May 01, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

This time I was prepared. Like a Discovery Channel photographer lying in wait in the bush for weeks, I'd been studying the habits of this particular herd of children and knew exactly what to expect. No sooner had I given the routine flick of my hand and said "Готово!" (finished) then the kids charged, engulfing us in a monsoon of hugs. This is no exaggeration--forty children jumped up from their seats and bum rushed us. As Jillian said after, "I had to widen my stance to keep from falling over."



We walk to the center every Wednesday afternoon and enter the classroom to a booming chorus of hellos from the thirty or forty kids crammed in there. The room smells of so many unwashed children, so I open the windows. Safet arrives later and closes the windows, owing to the Macedonian belief that open windows cause various illnesses, especially if the draft touches your lower back or neck. Every child wants to greet us individually, to touch us, to shake our hands, hug us, give us a high five. So the lessons always start late.

The lessons are pretty slow going for two main reasons:
  1. The kids insist on showing us every little thing they write. You can imagine how long it might take to reach "ten" when all forty students are intent on showing you the "one" they've just jotted down. I feel a bit of insanity coming on as I repeat браво or супер (bravo, super) for the two hundredth time in only ten minutes.
  2. Sorry to harp on this, but there's FORTY kids in there! I think the first week there was something like fifteen. Then word spread virally around the Edinstvo neighborhood and by the second week kids were sharing chairs. Getting these three dozen bouncy souls to focus on the matter at hand is half the battle.
The snail's pace doesn't matter, not really, because it's not so much English classes we're providing as it is a positive activity. Unfortunately, not all of these children attend school, but even for those that do, the combination of antiquated teaching methods and the marginalization of Roma students means very little in the way of personal attention. They crave it. And we're delighted to give it.


When the hugs are over and the room has been sufficiently aired out, our next group arrives. Completely different from the previous class and yet equally fun, this group is made up of eight Roma young women, ages 14-20. Bubbly, positive and eager to get to know us, these ladies are a real joy to work with. Again, there's not a whole lot of English being taught and learned, but that isn't so important considering the relationships we've formed with them.

One of the young women, Sarita, who, at age 20, is the oldest of the group, recently discovered I have a brother. First she told me to pass on a greeting to him. Then she asked to see a picture. She was impressed--apparently he's better looking than me. She asks how he is and when Jillian says, "Sarita, you'll have to learn English to get to know him," Sarita replies, "Why do you think I'm coming to these classes?"

So, Matt, book your return ticket now.

These young women, like many in Macedonia, are particularly enthralled with Jillian's appearance; fair skin, green eyes and long red hair are generally unknown in this part of the world. Despite that very awesome Irish pub in the nearby city of Kumanovo, the Irish themselves are not well represented here. Many women in Macedonia dye their hair--in fact, one of the most expansive sections in our local market is the shelf of hair color dyes--and Jillian is often asked "what number" her hair color is on the product scale. A genetic number, ladies.

During class this week, our students decided to play dress up with their little Irish doll. To class they brought a traditional Roma wedding dress and had a blast preparing Jillian as if she were about to walk down the aisle. The dress itself seemed, to this male observer, to be an elegant mix of Queen Elizabeth and Battlestar Galactica.

Jillian was a great sport about the whole thing, especially later, when the girls insisted on dancing a traditional Macedonian/Roma step with her in the attire. What an odd scene: Jillian, in a Roma wedding dress, dancing with our new friends around a pre-school classroom while a Balkan folk song blasted from Sarita's cell phone.

That's way better than English lessons.


Click on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar to see more pictures from the center...and last, but certainly not least, a little video proof of Jillian's wedding dress dancing fun:

video

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a kick! And Dan you totally called it - Battlestar and Queen Elizabeth:) Another endearing memory! Love Mom