Friday, December 08, 2006

Fireworks

I realize that I haven't posted in a while. Did you all miss me? I am entitling this post "Fireworks" for a couple reasons: 1. They've started selling fireworks in town and the kids are wasting no time in buying them up. I suggest you invest in pyrotechnics. 2. A LOT has happened since my last post. Apryl is overwhelmed. Apryl is happy. Apryl is just seriously busy. That's a good thing, right? In fact, I'm writing this post at 1:20 a.m. (the time here now) with a bunch of caffeine and sugar running through my system.
I want to tell you about everything that's been happening. It's good stuff. I'm not going to mention every, absolute detail. Let's pick up where I left off in the last post. So, we had our book opening, and then that weekend (it already feels like forever ago), I went to a small village called Stoikite to have Thanksgiving with some truants and some other volunteers. We cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the kids at the home (with turkey and cranberry sauce!), and we also had a ping-pong tournament and a discotheque party that night. The ping-pong was awesome. I made it through several rounds until the semi-finals - when I got schooled by one of the kids. The dinner was delicious and absolutely fantastic. And the discotheque was a blast. Some of the girls latched onto me pretty quickly, but it's just because I know the words to the chalga songs and sing along with them. It was hard to leave them. They kept hugging me. Oh, they were so cute. I had a good time with the other volunteers as well. We got back to the house and played Bulgarian Scrabble. The next day, I had to get back to my site. It was a really great weekend.
The following week, I worked on Monday and Tuesday, and then Brandy and I left for "Heaven" - I mean, we went to a Bryan Adams concert in Sofia on Wednesday. Man, can that guy put on a show! It was awesome! He sang pretty much all his hits, and he sounds SO great in concert. It was absolutely fantastic. I'm so glad I went. It was his last show on tour, and he came out for a double-encore. The audience was amazing. They knew all the words to just about every song. Indescribable.
The next day, I made a stop at the Peace Corps office and putzed around - trying to make the most of my visit... just biding my time until I had to hop a bus to Nova Zagora. Nova Zagora is in the middle of the country - about 3.5 hours from Sofia, and I was invited to go there to give a presentation to some of the teachers. My topic was "Extracurricular activities with Roma students and youth, work with parents, and outreach projects at Roma communities." I didn't really feel all that comfortable with talking. My colleagues have more experience than I do - nevermind the fact that they are actually Roma. I'm glad I went though. I gave an interview (in Bulgarian) on the local television station, and then I had my presentation later that Friday. I think the presentation went all right. I started out trying to speak Bulgarian, but I was too nervous. I couldn't think out exactly what I wanted to say and relay it in Bulgarian at the same time. I soon asked for a translator. I don't know how helpful I was, but I hope the teachers got some good things out of it. I showed them the book we recently had published, and they requested copies. I was also able to help them brainstorm about some extracurricular activities they would like to do with the talents they have.
Meanwhile, while I was gone, my organization had a meeting with some initiative groups here in Rakitovo - mostly youth from here and nearby towns that are looking to make some needed changes to where we live. Our volunteer group here has a really great idea for cleaning up the Roma Mahala. They're even looking at incorporating the mayor, the local government, and the media. It's a superb idea. Problem is, they're having a hard time getting everyone to meet together again and really decide how they're going to do it - write the project so as to get funding and all. That's kind of the story here in town, and it just gets played on "repeat" over and over. I wish I had been here to be a part of the initial meeting though.
My weekend was really great. A volunteer friend of mine came to visit, and we just laid low in Rakitovo. It was a really relaxing weekend where I could just forget for a moment where I live.
On Monday and Tuesday, my colleagues were in Sofia, and they had taken the keys to the office. It was a nice "excuse" not to go into work - not that I didn't have other things to do anyway. I still had to prepare for my classes and hold them in the afternoon.
