October 21, 2009

At Long Last, School Opens

So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I'm at the edge of the lake

Sometimes I wonder what it's gonna take

To find dignity

-Bob Dylan

I learned something recently: Half-truths are considerably more dangerous than outright lies. While a lie can be easily vanquished by the antiseptic of sunlight, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, dislodging a half-truth requires considerable effort. Especially when the target audience is a marginalized one like the Roma community.

At Camp GLOW--the girls empowerment program that Jillian organized the last two summers--there is a session on political participation in a democracy and the class utilizes something called Hart's Ladder. In brief, it outlines the various levels of participation, ranging from the bottom rung (citizens are manipulated) to the top (citizens initiate action). Due to a history of chronic unemployment and spotty school attendance, the Roma community in Kriva Palanka is firmly entrenched on that bottom rung, easily controlled by external and, in this case, internal forces.

This is about the Roma kindergarten, where Jillian and I have been volunteering for the past year and which I've written about here, here, and here. There is a desperate need for this project to succeed--this type of early childhood education better prepares the children for public school and increases their chances of graduating and breaking the cycle of poverty. The project is financed by the students from a high school in Stuttgart, Germany, who conduct year-round fund raising to pay for all facets of the kindergarten. Their efforts are astounding.

Unfortunately, far too much time, energy, and money for this project was wasted by (and on) the manager of the kindergarten (whose name I won't use). Due to his incompetence and mismanagement of funds, the project struggled through the last year. The Germans wisely decided to fire him and even came to Kriva Palanka to make sure this matter was handled properly. And that's when things got really interesting.

* * *

This is one family's bathroom. It's built in the same manner as their home, mostly of scrap metal and wood. There is intermittent electricity and no running water. Around a dozen families share a single water tap that often freezes in winter. We sat with the mother at this particular home, talking about her wonderful children, who attend our English class. She was remarkably upbeat for a woman whose walls howl with the wind and leak in the rain. She's adamant that her children will finish school, an opportunity she never really had. Clustered in one corner of this single-room house were fifteen or so large plastic bottles, each filled with water. That's the family's water supply and when it runs out, they must refill them down the hill at the water spout.

I mention this because it was forgotten--all of this, the poverty and the children--when the Germans arrived to officially fire the manager and restructure the kindergarten's employment. Instead, the manager dug in his heels, hurling every lie and half-truth he could produce in an effort to save his job. The kindergarten's opening was delayed. He rallied support from some community members and they demanded that he be reinstated. A meeting was held in which the Germans hoped to answer all questions and lay the issue to rest once and for all. Instead, it turned into a feeding frenzy of lies, insults, and threats. The manager produced one half-truth after another. People were yelling things like, "Take your money and go back to Germany!"

For a bit of time, the project seemed to hang in the balance. How could this happen? How could this man, who lives in the community and understands the trials of the Roma, put himself and his own position of power ahead of the children? I've spent a lot of time here trying to heed the words of Atticus Finch--don't judge a man until you've stood in his shoes--but I found that I had simply run out of empathy for him. How many times can you look at these poor children and still sympathize for someone obsessed with stature and authority? And hearing his lies parroted by parents who told us repeatedly that their children would never attend the kindergarten again was just the last straw.

* * *

Well, the kindergarten opened today. It looks great. After a week of intensive scrubbing, painting, and reorganization, the place looks brand new. The children arrived this morning all smiles and cheer, eager to find their favorite toy and recommence that game they were playing back in June before the summer holiday. Jillian's been hard at work making a host of learning aids and activities for the classroom teacher to use after we've departed.

So I learned something else: the parents will always put their children first. After the drama that unfolded between the donors and the community, the Germans chose to ignore it all and proceed with renovations and a new staff. The first day of school was announced. And slowly but surely, parents trickled in to register their kids. Children from last year returned and new families signed up, including a particularly poor one that lives in a sort of ostracized state on the edge of town. They will be sending two children to the center this year.

In a few weeks Jillian and I will be home. We came to Macedonia to teach English but found our work at this center with the Roma children--part education, part community development--to be among the most rewarding experiences of the past two years. I believe that the kindergarten is now in a better place than it was when we first walked through the doors. I'm not bragging--the positive change has been incremental and could easily be lost. But if even a few more children are encouraged to attend and finish school, their lives will be dramatically different from that of their parents.

Students at play on the first day

The sparkling clean kindergarten finally reopens


GS Counselor: said...

Wow, it's hard to belive that your two year adventure is almost up. I'm going to miss reading your blog. It has become part of my weekly routine. I have know doubt that your impact in Macedonia and Roma will be remembered for years to come!


Anonymous said...

Wow--Dan, Jillian, it's been fun watching your experience unfold and I can't believe it's been two years since I left Kriva Palanka. Best wishes with the departure and re-entry! Congratulations on finishing strong :-)
(Sara Urquhart)