Sunday, January 30, 2005

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Oops I forgot to mention... So in my zeal to write about a number of different things last week, I sort of forgot to mention one of the more important and pressing issues of the week. As I mentioned in a posting over a month ago (I think sometime in November) one of my students qualified for the oblast (state) English competition. Well, that competition was held this past week. The competition is one story that I will comment on directly in a moment, but one of the things that left me most disturbed and most irritated was something that happened in one of my prep sessions with the student a week before the competition. The student (the same one who I mentioned last week said she stupid before I came) and I were talking about the competition and how she felt about it. It was then that she told me that she did not want to disappoint her teachers and her director. It seemed from our competition that her primary concern was for that and not for her own success, which is respectable in some ways. The problem came when she told me that our director had told her that he (and all of the teachers) would be disappointed with her if she placed anywhere lower than fourth. I don't know how many teachers out there are reading this, but that to me is just absurd. A student should be encouraged to do the best they can and not worry about how others do. You can't control how other students do at a competition, but you can control how well you do. That is the case especially when you consider the situation. Here is a student who didn't place in the top 2 or 3 in the rayon (county) competition last year, from a school that is poorer than pretty much every other school represented in the competition, that has fewer hours of English a week than many other schools, and that is located in a village of 2500 people. I love our village, and we have great students, teachers, and administration, but the simple fact is that most students from such a poor school in such small village with so few hours of English a week are eliminated before reaching the oblast level. She had already beaten students from schools with more money and more hours to get to that point. She was so nervous about reaching a certain rank arbitrarily established by our director that she forgot to be proud of what she had already accomplished. Needless to say, I felt obligated to have one of Brian's fatherly moments with her. I told her something that my parents told me years ago: as long as you do your best there is nothing to be ashamed of, and if you do the best you can, we'll always be proud of you. I told her that I didn't care if she placed 1st or 10th as less she did the best she could, and not to worry about what others think beyond that. She can only control herself. Besides, I reminded her to make certain that she had fun. I hope maybe she learned a little something about that notion being proud of yourself, because you know that you did your personal best. So the results... Well, I returned from 4 day long training (Peace Corps likes having a number of trainings) and went straight to the competition where I thought I saw that she had placed 9th, and when I saw her she didn't seem all that happy about it. Apparently, those results were not the final results, because when I got to school the next day, I learned that she had actually placed, of all things, fourth. I was proud of her for making to the competition, but the look on her face when she was being congratulated by the teachers and by the director warmed my heart. A smile on a student's face is a beautiful thing. At one point she turned to me and told me that she would try to do better next year. Next year? Don't worry about next year. There is something to be said for taking a moment to enjoy your accomplishments this year. The smile on her face got even bigger when I had her class applaud her as we told her that we are proud of her. I guess it is nice that she got the designated place, but I am just so proud of her ability to focus despite that and do the best job that she could. That she made it that far and did that well speaks volumes to me about the quality of people in this village. Other recent events: We recently had our Mid-service Training (MST) that was a good bit past our half-way point. Peace Corps made the great decision to not push us to spend too much time being trained in our jobs, but instead allowed us to hear some interesting information about our country, and to spend a lot of time reconnecting with friends we haven't seen in a long time. It was particularly great for me, because I have only one really good friend living near me, so I got to see the rest of my close friends here. That, and I got to have some great conversations with some people with whom, despite the fact that we have been here for almost 500 days, I have never really gotten the chance to speak before. It was pretty much 4 days and 3 nights of very tame parties (ie we were adults and consumed some adult beverages, but we kept things on a reasonable level). It was just a whole lot of fun. I can only hope that when the curtain falls on this whole thing I will get to maintain some of these friendships.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

