Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Hazards of Running Village Spelling Bees

The Hazards of Running Village Spelling Bees

I’ve made occasional reference here to the regional spelling bee I’m running with another volunteer. Things are finally getting underway; we’ve run three spelling bees on Monday will start the big (and probably painful) push, with seven spelling bees over two weeks.

Part of the reason I wanted to do a regional spelling bee, besides seeing how much fun my students had when we did a bee in my school last year, was to give kids in this region a chance to win such a competition. Last spring there was a national spelling bee, a great project but one that frustrated me because the students who have a shot at winning are the ones from families with enough money to send them to private English courses, and the ones who live in places (Skopje, Bitola, Kumanovo) that have such courses. Competing against students who have been taking private English courses since they were eight years old, what chance does a student who’s only learning English in school have?

The way we’re doing this is to visit all the participating schools to run preliminary bees, and to invite the top three students from each grade to compete in the final bee here in D. I’m already seeing fault with this way of doing things, because a village that has four sixth graders competing will almost inevitably send students who don’t know as much English as the top three students from, say, my school, which will probably have about fifty sixth graders competing for those three spots.

The first two bees were in Rostuse and Trebiste. They went well and were a lot of fun, not least because they were easy for us to get to. There are a couple villages, though, that we’re not so well linked to, transportation-wise, and last Tuesday we ran the bee in one of those villages, Zirovnica.

Zirovnica is about fifteen minutes from Rostuse, on the road, but then a thirty-minute walk from where the kombi dropped us to the village. We ran the bee and got out of there in time to be back on the road at eleven, which we’d calculated to be maybe fifteen minutes before the Skopje – D. kombi would pass by. Only the weather was bad, with a mixture of rain and snow, and strong wind, and freezing, so time passed very slowly, evidently for both us and the kombis. A kombi for Mere’s village came at 11:45 but I remained by Zirovnica, figuring that I at least had a shelter to stand under there, and that traveling fifteen minutes down the road to stand in the rain wouldn’t make my kombi come any faster.

And then I waited, and waited, and there was still no kombi – there wasn’t any kombi, for any village, or any taxi, no nothing, which is one of the disadvantages of not living in or near a city. There were a lot of five minute stretches with not a single vehicle passing, broken finally by, say, a truck of cows. My freakout increased as I figured that if the fast driver was doing the 9:20 from Skopje he could have been past Zirovnica before we got to the road, which would mean I’d have about two and a half hours to wait for the next kombi. I spent my time usefully, frantically calling the kombi cell numbers to try and figure where my kombi was, trying and failing to get a taxi from Velebardo to come twenty minutes down the road to Zirovnica, chasing down one unmarked kombi that turned out to be going to Zirovnica, and sending Mere increasingly panicked text messages until finally at 12:35 my kombi trundled into sight. This was a relief because my hands were so cold that each text (“Oh my god get me out of here get me out of here”) I wrote took about three minutes, and I was beginning to worry I would somehow fumble my phone and drop it into the river, thereby dooming myself to an even lonelier death than I was already facing.

I know that in the year I’ve had this blog I’ve portrayed myself as a pretty Strong Woman (taking half an hour to kill one bug, sitting in front of my heater eating chocolate, etc.) and I hate to destroy that image now, but I flagged that kombi down like my life depended on it (which it felt like it did) and quickly ascertained that it had taken three and a half hours to reach Zirovnica because of transmission problems. Or I guess I ascertained that the driver couldn’t shift gears and the engine sounded like it was eating itself, which my dad says means transmission problems.

It took us an hour to get back to D., with a twenty minute police stop. About an hour after I got back in my house feeling finally reentered my hands. I am looking forward to the seven semi-finals we have yet to run, but not as much as I am looking forward to about five pm on December 18th, when this will all be over.

On the cheerier side of things, I went out to buy colored paper for the participation certificates today, and one of the women in the library store told me her son (who attends the other primary school in D.) is going to compete in his school’s semi-final. It is pretty cool to have people talking about something I’m helping to run.

(My internet is insanely slow, so come December 1st [read: fresh bandwidth] I’ll put up a few photos from Zirovnica.)


On Taking the GRE in the Peace Corps


Yesterday I finally, finally took the literature GRE. I spent months making flashcards and reading poems for this exam, gaining an appreciation for Carl Sandburg, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Matthew Arnold. My most significant preparation, though, was probably either sharpening 10 pencils and buying a new pencil case, or training myself to get up at 5 am so I could wake up chipper and ready for my combi ride to Skopje.