Wednesday was a busy day for a lot of reasons - the main one being that I had invited an organization to come out from Sofia and give a presentation on anti-trafficking. I'd been in contact with Face to Face for a while - hoping they could come out and give a presentation. Peace Corps really encourages its volunteers to do educational sessions on human trafficking. It's not a topic I necessarily feel comfortable talking about because of my own lack of information. That's why I was excited to find an organization in Bulgaria that will come out and give free presentations on the issue. I tried to get them out before the end of the school-year in May, but it just didn't work out. Finally, after several traded e-mails, I was able to have them come give a presentation at Brandy's school on Wednesday. It was an excellent presentation, and the kids were (for the most-part) respectful and interactive. The listened well, and I hope it was useful for them. There were about 70 people in the room, and I think that was one of the largest presentations these two women had ever given. It's always exciting to bring people together with little work. All I had to do was invite the organization and then make sure the school was onboard to set up a room and some hardware for them. Oh yeah, and to make a bunch of copies of some of the handouts. Fun, fun.
And the biggest news that has happened to me is that I was, once again, offered a job. This will be a lengthy explanation. Bear with me. So, last Wednesday, on the way to the Bryan Adams concert, I got a phone call. Someone from Rakitovo was on the other line saying something about "eight hours" and "English." Now, my Bulgarian isn't great over the phone - and especially on a bus. I just agreed to try and find whoever was calling me on Monday and we'd talk. Early Monday afternoon, I got another phone call from this mystery person. Again, something about "English" and "eight hours." Where was I? When could I come in? Well, at the time, I was on my way to Velingrad and said I would come by after I got back. I understood that the director of "Kliment Ohridski" (the school where Brandy works) was calling, and I went there after I got back from Velingrad. I was asked to come back the following day at 1 p.m. to meet with them. So, the next morning I got another phone call from the director, "Where are you? Can you come in at 12?" I thought I was supposed to come in at 1, but I agreed. At 12 o'clock, I went over to Kliment Ohridski and sat down with the director. "What's up, Apryl?" I looked in distress because by that morning I had realized that this person wanted me to come and teach at their school for eight hours a week. I didn't have time nor the desire for this. "What's wrong?" the director asked. "Okay," I started out, "What's the problem, and why do you not have enough teachers for English?" She looked at me like I had two heads. "What?" "Someone called me saying they were the director and needed me to teach English." She hadn't called me. We soon laughed about it. Someone had played a good joke on me. I was relieved, and I was ready to give kudos to the kid who had done it. In the back of my mind, however, I thought, "What if I got the wrong school?"
Sure enough. I had been hanging around Kliment Ohridski for about an hour - staying to give some advice on their SPA project - when I got a call again. "Apryl, this is the director of Hristo Smirnenski (another local school). Where are you? Didn't you say you were coming in?" Doh! I had gotten the wrong school. Again, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. So, I walked over to Hristo Smirnenski.
Now, I have to be very careful about how I phrase what I want to tell you next. It's very complicated, kind of confusing, and not all that pleasant. Here, in Peace Corps, we volunteers struggle with what we can and cannot post in our blogs. Anything on the internet runs the risk of offending someone - which is definitely the last thing we want to do. However, self-censorship really sucks. One can't convey the ideas they want in the proper light. I want to be honest with you, and the following might not be pretty. Let me take this time to remind you all that I am far from perfect, but I will try to walk the hard line between tact and honesty.
