(frolicking in the ancient ruins, Crimea. Thanks for coming, father and mother!)
Although most of you have probably stopped wasting your time by checking for updates on this blog, let it be knowne that this is my attempt to revive it. I know, it’s been a while. I know, I probably will have a lapse sometime in the near future as well. But for now, I have the wherewithal, and the computer, to crank out a few entries (and post the ones that have been in waiting for months [see below]). One reasonable excuse is that my laptop has been out of commission for the better part of the fall semester. Miraculously, (like this blog) it was revived by a local computer guru (they are everywhere!), who only charged me $4 for a job that likely took hours. I thought this Dell was down for good. And although there’s an internet cafe in town, I have concluded that it is the most difficult place to concentrate ever, due to the exclusive company of dozens of screaming 12-year old boys playing Warcroft, or Warcraft, or whatever it is. Either that or they’re flanking your chair and conducting a mass interview with you, which is always flattering, but certainly not productive for any internet-related goals you may have had for the hour.
Another reasonable excuse for my temporary blackout is my inherent laziness and disregard for keeping my friends and loved ones informed of my daily adventures in a remote corner of Ukraine. There, I said it. Ouch.
So anyways, it’s been a year. The one-year mark is a time for reflection. I thought it would be a time for triumphal celebration, for elation, and any other ‘-tion’ words that might afford me the desired sentiment, but it’s mostly just reflection. I think that the TEFL program might be unique as a Peace Corps project because the fruits of most of your efforts are located in the brains of small children. As such, it is inherently more difficult to measure than, say, a latrine project. There is really no need for latrines in VP, as this is not a developing country. Ukraine has an infrastructure, albeit a markedly different infrastructure than ours, but the real focus of my efforts here is on education and educational reform. My toils are on a blackboard. This can, of course, vary from volunteer to volunteer. I consider myself lucky in the fact that I am treated as any other member of our school’s ‘collective’ (staff). This is not so for all volunteers, and they seek to fulfill the needs of their communities in other ways. I am happy to have been afforded a great deal of responsibility as a teacher, and I thoroughly enjoy spending most of my days in the classroom. So, when this reflecting started, I was wont for some tangible evidence of my work. I started teaching at School #1 in late January. What did I have to show for it? I honestly couldn’t compare the language level of my students back then to their level now. Looking back from December, those first few months of teaching were just a blur. But I wanted to see something. Some days of the week I could be working at school from 8 to 4 (that really is a long teaching day my friends). Was it making any difference? Did they respond to my teaching style, did they even understand me most of the time? I hadn’t asked these kinds of questions for an entire year, and now, at the one-year mark, it had suddenly become an existential crisis.
But hark! Every year, Ukrainian schools conduct a sort of academic Olympics for the 8th-11th formers, called the ‘Olymiads’. First the competition is school-wide, then region-wide, then state. Compare it to leagues, sectionals, and states in some varsity sport. So, two weeks ago it came down to the regional competition between about a dozen schools in our ‘Rayon’. Each school sends a competitor in each of these four forms. Last year, our school’s top place was 5th, given to an 8th former whose mother is an English teacher. This year’s results, to my delight, were a little better: for the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th forms my students scored 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd, respectively! Although these students have always had wonderful teachers, I’d like to think that I also had something to do with their improvement over last year. At least, I found it evidence enough to stop asking myself if my TEFL-related work was helping anyone here. I think and hope that it has. The results of the state-wide contest have yet to be heard, but in any case the news made me happy. Walking home from school that day, I was elated until I opened the apartment door. I felt a cool, sub-zero breeze. I looked in my kitchen. The entire upper section of my window had been blown off its rotting hinges and straight into my apartment. Shards of glass were everywhere. My entire window had fallen..out..of..the..wall, frame and all. My elation quickly subsided. I slowly, carefully started picking up long shards of glass out from under my refrigerator. Another day in UA.
I found out that there is an oracle in my town. If you were to come to VP for yourself, you’d find a little riverside municipality of 20,000 blessed with paved roads, two outdoor markets AND a supermarket, five schools, a fountain, and a golden statue of V.I. Lenin. You’d see cars on the streets (a few) and babies in the strollers (a lot). Then you’d see a nondescript apartment building on a side street near my school, with a few sickly-looking people occasionally lying in the grass outside. I didn’t actually notice them until late spring of this year. It was a particularly hot day (records set throughout all of Ukraine this summer), and I was wondering what/why/how these people could be laying in the waist-high grass in such conditions. At least they could walk to the fountain and lay in there, as I myself was tempted to do. I was walking home from school with my coordinator at the time, Svetlana, and I brought it up. She told me they were in line. For the Oracle. At this point I thought I knew my town, but this was news. An oracle? Yes, she said, a young man whose powers had become apparent as a young child. One who can see into the future, one who can heal the sick. Svetlana said that although he is rendered immobile due to a muscular disease, he’s keeps a separate office apartment and a full-time staff of schedulers. As my coordinator continued to inform me of his near country-wide fame, her dispassionate tone about the whole thing made me inquire further. Had she ever been to see him? She had. Many years ago, to ask about the future. She had been told that she would be happily married, with many daughters. Ten years on, she is a single mother with one son.
Still, although we have cars on our streets and babies in our strollers, I don’t think there are too many oracles in the US that can boast a scheduling staff.
(excerpt from journal)
I am lying in a train, as I will be for the next 15 hours. Final destination- home. It’s late July and I’ve spent the better part of the last two months on the road. Summer gives us TEFL volunteers a chance to get out and about, spending some time away from site at summer camps, in-service training sessions, language refresher camps, host family visits, committee meetings, weekend excursions, and the like. I’ve been through it all, and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks of R+R at my site before I’m off to Berlin to meet my parents (and bring them back here, of course).
At this moment, I feel that I am affirming a certain Peace Corps stereotype (the stinking, traveling, unshaven one). I’m lying barefoot on my train bunk, with dirty feet hanging over the edge and into the aisle of the car. One of my toenails is gory and shattered, due to a very unpleasant encounter with an uneven cobblestone street in a cheap pair of flip-flops. My hair was cut last night by two amateur, but enthusiastic, Peace Corps Volunteers in an empty corner tub at a youth hostel in L’viv, Ukraine. I haven’t shaved in four days (this, of course, not being anything new) and, although I’m tempted to go into detail, I will simply state that every article of clothing on my person has been worn for no less (and likely more) than three days. That, and I am lying in a puddle of my own sweat, as a 3rd-class cross-country train ride in the middle of July will do that to you. It is a consistent 100+ degrees in this train car, with no chance of ventilation to speak of. The windows don’t open. My snack-pack of caviar-flavored croutons is gone (don’t judge me until you’ve tried them), and I’m wondering what will sustain me for the next 15 hours, as the train stops rarely, and even then for only two minutes at a time. I always fail to have the foresight for things like personal sustenance, but this is the longest train ride I’ve taken in the country so far. For yea, it is summer vacation, and I’ve convinced myself that I deserve it by riding lots of trains. There is no better way to celebrate summer in Ukraine.
I’m traveling from the far west of the country back to the ‘middle east’, on my way home from one of the most stunning cities in the country (the previously aforementioned L’viv). Historically, L’viv was populated by Poles, Germans, Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, and the Rus, and has been subject to many rulers over the centuries. The city, however, has retained its distinctly European heritage, and a walk through its old city center (the entirety of which is preserved on the UNESCO World Heritage list), might be confused with a walk through Prague, or even a town in Italy. The weekend spent in L’viv was like a weekend spent in another country. It was such a shock, only because my ‘own’ corner of Ukraine has a completely different look, feel, history, and language (I tried to pull out the old Ukrainian the west [as I speak Russian at my site], but realized that it’s still woefully inadequate). But in order to understand this country, where it’s been, and where it’s going, one needs to spend some time in both the east and the west (and the south, at that). Check, check and check!