March 28, 2009

School: The Agony and the Ecstacy

Part 1: A Hunger No Food Can Fix

"Was ist das?" the parent demanded of me.

We have this problem among the Roma community in our town--they all think we're German. It doesn't seem to matter how many times we tell them we're American, we're always greeted with "guten tag." They sign off with "auf wiedersehen." Goal 2 of the Peace Corps mission statement says that we volunteers should "promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served." Geez, we're having a hard enough time convincing people we're even from America.

So maybe this mom's question was in the wrong the language, but "what is this??" was certainly apropos of the situation: I was alone in the kindergarten with eleven 4-year olds. It was your basic garden variety hell on earth, complete with reckless running, hair pulling, pushing, screaming. Then the door to the bathroom opened to reveal one of the students (who has Down's Syndrome, I must add) standing on the sink, hands covered in soap, reaching for the tooth brushes. This mother, who was there dropping off her daughter, was understandably appalled at this situation. She demanded to know where Safet, the director of this asylum--where the inmates had clearly taken control--was and why it was only me in the room.

I really relished this moment. "I don't know where he is," I told her with a smile. "You should take this up with him." It was with pleasure that I threw Safet under the bus. He's been nothing but an obstacle over the last few weeks and on the day in question, had decided to take some sort of break, leaving me to defend myself against the hordes. But more about Safet another day.

This is about Butso. He's a boy who attends the kindergarten and who, along with his 11-year old sister Kasandra, has possibly the worst life of anyone I've ever met. His family lives in a shack up on the hill above town. This family is so poor that Butso and Kasandra both have a nice set of teeth because they can't afford to drink the cheap juice that dooms the dental health of so many Macedonian kids here. Here he is in a picture taken at our Christmas party:

Above all, Butso needs love. From what we've gleamed from multiple sources, his primary interaction with adults are the beatings he receives from his older brother, who was recently brought to court for beating up his own mother. But don't feel too badly for ol' mom--she neglects the hell out of her kids and reportedly spent money for Butso and Kasandra (given by the Germans) on a new cell phone. And don't even get me started on Kasandra. She has some clearly serious emotional problems (though she has started to warm up to us and trust us a bit) and we learned last month that she's been forced to sell herself to men in her community for food.

Back to the kindergarten. After the zoo settled down a bit we got to the business of actually trying to conduct some activities with the kids. But Butso wasn't his normal self--rambunctious, needy, often disruptive. He seemed a bit dazed and was mumbling to himself as he paced the room. It was in Romani, so I asked Safet to look at him. Turns out he saying, "Give me bread," over and over. He hadn't eaten since the previous day's lunch at the kindergarten. Safet, teary-eyed, went to get him some food and I picked him up. He clung to me, his head resting wearily on my shoulder. He switched to Macedonian, asking me repeatedly if we were eating lunch.

Safet got him a big plate of food and Butso ate slowly, still out of it. Even after he had taken his fill he was sluggish and quiet. And all I could think of was something very un-Peace Corps like: slapping the smile of his mother's face, that same smile I see every time we meet on the street. That same smile, in fact, that I had seen earlier that day. "Добар ден," she said with a big grin. Good day. How in hell could it be a good day? Your boy needs love and you won't even give him a meal...where's the smile in that?

Part 2: Jackpot

And then there's those days when all I can do is smile, because it's a day that I'll remember for a long time. It's a day when Peace Corps service feels like the best thing we ever could have done. Today was one of those days.

Bube got accepted to Wellesley.

What's that you say? You can't remember if Wellesley is ranked 5th or 6th among all American colleges? Actually, it's 4th. The fourth-best college in America just accepted Bube into the class of 2013.

Letters from colleges are still coming in, but it's going to be pretty hard to top this one. Of course, there's still the financial aid package--arriving any day now--causing some suspense, but we feel pretty confident that the school will give Bube big help.

To say that all the hard work--ours and, mostly, hers--paid off would be one heck of an understatement. Bube truly earned herself this ticket out of the Macedonian university system and into a better experience, a better life. When we went to congratulate her today at her house, I felt myself bursting with things to tell her about life on an American campus, about all the papers she'll be writing, about dorm life. But we paced ourselves. There's plenty of time to get to that. For now I'm just going to let this incredible feeling expand for awhile.


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