Irena Cajkova was born in Městec Králové and grew up with her parents and older brother and sister in the town of Nymburk located about 30 miles east of Prague. Irena’s parents both worked for the railroad industry (her father was a railroad engineer and her mother worked in a factory) and, as a result, the family traveled for free and took frequent trips to Bulgaria and other Eastern Bloc countries. Irena recalls listening to Voice of America with her father nightly and being told to keep their activities a secret. She attended a brand-new elementary school in Nymburk and, although she wanted to be a seamstress and attend trade school, her parents sent her to a business high school in nearby Poděbrady where she enjoyed grammar and language classes. After graduating, Irena taught elementary school for one year and then began studying elementary education at Charles University in Prague. Shortly after the start of classes, Irena participated in the student protest on November 17, 1989 that marked the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.
In 1991, Irena traveled to Austria as an interpreter for friends who were looking for work and was offered a job herself as an au pair. Upon arriving home, she decided not to continue her studies and returned to teaching. Shortly thereafter, Irena moved to Chicago with plans to learn English and see the country. Instead of staying one year as originally planned, Irena found a job in a restaurant and stayed for two years. She returned to the Czech Republic, where she was joined by her American fiancé Kevin. The couple lived in Prague for almost one year, were married in Nymburk, and then moved back to Chicago where Irena decided to return to school. She received an associate’s degree from the College of DuPage, a B.A. in German and Spanish from DePaul University, and an M.A. in Spanish literature from the University of Chicago. Irena credits her husband and her professors for encouraging her in her studies. Irena has been teaching Spanish at the University of Chicago for ten years. She also teaches Czech language classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the T.G. Masaryk Czech School in Cicero, Illinois. She currently lives in Chicago.
“My parents, my brother, and my sister, we all shared a three plus one apartment. Three plus one meant a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms. So, one bedroom for my parents, one bedroom for my sister, my brother, and myself, and I think that is sort of the cause of my enjoying my space and not really being good about sharing my space, because I always had to share it. I actually remember that as a child – this is going to sound ridiculous – but as a child, I actually often played at the toilet, because it was a small room, about one by one square meter, and I would just close the toilet and that was my little desk, and I would draw and do whatever projects there because I think I always felt the need for my own space. So yes, it was a little bit crowded in the apartment, I would say.”
“My father was always very much anti-the regime. He was not in any kind of resistance group; I think it had to do partially because we did live in an insignificant place. But he would always, every evening at 9:00, I remember him tuning to the Voice of America – I think a lot of parents did it, but they wouldn’t tell their kids. I remember since I was very little, and it’s something that I do now value a lot, is that whenever he was listening to Voice of America, he never sent me away from the room. I remember from six or seven years old being told that what they do is not allowed; if I say that my dad listens to this radio station or that he reads the newspapers he reads, that they will get in trouble and I don’t want my parents to get in trouble because I might end up in an orphanage if they would go to jail or something like that. They trained me in what was the official version and then what was the truth. So I think that from very early on, I did learn to read between lines, and I learned not to trust any kind of government, not to trust any kind of institution, always question.”
“Shortly after starting school – maybe a month of classes, a month and a half of classes – I was approached by one of my classmates who sort of knew about or sensed my political views. He said ‘Hey listen, on Friday afternoon, there is going to be this little gathering’ – it was November 17 – ‘there is going to be a gathering of college students on Albertov in Prague and you should come.’ And I came, and I had absolutely no idea that that would be the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. So I was fortunate enough to be there, to gather with everybody, with all the students in Albertov and then just walk down to the National Boulevard [Národni třída] where we were stopped by the police. It was fascinating. Looking back now it was fascinating; I mean, it was kind of freaky being there, but I think even then it was more fascinating than freaky. You just kind of didn’t know what was going on. I went with a friend and then I remember we just separated. Everybody kind of ran for their own life. So I went home that night to Nymburk. I took the train home for the weekend, and when I returned to school on Monday, the student organizers already started the student strike and that’s basically what led to the change of the system. It was nice to be a part of a revolution.”
Czech vs U.S. Education
“I wasn’t really into reading a book, memorizing the information, going to meet with the teacher and being questioned on the information that I read and asked, basically, to repeat that information without being asked about my opinion. We were not trained to have an opinion and that was actually something that was the most difficult aspect when I started studying in the U.S., that all of the sudden they wanted to know what I think, and I struggled with that a little bit. Not because I wouldn’t think, but just because before that nobody wanted to know what I think. Who am I to think something about something? You repeat what the authority says and your opinion in insignificant until, or unless, you become an authority. So that was a big shock and surprise when I started going to school here, but of course, it was also the reason why I enjoyed my studies in this country so much, and why I went on with my associates degree and then bachelors degree and then masters degree and ended up teaching college myself.”
Back to School
“It was when I decided that I would stay here. Not that I didn’t like working in a restaurant, but I think I was always looking at it as something temporary. I knew that I didn’t want to be a waitress for the rest of my life, so I knew that going to school was the only other way to do something different. Also, to maybe become more American. To fit better in society. To not just be the Czech in America doing Czech things within the Czech community. I guess I wanted to participate more in American society more than the Czech community in America.
“After I married my husband Kevin, he very much encouraged me. He was the one who sent me to school. I didn’t feel ready. I thought my English still wasn’t good enough to go to college and he basically said ‘No, you have to go to college,’ and so I started at the College of DuPage. So after I got an associate degree, I went on to DePaul University to get my B.A. and I thought that’s where I’m ending, but it was the professors that I had at DePaul – with whom I’m actually good friends – my Spanish and German professors, because I did continue with languages, the kind of comments they would write on my papers when they returned the paper graded, they wouldn’t really write comments about the paper, as much as I remember my German teacher, the only comment one time she put on my paper was ‘You have to do a PhD in literature.’ So that was when I started thinking ‘Oh maybe I am actually smart enough to do this.’ I was very insecure. Like I said, college was never a topic of conversation at home. It wasn’t there for me, it was not in the cards. At least that’s how I felt. And it was these professors who made it clear that I do have the intellectual capacity to do this, but who sort of also didn’t really suggest. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, would you like to go to college?’ No, the approach was ‘This is what you are doing. This is what you have to do.’ So, that’s what I did.”
“I enjoy being with the kids. It allows me, in a way, to be a kid myself. Also, the beauty of teaching the Czech language to children who are partially Czech, but they are Americans already. English is their first language; English is the language they think in. Whenever we have a break, they switch to English immediately. That is their natural way of communication. Teaching them the language, not only do I find it extremely important just for the future of these kids, whether they get credit for it when they are in college or just the fact that they can go to the Czech Republic – maybe they can go to college there and they won’t be limited by not knowing the language. Also, just the fact that they can communicate with their grandparents. So I find that very important.
“But also, I think it’s not just that I would be giving something to them, I’m getting a lot back in return. In a way, it makes me appreciate more my culture – the Czech culture. It makes me also perceive the Czech language differently. Sometimes through the errors the children make, you become aware of some subtleties in the language that otherwise you wouldn’t have thought of. So I’m getting a lot back from it, too.”