Thursday, April 06, 2006

O Fata Gravida

The dreaded three bells rang. It was time for a faculty meeting.

Faculty meetings never occur before or after school. They happen during the school's 10-minute break periods, and they always run over. That leaves the students, without supervision, to run wild in the classrooms and hallways for 15 minutes or more, and it leaves teachers with even fewer minutes of class than the already insufficient 45. This was why when I heard the three bells before class with my favorite grade level, I cursed out loud. Luckily, no impressionable children or parrots were in my classroom.

Three minutes later, our director came in and we all seated ourselves in the teachers' lounge around the wooden tables. Even more teachers were standing, leaning against the windows. By this point in their careers, all of the teachers, even the younger ones, practically have their spots reserved.

Doamna Maria, the school director, rarely has anything mind-blowing to bring to our attention; usually it's just the mundane details of running a school. That's why I was surprised to hear the first words out of her mouth:

"We've had to expel a ninth-grade student because she is pregnant."

The girl was named, and the faculty clucked in unison. Doamna Elena, the gym teacher, had a notably sour look on her face as she stood near the doorway in a blue track suit with her arms crossed and her knees shoulder-width apart.

Although the girl is in ninth grade, she isn't a 14 year old like in the U.S. I believe my director said she is 17, but that seems way too old to me, so she may only be 16. Evidently, the lucky guy is also from Mereseni and has been living with the girl's family for a short while. Whether the pregnancy was planned or not was not brought up in our meeting, but since 16 is the age of consent for sex and marriage in Moldova, I can't see why this would be too surprising for my fellow teachers.

At this point, Doamna Galina, the old rotund librarian with her requisite babaВ mole, asked me if we had pre-schools in America. This seemed like a strange question to ask me at this time, which made me question whether I had understood the context. I said yes, but was shushed by another teacher before I could clarify. Two minutes later, the topic came up for the entire room.

"They have preschools in America," Galina said to everyone. "Peter said so. Isn't that right, Peter? Students just drop their kids off at preschool and then go to school? I read about it."

"Well, it's not exactly like that," was the best I could muster. "But we don't kick them out of school if a girl has a problem."

I can't stress that wonderful Moldovan law enough: If you're pregnant, you're kicked out of school. That's it. Doesn't matter how much potential the girl has. Doesn't matter if the grandparents are home and can watch over the kid once it's born. Your education is over.

No matter whether or not this law changes in the future, it won't help this particular girl. What interested me was the reaction of my co-workers, mostly middle-aged women.

My director told us she was planning to focus on the subject at tomorrow's assembly with students from fifth through 11th grade. The emphasis would be telling girls that they should stay away from boys and not engage in "this kind of behavior". Other teachers agreed with this idea, saying that they see some of the eighth grade girls at dances hugging the boys. I turned backward to look at my fellow English teachers, the youngest in the school beside me. Both of them were smiling, and Sveta, 25, was doing her best not to crack up.

"Oh no, hugging!" she said in Romanian, audible only in our young corner of the room.

I responded in English, "It's a generational gap." They both smiled even a little more.

Meanwhile, the room was still wondering how to save their female students from boys (note the assumption that boys are simple-minded beasts trying to corrupt these innocent girls). Doamna Eugenia, in her 60s but with an open mind that eludes many of her younger colleagues, mentioned that saying it at an assembly was not enough. This topic needed to be brought up in a smaller classroom environment, where it could be discussed. I seconded that idea.

"I think it would be better not to even mention it at the assembly," I said, although my Romanian was faltering because I wasn't sure what I was trying to say, even in English. "If a child hears something and has a question about it, he or she isn't going to ask it in the middle of an assembly with 150 kids around. It's something that needs to be done in small groups, where kids can ask questions."

I couldn't get a good sense of how well my suggestion was heeded, but at least I said my piece. Soon afterward, the meeting ended, already five minutes into class time. As I walked out, I turned to Sveta and said in English, "Just show them STDs. Tell them they'll get pregnant. Then show them how to use a condom. Done." I then repeated my earlier refrain, "It's a generational gap."

Out in the hall, I noticed who the first four people out of the room were: Sveta; Aliona, the third English teacher; Doamna Larisa, the life skills teacher in her early 40s, and me. We were the only people who knew that giving kids facts works better than just telling them no.

This incident has pushed me to do some things for which I had not previously seen a need in my community:

First, I need to make myself available for support to my students, even though my oldest students this year are only in eighth grade. Especially in a village, where everyone knows one another and one another's parents, kids don't have a person to turn to when they have a question about sex and relationships. Can you imagine being 14 and asking one of your teachers about sex? It's hard enough in America, let alone in a village where your teachers grew up with your parents and in a country where any talk about sex and condoms is taboo. In this sense, Peace Corps volunteers are one of the best resources for this kind of talk. We are strangers in the village, so our loyalty lies with the kids, not the kids' parents. We come from a culture where these topics are discussed relatively freely and where students are informed about these things starting in middle school, or even younger. We might also appear safer for the kids, since after we leave in two years, no one in the village will know what the kid's question or situation was.

But merely keeping an open door is not enough, as I realized today. I want to organize some sort of health seminar with the school's life skills teacher discussing the physical and emotional consequences of having sex at an early age, especially unprotected sex. Hopefully, Doamna Larisa will be willing to work with me on this; maybe I can pay her in the poker lessons she wanted.

Situations like that of this ninth grade girl do not go away by ignoring them. They need to be discussed, and today I realized that I need to break the ice.


At 12:07 AM, Blogger Charles Myers said...

I remember the concert we went to (multiband loud concert at San Jose State with Green Day, No Doubt, etc.) where they were handing out condoms to everyone who entered the arena with an anti-AIDS message. And the main use of them seemed to be to blow them up as balloons. And this was nine years ago (and Peter was in 8th grade). Your story makes me appreciate what we have here in America.


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