I was asked to arrive at the school at 9am this morning. My host family arranged for a car (a black Mercedes sedan) to drive the distance (about 5 blocks). I’m hoping this doesn’t continue, because it was obviously an inconvenience (I have good reason to believe the car doesn’t belong to my host family) and completely unnecessary. I was asked to sit in the front seat while 5 others sat in the back!
We arrived at the turnout for the school and everyone piled out of the back. I saw the school director walking up to meet us and we all walked into the school together. I’ve never felt so conspicuous in my entire life. I guess this is what it feels like to be a beautiful woman walking into a bar…in a town where there are no other women.
Diana (my host mother) was with us the entire way. It seems she is also a teacher! I’m learning slowly that she is a very busy woman.
We walked upstairs to the teacher’s lounge and I was introduced to all the teachers. No one speaks English, except for my co-teacher, and she was late. But this wasn’t important. I sat down and watched TV like everyone else. At 9 o’clock one of the teachers walked over to the wall and pressed a red button to ring the first bell. All the teachers filed out, but I was motioned to sit and wait (presumably for my co-teacher to arrive).
Tea (my co-teacher) arrived around 9:30 and the first class would begin at 10:00. There were 9 children, (five boys and four girls) all in the first grade. They’re all very eager to learn, and very responsive to questions. They all did their homework (writing out the alphabet in block letters, capital and lower case).They recited the alphabet from A-S (I guess they haven’t learned the entire alphabet yet. They also recited numbers 1 through 30. Some of the kids had a lot of trouble, but others were very competent, and I was impressed for the most part. Tea does a wonderful job of introducing simple words and short sentences. The periods are 45 minutes long and the time goes very quickly.
My next class is with 6th graders. I was waiting in the empty classroom when they began to arrive. Every single one of them felt obliged to say “Hello!” as they walked passed me, then sat down and stared at me like I was the president or something. The kids are whispering, giggling and laughing. At this point I don’t know if I’m fascinating or ridiculous. Class size is just over 20 students. The class begins quickly. They’re shouting out the answers and are very eager to show that they’ve done their homework. The teacher asks me to pronounce all the words and the class repeats. Some of the phonemes are a nightmare. “Thank you” is a huge challenge…99% of the children say “sank you”. If anyone can give me a fool proof way to teach this sound I’d be grateful!
There is a break for a little more than an hour so I walk through the hallways and then outside to have a good look at the school. The director told me (through my co-teacher’s translation) that the building was erected in 1975, completed in 1978. He says “the communists built it”. The building is in terrible shape. The wooden window frames are rotting and falling apart. Many of the window panes are broken and replaced with plastic. The steps are crumbling. There are cracks in the concrete (if that’s what it is). The wooden floors creak like a haunted house. The blackboards are really brown boards, and they’re scratched up pretty bad, but at least they have something functional. There isn’t much chalk, so I’m glad I brought 4 boxes from America. I think it will last a long time.
I’m still on break, so I walk to the back of the school and watch a group of kids playing keep away, and another group of boys playing football (soccer). They seem quite content. There’s no misery here. Kids are kids, and they seem to be enjoying life.
I think it’s interesting to note the kids are dressed really well. Most of them are wearing very stylish clothes. Girls wear black tights with short tunics, or they wear jeans, or denim skirts. Hair bands with flowers or butterflies are very popular. Beautiful dark hair is well-groomed. All the boys are wearing stylish jeans and t-shirts with sweatshirts or jackets. No one looks poor! They are living in broken down shacks, but they all look very clean, healthy, and in very good shape. I didn’t see a single student who looked overweight (not one!), which is kind of a miracle when you consider they’re eating lots of carbohydrates. They don’t really eat any vegetables except tomatoes. Clearly, the main ingredient missing from their diet is sugar, and I know from personal experience that if you don’t eat a lot of sugar then you don’t crave it, and your perception of hunger is more manageable.
I had my last class with 4th graders at 1:30 with 22 students. Tea insisted that I lead the class, and I reluctantly agreed. I needed her help to translate a few instructions, and I feel confident I can learn to say these phrases in the future. I tried to focus on a few different things, asking specific questions that required them to think about the answer. For example, “What color is it?” and then asking them to answer in a complete sentence “It is red”. Or I would point to a picture of a boat and ask “Is it a cat?” and wait for their response “No, it isn’t”. This was a little different from Tea’s approach because I would approach students individually, and work my way around the room. I think it’s really easy for kids to hide in a language class if they’re not directly challenged to respond. I don’t care if they make a mistake, and I don’t care if I need to feed them the correct answer, but I want them to make an effort to speak so I can offer some positive feedback and encouragement.
One of the kids is really bright; I think her name is Ecka (some of these names are difficult to hear correctly). She walked up to me after class and asked me quite clearly, “do you like our village?” I was floored! She’s in fourth grade! She’s what…ten years old? This is a much more difficult sentence than anything else we were discussing in class (colors, numbers, and nouns corresponding to the alphabet). I answered her with a laugh, “I love your village, thank you for asking!” and she smiled at me with huge grin! I doubt she understood my reply, but I’m sure my emotion was easy to understand. This made my day.
I walked home with Diana. It was another hot and breezy day. I’m thinking, “that was easy!” And I’m ready for another try tomorrow. I must learn the language here, or I’ll never be able to communicate with these wonderful people.
At dinner time, I could tell my host parents wanted to discuss my first day, and they even mentioned politics, but there’s just no way for us to communicate with a meaningful discussion until I learn the language. It seems easier than Russian (no gender, and simple conjugations), but resources for study are limited. I’ll continue to study Russian because I know it will be useful here.
I’ll try to get pictures of the school in the near future. I hope they don’t start thinking I’m a spy! Maybe I can help raise some money for the village school. They need everything! I need to brainstorm.