn to read in two languages, the letters of two different alphabets from the primer published in 1855 in Litoměřice, that is Leitmeritz. Half-Czech and half-German Bohemia still holds the promise of a little Switzerland in Eastern Europe. There is still a chance that there would be no Kampf um Kinder, nor Sudetenland fusillade, nor Lidice, nor Terezín, nor Brno death march, nor deportation of the Germans. Sitting in the pose of a wise teacher, the beggar waiting for alms seems to give alms himself on the first page of the book. The examples were chosen from the similar words of the two languages, which are thus mostly those of foreign origin. Through their illustrations, the Arab, the Armenian, the aloe, the ananas, the American Indian, the wealth of the great world, the Bohemian sea comes to life in the elementary school of Leitmeritz, that is, Litoměřice.

Anna counts well, she nicely pays attention to everything. When she finishes counting, she plays with the little bird sitting on her hand. The doggy begins to bark, because no one plays with him. However, Zdenka still has to go on counting. The Množilka v obrazech, that is Illustrated multiplication table, published in 1890 in Jindřichův Hradec, shows in the box space of the 15th-century Netherlandish Annunciation paintings the Jungfrau playing with the little bird. Zdenka is probably hampered by the spinning in the counting.

The primer, published in 1903 in Prague, was most probably the only tool for the rural teacher, who wrote in careful handwriting in its wide margins the texts to be dictated, and the scores of the songs to be taught, and even such little notes among the pictures, like not to forget to explain why is there no k at the end of v klobouce (in the hat) and why is there one at the end of u klobouku (at the hat).

In the header of the timetable of the municipal school of Líšná for the year of 1923-1924, the two greatest Czech educators, J. A. Comenius and – you surely would have not have thought so – T. G. Masaryk, urge the little Czechoslovak schoolboys: “To be wise – all depends on this!” and “Education is for everyone!” The majority of the classes were writing and reading, counting, and grammar. Twice a week, religion (Roman Catholic as well as “Czechoslovak” – the latter refers to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, created in 1919, together with the new state); and three times, civics, which demonstrates the significance of the new state.

Gesundheit und Nachstendienst, health and the service of neighbor. In 1937, in the school of Opava/Troppau, even the smallest one knows how to properly brush your teeth. She explains it to the others, who, standing with a toothbrush and a mug, are eager to try it, following the figures of the Zahnhygienische Wandtafel.

Other children go for a walk. Not just any manner of walking, but walking in rhythm. Trompeter werden wir, im Takt marschieren wir. We will be trumpeters, we will march in one rhythm. Durch das Dorf marschieren wir. We march through the village. The youngsters marching with swastika flags and SS runes are greeted by the passers-by and given flowers by the girls like in 1938 in Asch and Machendorf. In the 1939 Prague publication of Hirts Schreiblesefibel, popular all over the Reich.

Elsewhere, the letters also go for a walk. On the pages of Kulihráškův národní slabikář. Veselá knižka pro nejmenší čtenáře a jejích maminky (Little Pea’s national primer. A merry booklet for the smallest readers and their moms), published in 1940 in occupied Prague, each letter is a separate individual, with firm goals. The adventures of letter p. The children walked on a dusty road. There was also p. He asked them: Where do you go? We go to Prague! I also go with you, said p. And so he went. When he came to Prague, he looked at everything. He also went up to the Hradčany with the children. Prague opened in front of him. P’s eyes were round with astonishment. He had never seen anything like this beauty. He stared in fascination, he even forgot that he had escaped from a primer. [This is the only sentence without a letter p]. This was where Little Pea found him. Together they looked at Prague, and they said: “It is wonderful, our Prague!”

In the painting New student in the school, made around 1820, every figure is also a separate individual, with a definite goal. The teacher eagerly stares at the full basket standing in front of him, containing a goose, a loaf of bread, and several bottles of wine, the traditional gift to the teachers (cf. the Hungarian way of saying I have not bought my certificate/licence/diploma for a goose). The careful mother with a convincing smile points at the same with her right hand, while with the left she pushes forward, into the teacher’s benevolence, the frightened boy. The boy greets the teacher with his hat raised to his chest, but with his eyes he already seems to be checking his future classmates. The classmates are clearly evaluating the content of the basket, probably also concluding from it the social status of the new schoolmate. Only the head popping up from behind the mother’s skirt contemplates the scene serenely and without interest, or perhaps he is somewhere completely else in thoughts.

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The exhibition of the Comenius Museum in Prague presents the start of the school in Bohemia over a century, with the help of one-time primers, photos and school supplies. The medieval vaulted space was set up as a classroom, with old benches, reading and calculating chalkboards. Even a stuffed little schoolgirl is on display under glass, one of the last individuals of a dying breed.

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And the final tableau illustrates with the photographs of the first day of school for three Czech generations – 1906, 1920, 1955 – the practical application of the presented objects.

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Walking through the exhibition, two things become apparent. One is, how much the accessories of school-starting have remained much the same over the last one and half century: primer, timetable, bench, schoolbag. And the other, how precisely this puritanical and conservative set of accessories always reflects the actual spirit of the period and politics. About which the parents of the current school beginners could say more.

Petr Velkoborský: Little schoolboy, 1987