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Are you kidding me? I think it is probably part of being a teacher in general, but much of my time here I spend wondering whether or not I am successfully teaching anything at all. I suppose a lot of this has to do with the fact that results come slowly, and often that little move forward takes so long that it is virtually impossible to perceive, or maybe it is my own blindness that makes it difficult for me to see any sort of progress. I am a firm believer that often as students we do not realize until later in life the lessons taught by out teachers. That is the hope of a teacher isn't it? That eventually someday something that you have taught will click with a couple of your students, and they will benefit from it. In my experience it is a rare occasion when a teacher actually gets to see the fruit of their labors, so you can imagine my joy when a student a turned to me the other day after a tutoring session and said in perfect English, "Brian, before you came I was stupid." Those are words that I will never forget. Such a good student saying something like that. I almost cried when she said those words. I really wanted to ask if it was a joke or something. You spend so much time working with somebody and you think that you have accomplished nothing only to find-out that maybe you actually are making a difference. This is particularly special as, this is the student, if you have been following along, who I watched cry when she failed to make to the second round in a very competitive English competition, but who then one the 10th grade English section of the regional academic competition and as a result will be competing in the oblast (state) wide competition next week. I don't know that she is accurate in her statement, but if she thinks that, then I must have at least taught her a little something. Words like that mean more to a teacher than students will ever know, so I encourage you to find teachers from years gone by and drop them a note to let them know that you have done something with everything that they gave you. It will mean the world to them. No such thing as a stupid question? An 8th grade teacher of mine (Mrs. Blackford (sp?) math at Maryville Middle for those of you from Maryville reading this and feel free to pass along to her that I am still quoting her if you know her) used to say that there are no such things as stupid questions. I generally agree with her about that. I encourage my students to ask questions at all times (albeit it would be better if they were at least somewhat related to English class instead of being about my personal life when I am trying to teach prepositions), but I have found at least one exception to the rule: I have this English teacher who likes to ask me every time she sees me whether or not it is cold (this is not a bad question coming from home as you folks are not actually here so to know the answer you must do more than look outside). The first 50 times I thought of it as sort of a machismo question to see whether or not the weak American is crushing under the pressure of the Kyrgyz winter, so I would jokingly respond that it was hot, but after a while I have started to find it an annoyance. I mean let's look at the empirical evidence for a moment shall we? First, there is between 1.5-3 feet of snow outside. In other words, our village is blanketed with snow. Second, my boots freeze solid while sitting inside of the house overnight, and it takes them the better part of 2 classes to fully thaw in the morning. Third, bodies of water that are normally fast moving are frozen solid, and by frozen solid I am not referring to some pansy thin sheet of ice over the top, I mean people are driving horse-pulled buggies over them without breaking the ice. Fourth, there is snow on the inside of the windowsill of my classroom (in other words it actually snows from outside into my classroom where there snow remains unmelted). Finally, the guys on the street corner drinking vodka have finally headed inside. The squatters, as volunteers lovingly refer to them, are more dedicated than the US postal service claims to be (neither wind nor rain...), so when they have headed in because of bad whether, you know its time to pack it in. So, in answer to her question of whether or not it is cold, hell yes it's cold! Come on! You don't need me to tell you that when the snow stays for weeks without new snow coming, rivers start to freeze, and the squatters head for home that it's a tad bit lower in temperature than one might normally be accustomed to. Not normally me... When I lived in the States, I tried not to eat too much meat. I always liked respecting my fellow living creatures. In fact, many rightfully so, referred to me as Buddhist Brian. Thus, it was a bit of stretch for me the other day when I started shopping for my first fir hat. That's right folks, I am now the proud owner of a dead muskrat that I where proudly on my head to school everyday (I can here the appalled gasps all the way over here). Normally, I would be appalled at myself for doing this as well, but as I established in my previous section, it's damn cold over here, and besides, Peace Corps encourages us to try to fit in with the local culture. I know many have laughed at the site of me over the last week in my new hat, but I think many have also seen it as a funny side to Brian and have appreciated getting to see that part of me. I must admit, I look really funny with this thing on top of my head, but there is some appreciation by the locals that I am starting to dress the part of a local teacher (one teacher commented that now all we need to do is get him to where a Kyrgyz coat and Kyrgyz pants (no way on the Kyrgyz