Every Wednesday I go to the local high school and speak English with a class of 16 and 17 year olds. You’ll notice I said “speak,” as opposed to “teach.” I say that because when it comes to speaking English, these kids are good. As in “could pass for an Emory-bound Milwaukee native” good. They really don’t need me to teach them verb conjunctions or prepositional phrases.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the school I visit is the most prestigious in Prague and accepts only a small percentage of the applicants. Nearly all of the school’s graduates go on to college in the Czech Republic or elsewhere (one girl was quizzing me about the differences between Cornell and Dartmouth), and I find that their tastes in music, movies and activities aren’t so different from my own when I was an aggressive prepster taking AP classes by day and eagerly scouring the Princeton Review by night. Still, there are times when I’m forced to think, “Yeah…this isn’t Kansas.”

Last week I was leading a discussion on violence and crime with my group of six students. I asked them if there were any parts of Prague where they felt unsafe. One boy- a hip-hop enthusiast who lived in Philadelphia for a summer- responded that yes, there was a neighborhood that he avoids, “because of the gypsies that live there.”

Whoa. At any school in the U.S., you can replace “gypsy” with “black people” and you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to sensitivity training, diversity workshops, and a lengthy apology. But no one else in the group seemed phased at all.“I’m going to take a survey,”

I said in response. “Who here thinks that gypsies are usually criminals?”

Perhaps sensing that he’d gone down the wrong path, the kid backed off his previous statement.“I don’t think all gypsies are criminals,” he said. “I look at how a person is acting before I decide if I should be scared.”I nodded and dropped the subject.

Nonetheless, the treatment of gypsies, or Roma, as they are usually known, is a major issue in the Czech Republic and Central Europe in general. The vast majority of Roma are poor, uneducated and live in squalid conditions. A recent study found that 70% of adult Roma are unemployed in a country with just 6% unemployment nationwide. The younger generation isn’t doing much better, as 75% of Roma children go to “special needs” schools, regardless of their actual IQ. Contrary to my young friend’s assertion, 75% of Czechs aged 12-20 have a negative opinion of Roma and fully one-third would expel all Roma from the country if given the opportunity.

Part of the problem comes from the Roma’s aversion to joining the culture and economy of the Czech Republic. They speak their own language, live in their own communities and refuse to take an allegiance to their country. Their inability, or unwillingness, to assimilate makes defeating centuries-old prejudices that much harder.

Like I said before, the students at the high school are friendly, well-educated and intelligent. I have no doubt that these overachievers will be competent leaders in the decades to come. But when it comes to finding a solution to a problem that has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, I’m not so optimistic.

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