As soon as I walked in the door of the director's office, I was greeted with a pleasant smile from both the director and the assistant director. Once I sat down, I was explained the situation: Their English teacher had recently quit (apparently he wasn't that into the job anyway from what I hear from the kids), and they were at a loss to find someone. They heard about me, and they wanted to hire me as soon as possible. The way they talked to me, it was like I had already accepted the position. I realized they were in a bind. The kids were currently taking a free period when they were supposed to be having English. It was only eight hours, and I would be paid. Wait a second, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I can't get paid. Well, I could donate my salary back to the school if I wanted. I thought of my foundation and how I could donate it to the activities in the center. This was an answer to prayer that I didn't want. It was good for all parties involved - the school would get a teacher, the foundation would get money - except for me. I didn't want to teach at the school. Kids here in Rakitovo - well, they're kids. They're awesome people, but sometimes they like to disrupt class or ditch and go get coffee or something. I don't really understand it because it's not really something I remember happening at my school. Maybe I have a faulty memory of school, but let's just say that my disposition is not strong enough to be a teacher in Bulgaria... unless God helps me. Plus, a lot of the kids already know me - maybe already have a certain rapport with me. Then there's my youth and inexperience. It's awkward in a way - probably for both me and them. If kids ditch my class, I might be tempted to take it personally. I almost was a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteer, and I thank God everyday that I'm not. I have immense respect for TEFLs. I don't know if I could do their job. More and more, it seems like I'm turning into a TEFL volunteer. I teach a lot of English.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. I tried to convince them that it was silly to hire me as I have no English teaching experience. I was a Spanish major in college, and I've never taught English formally. I just speak it. They weren't listening because they were desperate. "How hard can it be?" they asked me. "You open this book, and you teach. You get a dictionary, and you write words down on the board." That's not my idea of teaching, and I'm skeptical about kids buying books. I've heard many of them just don't bother. Besides, they're almost already halfway through the year. I told them I would talk to Peace Corps and my colleagues at Future Foundation, and then I would let them know. "If you want, you can come start tomorrow," they told me.
Peace Corps was cool with it as long as there was complete transparency. Peace Corps' name couldn't appear anywhere, and my name had to be in a limited number of places. I couldn't get paid directly. Any money would have to go directly to my Foundation. Fine with me. My colleagues were skeptical. Yanko said, "Think hard, Apryl. You're already busy with the center. Are you sure you want to do this? Do you want to drive yourself crazy? You're not thinking properly. You're thinking of the school and the center. I wish more people were like you, but you're not making a wise decision." To be honest, I was also thinking about my role as a volunteer. I mentioned before that the desire to be a "good" volunteer is like a double-edged sword. You risk cutting yourself. My desire to say "yes" to pretty much everyone who asks me for help is not necessarily healthy. When Yanko started talking to me, I began to cry. I had already made my decision, but I knew he was right. I would be asking for heartache and frustration. "Six years," he told me, "I have worked without a vacation. Sometimes, I sit there and try and think, and nothing breaks through. I've become like a machine. I think I must be crazy."
Before you feel sorry for me, don't. It's a vicious circle to gain your pity and then cast it aside because I'm trying to be a martyr or something. I don't deserve your admiration or your condolensces. Doing something for someone that doesn't come from the heart is tantamount to nothing. It's what I do because it's who I am, and who I am is not always healthy. An inability to say "no" is a problem.
So, I accepted the position - with the understanding that I would only stay until the end of January. If they found someone to replace me before then, excellent. If not, they'd be back in the same position. I am not a solution to their problem. I was offering myself as a band-aid. The assistant director was happy with that. The director was put-off. "But, there's no one! How will we find someone?" I had been told that they had already put up notices. "Yeah, but we're still not going to be able to find anyone." Well, that was the deal I was offering her. She could either take it or leave it. "Well, at least you'll be helping us finish out the second term of the school year." She seemed grateful for that.
She then said something that highly offended me at the time, but now I'm laughing about it. I will explain with a caveat that the director does not really know me. She is not familiar with my work in Bulgaria, and what she said is a common thing to say and do around the region. She said something to the effect of, "Well, this will be good for all involved. We will have an English teacher, your foundation will get some extra money, and you'll have something to do other than sleeping late and going to cafes to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes." I sputtered. I was at a loss for words. All I could get out was, "I'm actually quite busy." She just blinked at me. Again, it's probably just due to a complete misunderstanding of what I do in Rakitovo. She doesn't work much with Future Foundation, and I don't think she's at all familiar with Peace Corps.