pants I am a bit big for most of what they offer other than these comfortable Adidas rip-off warm-up pants I am currently wearing)). Thus Buddhist Brian finally found his way to fur. What's next? I don't know, but the gold teeth that many here sport are starting to look good... I am pleased to announce the arrival of the first 73 of 109 boxes of books to my village. I spent last weekend in Bishkek hiring a long-haul 18 passenger van (in Kyrgyz: marshrutka) to carry the books back to the village. It was a pretty impressive site to have my own marshrutka to carry the boxes. It took the five of us involved in the carrying of the books almost 45 minutes to get them all into my room. I should also note that I now have a little less space in my room, as the boxes now take-up a good little chunk of it. It is absolutely wonderful, and I am enjoying getting to open a new box everyday to enter its contents into the computer. I have turned this into a bit of a larger project than was originally designed by doing the computer work, but I would rather take the time and have a solid inventory for the village when I leave than leave them with something that may quickly become unorganized. In other news, it is with mixed emotions that I announce that our Country Director (head of Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan) has announced his resignation and will be returning to America (or is already there). Joseph made a lot of contributions to the program here. It expanded the various programs that are being undertaken, and he forged an invaluable bond with the Kyrgyz government. Those contributions amongst others cannot and should not be overlooked, but in some ways, it also seems that the time has come for some new blood. Joseph had been here longer than almost any country director ever serves in his/her given country, and at times when an administration stays for that long ill will is based from one generation of volunteers to the next. Joseph did more than almost any volunteer will acknowledge, and it is a shame that the memory of him in so many volunteer minds will be only the negativity which permeated through generations of volunteers for mistakes that were made and not a balance of the good and the bad that he brought to the job. (I hate to do this here, but given the nature of Peace Corps, I respectably request that this (or anything here) not make its way into print without my knowledge (discussion between friends is always welcome). I say this not because I am unwilling to stand behind my statements, but rather to heed to preferences of Peace Corps an organization that while I have my issues with, I generally respect.) As many of you know one of my favorite things about life is the random absurdity of it all. I suppose that once again, this was exemplified by a recent event at school: When our vacation started on the 29thish of December (there were a couple of days there when it was touch and go) we were told that vacation would officially end on the 13th of January, but that it would not be out of the question for that to be extended to the 17th. Getting vague approximate dates about the start of school is nothing in and of itself new. The only thing that seem set in stone here are the first and last days of school (and those dates never change even from year to year). That said, nothing here starts early. I mean nothing (with the rare exception of the bus that is running to minutes early, but in that case it is probably more accurately said that the bus is running 50 minutes late), so you can imagine my surprise when I was approached this past Tuesday evening by one of my host brothers and informed that school would be restarting a day early (ie the next day). To be honest, I was a bit irritated as it was after five in the evening, and I have a different set of classes on Wednesdays than I have on Thursday, so I was forced to do a bit of last minute lesson planning, but I'm flexible guy, so I made it work. The next day, I woke-up at my given school time, did my morning routine, and I went to school. When I got to school I found it pretty well deserted. Uncertain of what to do, I went home to find my counterpart, and she said that we should go to school and see what was happening. By the time we return 5 teachers (including us and one of the assistant directors) and 3 students were at the school. I suppose we could have taught the students, but nobody seemed to think that that was all that good of an idea, so I was sent with the rest of the teachers. Thus, school was canceled, and our school administration learned rule number one about vacations: once the date is set, they may not end early. I'm not certain who made the decision to make the change in schedule that was made, I don't suppose that I should really be all that surprised. Just when I start to think that I figure-out the logic to it all, I am surprised by a new twist. I love this country, and one of the things that I love about it the seeming lack of logic that permeates society. You have to cancel the first day back to school because you rescheduled it for a day earlier and failed to inform more than a handful of people about it. It is absolutely absurd, and I love it for that. I suppose a year ago, these kinds of things frustrated me, but not now. Now, I simply go home and work on whatever is next on my list to be accomplished. Oh yeah, and I smile and laugh as I think about, and I write in my journal hoping that those reading this get some enjoyment out of the absurdity as well.