Students in Kladno Find Chemistry Takes a Back Seat to Democracy : Czechoslovakia: Mining town joins in national strike. But the decision came after unprecedented debate.


Eighth-graders at the Zakladni School were scheduled for a noon class in chemistry Monday, but instead they were introduced to a new subject--democracy. And they were spellbound.

The 31 pupils listened intently as their teacher, Jaromir Hlusicka, quietly described the challenge facing Czechoslovakia.

On his white shirt were pinned the red, white and blue national colors, which have become a symbol of opposition to the Communist regime. Many of the children wore the colors, too.

Hlusicka read a witness' account of the Nov. 17 police attack on student protesters in Prague. And he talked about Czechoslovakia's centrally planned economy, recalling that black-and-white television sets were being produced long after they were no longer wanted and that toilet paper disappeared nationwide when fire destroyed the only plant that produced it.

"This all happened before our eyes, but no one paid proper attention," he told the children. "Recent events have brought you a new responsibility. Now you must respond, because the future is yours."

Hlusicka's remarks, and the remarkable discussion that followed, came as the people of Kladno, a steel and mining town 30 miles northwest of Prague, took part in Monday's general strike.

Thousands gathered in Kladno's central square to express support for the strike and for the opposition coalition known as the Civic Forum. But the decision to do so was not easy.

Kladno, with its forest of smokestacks and strong history of working-class solidarity, was the setting early in the 20th Century for one of Europe's first pro-Communist worker revolts. The success here of Monday's strike was a measure of just how far the Communist regime has fallen in the 10 days since the police attack in Prague.

A senior member of the Communist factory committee from the nearby Poldi steelworks was jeered by the crowd, which was made up mostly of workers. The steelworks itself was down to a skeleton work force. Shops and offices were closed.

For many, the decision to join in the strike came only after intense soul-searching and unprecedented debate that in some instances divided colleagues.

At the Zakladni School, students confronted a reluctant faculty at an emergency assembly and eventually won the support of high school administrators. But the head of the primary and junior high grades refused to accede.

"We wanted to strike from the start, but the school leadership said no," Michel Coubal, a high school student, said as he left the school for the town square rally. "We all met in an assembly Saturday and convinced our teachers to join us."

Hlusicka's unusual chemistry class was the result of a compromise in the lower grades.

In the main lobby area at the Poldi steelworks headquarters, receptionist Zuzana Blahova said she decided last Friday to join the strike after newly liberated Czechoslovak television showed film of the Nov. 17 police attack on demonstrators. "Then I realized I had no choice," she said.

Blahova said that at first, student delegations trying to explain the strike were turned away by supervisors, but later they were admitted when workers insisted on hearing them.

Workers said it was impossible to shut down the works for only two hours, the duration of the strike. They said essential maintenance crews kept it going.

At the Zapodocky coal mine, there were complications that kept many on the job, but black-faced miners there insisted that they supported the strikers.

And two supervisors said on returning from the rally that a branch of the Civic Forum had just been established at the mine. One of them, Bohumil Branik, said his membership in the Communist Party was no barrier to joining the Civic Forum.

"It's time for new ideas," he said. "This leadership has not served the country well. I kept quiet only because I worried about my children and was afraid. Now they are marching, too, so there is no need to be afraid any more."

But it was Hlusicka, the teacher, who best captured the spirit of national reawakening.

"All the time I've wanted to teach the truth," he said quietly. "Now we must prepare a generation to lead our society into the future."

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