So, what documentation did I have to fill out some forms for them? None, actually. I could give them basic personal information. I wasn't an English teacher. I wasn't a teacher at all. I didn't have any type of certification. "Well, at least give us your diploma." I understood their need for some info on me, but they were asking someone to teach classes based entirely on the ability to speak English. Plus, they were asking someone who was wrapped up in an organization that needs to maintain a certain image: Peace Corps. There has to be some leeway. I'm sure PC has a special process for their TEFL volunteers. And those who just teach classes in their spare time do it free of charge. Of course, to capitalize on this opportunity for the sake of Future Foundation had really sweetened the deal. I am human, after all.
After a huge discussion about what documentation was needed, they had me write a request to work at the school. I made sure to put down that it was only until the end of January - even though they insisted that it was unnecessary, and I could leave whenever I wanted. I was then shown where I would be teaching my first class.
There were three boys in my first class. I knew all of them, and they were fairly pleasant. I'm sure there will be more students when they figure out there's English again, but for now we just talked a bit and went through introductions in English. My second class was with five charming girls. They seemed eager to learn and interacted well. My third class was with 11 boys. That's probably going to be the most difficult. They already seemed distracted, and it's the first day - when people are nice and feeling you out. My final class (I have four classes on Thursdays) was with two girls and two boys. They seemed pretty into learning as well. First impressions are not everything, however. Their English is pretty limited. Some appear to pick it up pretty quickly, but the question is: do they want to put in the effort?
My classes ended, and I had just enough time to change and go up to the center for more English classes. A teacher I had met earlier at the school said, "Priatna puchivka," which basically means, "Have a nice break." I nodded. I was off to work again, but at the center I could be more relaxed. I told my kids they needed to prepare a talent night for their parents - where they would show off their language skills. They really know quite a bit for the first month-and-a-half if you ask me. Of course, my opinion can't be trusted. I'm just a proud teacher.
After my language classes, I hung out with the volunteers that were meeting to talk about their initiative. I had to excuse myself early because Brandy and her colleagues had been nice enough to invite me to their holiday party at a restaurant in Velingrad. It was a fun evening of good food and dancing.
So, I don't know what's going to happen with this teaching thing. I hate to start with the kids and just end now, but the school wrote out a labor contract for me that Peace Corps isn't jiving with. Plus, they've asked me to give the kids grades at the end of the quarter - not just for this quarter, but to make up something for last quarter as well - based on this quarter. At least, this is what I understood because the previous teacher hadn't given them grades or something. These kids deserve so much better. I wonder which is worse: to have a free period or an unqualified teacher.
Also, the director apparently made another interesting comment to a colleague of mine. This is third-hand information, but I was told that she said, "Your foundation should do more for our school - especially now that that one girl is working for us and donating the money to you." Again, whether it was actually said like that or not and what she meant by it, I can't tell you. I can only believe that she is just lacking information.
So, I'm a busy girl! Here's my schedule for now:

Monday: One morning class at the school. Three English classes in the afternoon/evening. These are concrete things. Add in preparation for these classes and any other work I might have with the foundation, Peace Corps, or random things, and it can fill up a day.
Tuesday: Two morning classes with school. Two English class in the afternoon/evening. Fill with random preparation and other work. If the volunteers meet, I'm hanging around 'til late.
Wednesday: Two morning classes with school. One English class, one computer class, and one Spanish class in the evening. I still have SPA-related things to do with the center.
Thursday: Four classes from morning to afternoon with the school. Two English classes in the afternoon/evening. Volunteers might meet again. Schedule time for eating.
Friday: No classes at the school, but might have to go in for other reasons. One computer class, and three English classes in the afternoon.
This surely won't last for long. Either things will work out where I'm at the school 'til January 30th, or things won't work out, and I'll have to reneg. They say God only gives you what you can handle. I'm questioning Him at the moment. I'm thankful He allows me to do that. Maybe He's teaching me to be careful what I ask for and the ability to say "no."
I am very happy at the moment. I'm scared at what I may have gotten myself into, but I'm happy on the whole. Please remember that. I am fortunate to be who I am and to have come from the place where I come from. I'm learning more everyday. Plus, it's freezing cold, but there's no snow on the ground yet! (Knock on wood.) That's probably not exactly a good thing, but I'll take it!

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