More Work Than I Thought
After one ceremonial first day of school and the first day of actual lessons, I can officially say that I have a lot of work to do here. These kids are sweet, smart and excited, but they sure as hell can't speak English.
We'll start with the good part, which was Thursday, September 1, the nationwide first day of school every year. At 9 a.m. students, parents and teachers waited in the school's front courtyard as I walked out with the school's adjunct director, the mayor and the Hincesti raion's director of English curriculum. (The director of the school, who is also the mayor's wife, was not present because she unexpectedly left last week to work in Italy for an undetermined length of time. I'll need to write on illegal emigration some other time, but suffice it to say for now that Moldova is the European equivalent of Guatemala, and if you have a chance to work somewhere else for more money, you pay an exorbitant amount of money to be driven across the borders in secrecy.)
The ceremony began with a tape of the Moldovan national anthem, Limba Noastra, playing on a small, yet loud boom-box. Then the oldest class, the 11th-graders, parading to the front of the remarkably well-organized crowd of 300 and leading in the newest class, the first-graders. There are between 15 and 30 children per grade in the school, so there were approximately 40 students coming in. Doamna Maria, our adjunct director, gave a short presentation, followed by the mayor, also named Petru. At one point in his improvised speech, which was peppered with many calls for health and many years and success, he mentioned that he liked having an American come to Mereseni with the same name. The raional director of the English curriculum, whose name I will fill in at a later date so that it doesn't look like I've met this woman three times and still don't know her name, gave another short speech and then presented me.
My time to shine, as I picked up my small Peace Corps-issued notebook where I had scribbled out a page-long speech the night before. The English version of the speech (which I wrote in Romanian with only two or three corrections from my host sister and dictionary consultations only to check the spellings of words that I already know and use all the time) can be found below. When I finished, I received large amounts of applause and calls of "Bravo!" as well as excessive amounts of flowers.
It seemed that at every small transition in the ceremony, a different student was giving me flowers of some sort, and when I finally managed to bring them home, I had enough to fill three vases; one for the living room, one for the kitchen and one for my nightstand. Moldovan students love giving flowers and gifts to their teachers. In Practice School in Costesti, I received a six-inch tall sculpture of two doves one week and a picture frame with a teddy bear riding in a baby carriage. Where they find these things, I don't know, but I like getting them anyway.
Next in the ceremony was the first-graders performing several songs with the musical accompaniment of an upright piano that was wheeled out to the front of the school. As with any group of six year olds trying to put together a melody, they sounded cacophonous and cute, and even if I knew every word in the Romanian language I wouldn't have been able to understand them.
After them, the 11th graders sang several songs, presented the first graders with notebooks, pencils and a two-foot-long symbolic key to the school and then addressed each grade level with two or three specific sentences. Not many of these 16 and 17 year olds had a very commanding presence or loud voice, and so the crowd began to get restless. Even the mayor was talking in a not-too-quiet whisper, and even my much-practiced movie theater turn-around "shut up" glare had no effect. I guess when you don't go to movie theaters, you don't learn how to react to the turn-around "shut up" glare.
When the 11th graders were finished, two 11th grade boys hoisted a boy and a girl from the first grade onto their shoulders and walked around in a large circle as the boy and girl rang the ceremonial first bell of school, bringing the only heartfelt applause of the day. The students who had paraded in to begin the ceremony now filed into the school to applause that couldn't last for the necessary 45 seconds while retaining authenticity. But there it was. The school year had begun, and the next day would begin lessons.
And oh, what lessons they were. On Friday, I had the fifth grade, the seventh grade and half of the sixth grade. Even then, I only had a half of each group, as the other half goes with Domnisoara Sveta, my counterpart. It was the same lesson for every class: the students came one-by-one to the front of the class and answered a few general questions about themselves, including their name, age and favorite hobby. Then we would read over the classroom rules, in English and Romanian. Then we would take a pressure-free test reviewing the previous year's curriculum in which every student who didn't copy would receive a 10, the highest mark possible. A reasonable expectation for students who have studied the language since they started in second grade, I thought.
I had been warned by other volunteers after Mereseni's first week of practice school that the students were far behind the level of the textbooks, but after teaching wealthier students in Costesti, I had no idea what I was in for. In my "more advanced" half of the classes, there were many students for whom I needed to directly translate the question into Romanian, get their answer in Romanian, and then have them repeat the English answer in two-word segments. I had seventh graders not knowing how to say that they were 13 years old. But on the plus side, they all knew how to say their name in a complete sentence. I have no idea how I will teach the students who I couldn't get to say one word of English, and who didn't write a word on the test after 15 minutes. But I really don't have a choice, and so I need to start getting creative very quickly. I needed to call a fellow volunteer, Jess A., before I even got done with the five-minute walk home, and complain to her. She was having some of the same frustrations, as many of her 10th graders in Ialoveni didn't know the personal pronouns.
As a side note, talking on a cell phone while standing on a dirt road next to a pile of rocks and broken cinder blocks behind my school and in front of the under-construction church while wearing a long-sleeved shirt, pants and a tie made me feel like a stock-broker who had been sucked into a black hole and transported into another dimension, which in fact isn't too far from the facts.
The bottom line for today, and the one that I repeated many times to my host family when I got home: Eu am mult lucru sДѓ fac. I've got a lot of work to do.