November 19, 2008

At Night a Candle's Brighter than the Sun

If you've been following this blog for the last eight months, you may remember our experience on "The Day of the Tree" back in March. That was the day we ascended the hills surrounding our town and planted, umm, trees in pre-dug holes. All municipal workers in Macedonia celebrated this sort of Arbor Day by planting a tree. Ours was more like a weed, but we were assured it would one day be something like a real tree.

Well, that must have been a smash success, because the government chose today for an encore performance. In our town (where, I must add, you can still make out a patch of planted trees on one of the hillsides that spells out TITO) the plan called for all high school students and teachers (plus two PCVs) to be shipped out in buses to a nearby village. Except...the school couldn't find anyone to drive us out there. Apparently the local bus companies weren't feeling particularly altruistic. So eight small trees were planted in the front yard of the school. It took about fifteen minutes. And I spent the midday at a neighbor's house drinking rakia. Not exactly a thrilling tale.

So instead let me take this opportunity to talk about Bube and Tina, who have received passing mentions in previous posts. Both young women are seniors at the high school here in town. Since April, Jillian and I have been working with them as they ready their applications to colleges in the U.S. As December fast approaches, both girls are putting their final touches on essays, translating pertinent financial documents, and studying for the upcoming SAT Subject Tests. It's been a busy last few months.

Macedonia's university system leaves much to be desired. In addition to the usual sorts of things that plague state-sponsored schools (lack of funds, aging infrastructure, trouble hiring top-notch faculty), the universities here are dogged by consistent complaints of corruption with regard to grading. And the icing on the cake: degrees from these schools are generally not recognized by the western developed nations. So finding a job outside Macedonia after college (at least, one that puts your degree to work) is extremely difficult.

This situation is not lost on the best and brightest in the country's high schools. Bube and Tina are both members of the debate team and it was during a spring practice for an upcoming competition that they first mentioned the idea of studying in America to us. Honestly, we couldn't think of two young people who deserve it more--these girls are really special.

We're used to the American mentality with respect to teenagers, a mentality that says they need to be occupied every minute of every day during the high school years. School work, clubs, sports teams, music lessons, work, etc., idleness is not an option. And while this is generally a good strategy for keeping teenagers out of trouble, it also serves the purpose of rounding out that resume for when college applications come calling. As applying to universities (and their money) becomes increasingly competitive, good grades and a winning smile just aren't enough; today's high school student, we are told, must have a resume just dripping with positive life experiences.

Now, I'll be the first to commend any American teenager who goes out there and joins the high school band, plays soccer, writes for the school newspaper, works a job on the weekends, studies Chinese on Thursday nights, and still gets straight A's. But it's worth noting--and here's where the gap between America and our Macedonian town becomes gaping--that all those activities are available for American students. For many kids, there's literally too much to choose from. Unless you've got Hermione Granger's Time Turner, there's simply not enough hours in the day to do it all.

Not so here. There are but a handful of activities available and most kids simply don't do them. It seems that among most parents and teachers, there isn't any sort of emphasis on keeping young people engaged. And it's contagious: most kids feel no inclination whatsoever to get engaged. I've seen this on many occasions at school when offering an activity such as English Club or an essay-writing contest. Twenty or thirty students promise they will be there. Three show up.

I've always liked a certain line from the Sting song "Englishman in New York." Comparing his British restraint and modesty to the notoriety he finds in New York, Sting sings, "At night a candle's brighter than the sun." I've found this poetic turn of a phrase applies quite nicely to Bube and Tina. Against a background of apathy and little opportunity, they stand out. They literally have created opportunities for themselves. Debate is one example--though it was my idea, they took it and ran with it--but perhaps the best example is Healthy Kids Day Camp, which we put on last summer. That camp simply would not have happened without Bube and Tina. Over the course of less than two months, they built the camp from the ground up, designing lessons, finding resources and handling the headaches that came with putting on such a production in a community that initially looked on in suspicion.

And we've been equally impressed with their preparation for college. For the last few months we've held SAT study sessions four times per week and the girls have been very diligent in their studies. With the SAT behind them and the TOEFL (English test) and SAT II approaching, along with the submission deadlines for their schools, the end of this process is near. Then the finger-crossing begins.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please tell Bube I'm pulling for her! Such an amazing young woman! Mom