“What a wonderful day, today is.”
I used to live in Baltimore. It’s where I collected some of my dearest friends. The above quote was a toast often delivered by several of those wonderful friends at the end of a long day, long week, good or bad and if nothing else, to the company.
With my first week at my new site complete, it feels appropriate. I’m sure my friends will forgive me if I refer to a week instead of just the day.
To be fair though, not every moment felt wonderful.
Monday morning, I got ready for school, checked my watch every two minutes, and left on time — before struggling to unlock and relock my door for ten minutes. (I’m telling you. The locks here are tricky.) I was sweating by the time I got to school after half-jogging when I thought no one was around to think it was weird. Just before I walked in the gate, I panicked slightly. (First day of school problems.)
Several of my coworkers were seated outside the school, having a cigarette break. They looked up, surprised to see me.
They didn’t know I was supposed to start Monday.
True to the laid-back culture though, a shrug later they were welcoming me and asking how I was settling into my new home. Then it was off to the teacher’s lounge.
I’d never really hung out in the teacher’s lounge when I worked as a teacher in America. Any break at school meant hustling to make an extra copy, moving desks because the seating arrangement wasn’t working, a few minutes of grading, filing that grading, calling a parent, responding to a student journal or just enjoying the few minutes of solitude before the sound of the next class filled the room.
Here, the teacher’s lounge is a social hub. Between classes, every teacher is there. Some sip coffee. Some organize papers for the next class. Some trade out grade books. (Each class has one book for all subjects. They’re known as the “Big, Red Books.” It’s not an ironic nickname.) Some teachers chat. Periodically, students pop in to borrow one of the large maps that are rolled up and leaning in the corner.
It’s completely relaxed.
I wasn’t quite there yet. I spent my free moments making lists.
I made lists of all the resources available, already thinking ahead to lessons. I made lists of all the teachers’ names I’d heard so far. I made lists of ideas for the classroom and ideas for projects.
I also chatted with the teachers seated near me and answered questions when I knew how. I could follow some of the conversation, not to the point of verbatim translation, but I could identify a topic and the basics.
It was the same in the classrooms. When directions or lessons were in Macedonian, I tried to pick out the words I knew and follow along, even though I didn’t get every phrase. I also took more notes: students’ names, a general idea of leveling, classroom environment, and posters on the wall. (One poster was a project on Pitbull, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus.)
Each day felt a little more comfortable. I observed nearly every grade from 1st through 9th in both shifts. (In primary school here, those are the grade levels. There is a morning shift and evening shift, split by grades. Teachers trade-off every few weeks which shift they work.)
Wednesday was my first school holiday. Ден на дрвото. Translated, it means Day of the Tree. All of the students arrived around 9 a.m. and we planted the tiniest, Charlie Brown Christmas trees I’ve seen. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some roots grow, but I can’t say I’m very optimistic.
After the students left, I was able to address the entire staff. (Normally, only half the teachers would be there during any given shift.)
I said good morning in Macedonian and introduced myself, and then I let my counterpart translate the rest. It’s the first time in a number of years that a volunteer has been at this school, so I briefly explained the three main goals of the Peace Corps: providing skilled volunteers to countries who have requested our presence to work alongside host country nationals, to share American culture and friendship, and in turn, to learn about Macedonian culture and share that with America.
I explained that while my main job will be working with the English teachers, I’ll also be looking to work with them on secondary projects, like extracurriculars or anything that will support the community.
Finally, I thanked them for the warm welcome, all the coffee, and apologized for the time I’m sure it will take to learn all of their names.
I was a little nervous and I probably could have summed everything up better, but overall, I thought I got the basics across. (I also got to give GLOW a quick plug. I’m going to be working as one of the communications coordinators and I couldn’t be more thrilled.)
I was less nervous meeting the students. I gave them a similar presentation, supported by a power point full of pictures. I included a map that showed the distance between Macedonia and America, a map of Pennsylvania, a few front pages with stories I wrote for my old newspaper and a photo of some of my students from Baltimore.
I used a lot of Macedonian, and my counterpart translated the rest.
I’m not sure if the smiles and stares were because my Macedonian was wrong or because they were surprised I was using it. They may have just been because a strange American was standing in front of them holding up a laptop with the word Здраво (hello).
A few students asked questions afterward. Do you have any brothers or sisters? (Yes, I have two brothers. One older and one younger.) Do you like Macedonia? (I really like it so far. I love all the mountains and the people are great.) How old are you? (27.) Are you going to be a teacher here? (Yes, so with two teachers there will be two times the learning.)
I corrected spelling periodically. I explained the definition of a word when my counterpart asked, although I was stumped when he asked me to sum up “dystopian.” (I led with, you know, like the Hunger Games.) I also stumbled when asked the number of passengers on the Titanic and the appropriate usage of lay and lie. I’m looking forward to knowing what will be taught each class so I’m ready for these questions.
I also wryly corrected a student who referred to my volunteer organization as the “Peace corpse.” I told him that a corpse is a dead body, and the volunteers are very much alive.
One of my favorite moments was a minor interaction with one of the second grade students. He needed help, so he called me over, addressing me as наставникa, teacher.
I rushed over to help, beaming with pride, only to realize I couldn’t understand his question. Right, that pesky language issue.
One step at a time.