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.)


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