Only, this being Macedonia, things didn’t really work out, and I wound up waking up at 6:30 on test day, and being kind of pissed at myself for having worked so hard on waking up really, really early and not taking any naps for two weeks. Because I was in Rostuse to help run the first two semi-final spelling bees in the regional competition I’m doing with Mere, I had to travel to Skopje from Rostuse on Saturday morning. Neither of us thought to question that on a Saturday there would be a 5:45 am combi, and on Friday we did the spelling bee in the morning, then about five hours of na gostis, and then I headed back to her place to study while she went on one last visit.

And, thank god, she went to visit the family that runs the combi to Skopje, and found out that there wasn’t an early combi on Saturday. She ran back down to her place, I threw my stuff in my bags and started frantically calling people to find a place where I could spend the night, and then we speed walked down her mountain to wait on the road for the last combi out of D., the 5:30 to Gostivar.

At 9:30 I was in Skopje, and got a cab to another volunteer’s apartment, but spent something like 25 minutes driving around making panicked phone calls to said volunteer saying, like, “I don’t know where I am! I think I should just go to a hotel!” until I spotted a familiar muddy street, yelled, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and stumbled out of the cab with all my bags and 200 fewer denars and tried to calm down from my night of total, unadulterated panic enough to go to sleep.

I paid about twice as much as I should have for another cab ride in the morning, to the city library (this is why it pays to know something about Skopje, I guess, since my cab directions all go, “Yeah, this is the right way” until I realize it isn’t and direct the cabbie to head in whatever direction he thinks might be more suitable), where I was the only person taking the exam. Or, let me rephrase this: I was the only person taking a subject GRE, period, which meant that for the first time in my life I was able to take a test in total silence, without wanting to claw out the eyes of the person kicking the back of my chair or tapping their pencil or flipping pages too loudly. I guess there are some benefits to taking the GRE in Macedonia.

After finishing my exam at 12:13 I ran down the stairs and out to the street to see – yes! – a baby combi with the Hisari logo on its hood. I waved it down, it turned out to be heading to D. (they sometimes use this van when they run out of space on the regular combi) and after being chastised by the driver for not calling and telling him I would be waiting, I was on my way home. And since then I’ve been laying on my sofa recovering by reading The Hunger Games and making masks with A.

I’m sure I’ve learned some important lessons from this experience (like, don’t count on the combi schedule being what you think it is, ever, and don’t think you can find your way around Skopje at 10 pm when you’ve been in the city eight times your whole life) and unfortunately I am probably going to use them when I’m taking the general GRE and redoing the lit one.

In other news, Bajram is on Tuesday, which means a lot of sheep and ram slaughterings at my house. When I came back yesterday I got dropped in the center so I could buy an envelope and a couple groceries, and my host dad picked me up in the combi on my walk home. I looked behind me and the combi was full of sheep. Good to be back.



Last year I repeatedly claimed (to myself only) that I would do great things for the American holidays. My students could learn about Christmas and Secret Santas; they could write Valentines to one another; they could…well…that was as far as I ever got. I’m not the biggest holiday person so I find it hard to get real excited about teaching my students about holidays I actively dislike, like St. Patrick’s Day (I am not Irish). But at last, after nearly a year of celebratory inactivity, I got off my ass and did some Halloween activities for my fourth graders.

I did this three times (once more than intended, because one teacher charitably decided to give me her review period so she could go home early), and as usual it got better each time. We read about a quarter of Little Witch’s Big Night, just enough so they could learn what cobwebs are and what happens when you say “trick or treat.” I was stuck on teaching them this phrase because I had a bookbag full of candy I wanted to get rid of so I wouldn’t eat it (I only halfway succeeded), but it took a while. Most of the kids thought of the phrase as a request for either a trick or a treat, and naturally didn’t want a trick; but once one figured it out the whole class would start yelling “Trick or treat!” and holding their hands out, trying to claw their way to the front of the group to guarantee they got candy.

Lesson learned. Yesterday I was trailed home by ten fourth graders yelling “trick or treat!” and I’m curious to see how long this lasts.

This was not all, though! In my dedication to teaching each and every one of my students about each and every American holiday I forget to celebrate every year, we also made masks out of paper plates and played Hangman (the latter may not have that much to do with Halloween I guess). Photos: