It’s been a long time since I’ve taken any photos, so after (finally, finally) finishing organizing all my school’s new English books, I decided to walk around and take some photos. I “hiked,” or rather “walked on a steep but paved road,” up the mountain over my town. I am a pretty bad photographer but it’s a pretty day, so it works out in the end.
Probably the project I’ve worked on the most (or at least for the longest amount of time) but written about least on here is building an English-language library at my school. This is a typical project for a TEFL volunteer and something I’d wanted to do nearly since my first day at my school. In August I started recruiting books for the school library. This was an early, and valuable, lesson in how much people care about Peace Corps or charitable giving: many, many people told me that they would donate books, but out of all my contacts only one came through and sent books to the school.
That one person did, though, still leaves me feeling kind of hopeful. My former boss, Sallie Murphy from Murphy’s Loft Used Bookstore in my hometown, collected and mailed three boxes of books to my school in Macedonia, aided by a $100 donation one of my mother’s co-workers made after reading an article about the project in the local newspaper. Combined with a box or two of books my parents sent, and two boxes from book donation organizations, my school now has about three hundred English-language books in its library.
My school wanted more than just books, though, and more to the point: so did I. Although I’d been forced into paying the shipping fees on all the packages of books that arrived addressed to my school (about 250 denars, or $5, a box), when my school responded positively to the idea of writing a grant to get some more materials for the library, I wanted to believe that they would be more active in the project than they had been up to that point. In November I learned about a grant offered by an organization that works exclusively with volunteers and organizations in Macedonia, spoke with my school’s director and vice-director about the project and what we could apply for, and began to write the grant.
All. By. Myself.
Things were hectic at the time, and I managed to excuse a lot of things that might be perceived as failings of my school because I wasn’t doing a very good job of communicating with them. I spent most of November out of the school running regional spelling bees, and when I was in the school our meetings tended to brief, frantic, and focused mainly on the details of the spelling bee final and making sure that that project didn’t collapse at the last moment. Nevertheless, this ambitious project to purchase a computer and set up a library catalog program, to bring English-Albanian dictionaries and other reference works into the library, to organize books by suggested grade level and start a reading program which would test and track students’ reading levels – I continued writing it, because I wanted to believe that my school would get behind it, and because I couldn’t imagine what my last year at site would look like without this project to work on.
Over the month or so that I worked on this grant proposal, I brought drafts of the project proposal to school to be reviewed by the director and vice-director. That they never suggested changes or rewrites, but greeted the grant in all its iterations with praise and apparent eagerness to get things going, should have been a warning of sorts to me – and it was, I guess, except that I chose to ignore my doubt that this was a project they were wholly committed to, and kept on writing.
The last part of the grant proposal to be completed was the budget. I left this to my school, telling them that I felt it was appropriate for them to select the materials we would purchase for the project, as they would be more familiar with local stores, pricing and availability of books and other technical supplies than I would. Despite my repeated requests, they didn’t select the materials, and the day before the grant proposal was due I went to school to sit down with my vice-director and select the materials. Over the hour we spent at his desk we chose a computer, a library catalog program, and a couple of dictionaries; but much of this was done by me looking the items up on my laptop and getting his approval. When he had to leave to teach classes I asked him to email me the complete list of items for the budget, but when he wrote to me later that day it was to tell me that I should select whatever dictionaries I thought best.
This was probably the last point at which I could have put an end to the project, but again, I didn’t want to. I was beginning to suspect that the project would mirror the grant writing proposal, that I would be left with most of the work; but without the library project, I saw my second year as a blank. I didn’t have any other projects planned, and I squashed earlier ideas for regional projects I’d had after the nightmare of my regional spelling bee. I finished the grant budget and submitted the application, and when I learned in February that my school had won the grant I felt crushed rather than happy.
My school’s director announced the grant to a meeting of teachers, and the director and vice-director both seemed eager to start working on the project. We had a couple of meetings, privately and then with the school’s other English teachers, which I now remember mostly for the way my vice-director would write “$1000” on his notepad and draw circles around it. We had a time line that I’d submitted as part of the grant proposal, but we quickly fell behind. We had one meeting with the English teachers about starting the reading program, but I decided to hold off on this part of the project until the school had taken an active role in other parts of the project, such as acquiring the grant money and cataloging the library books.
Only, they never accepted the money.
Three months after winning the grant, my school has neither formally accepted nor rejected the grant money. After months of feeling in limbo, sensing that the school administrators were wishing I would give them a way out of this project, I’ve finally decided to view the project as what it is: dead. I’m tired of talking about this project as though it still might happen, of pushing the school administrators to contact someone at the bank or someone in the organization we won the grant from to learn how to deal with the complexities of accepting grant money from abroad, of feeling like it is my fault that this project has ended up where it has.
In many ways, or in the most essential ways, though, it is my fault that this project is where it is. When I sensed that my school was not committed to this project, but rather was committed to committing their volunteer to this project, I kept working. When no one at my school committed to making the budgetary decisions on “their” project, I kept working rather than seeing where this would end up: with my school expecting me (rather than their bank or one of the countless NGOs in Macedonia that accept grant money from abroad) to “get” them the money when they ran into the minor roadblocks offered by the Macedonian banking system. When I confronted my doubts about the value of putting a computer and cataloging system under the care of a librarian who by his and the director’s admission is not the man for that sort of technology, I kept writing the grant.
I made a lot of mistakes, but the biggest was in forcing myself to see exactly what I wanted to see in the months leading up to the grant application. If I were writing this grant again, I wouldn’t write a word of it until someone at my school had offered me details, in writing, of what they wanted this project to look like. I would not have written one line of the budget. I would not have pushed a project because it was interesting to me, that my organization couldn’t really commit to.
I waited until the beginning of my second year of service to write a grant. During training I’d heard a lot about the nightmare of grant writing, and that many volunteers regretted grants they had written early in their service. I think that part of me believed that because I had waited so long to write a grant, I had landed on something that my school would work on with me; I had after all taken the time to get to know the school, the teachers, the students, the community.
Time is not all it takes to write a successful grant, though, and in my impatience to come up with a project to fill my second year of service I ended up with a project that left me, for months, dreading going to school because I knew I would have to have yet another discussion with the administration about our failing project. The stance I took about a month after we won the grant, of “I’ll help you, I’ll tell you what to do, but you have to do the actual work” is one I should have taken much earlier; if I had, this grant never would have been written, and I may have found a project that my school was genuinely committed to. I suspect that in future I’ll look back on this second year of service with a lot of regret, because in my eagerness to come up with a project, any project, I wound up with one that didn’t (and couldn’t) work, and spent my second year at site doing little more than running English clubs and playing Simon Says to get kids excited for their regular English lessons.
Back in October I applied for a Fulbright grant to study in Albania. Ever since, I have been dreading learning that I maybe actually got the grant. I don’t want to say I’m ready to leave the region because that just doesn’t sound good – but I have felt this winter and spring that Macedonia has beaten me.
Last week I checked my email after a long day of spelling bee semi-finals to find a message from a woman from Fulbright asking me to give her a call. I applied for a dual-country grant, and when I spoke with her learned that Macedonia rejected my grant (to study Albanian culture – so, maybe I should have expected that) but Albania still wanted to award me the grant. My initial reaction, something like, “Why is my life so unfair? Why did I have to win this grant? Why me? I want to go back to America and eat a burrito a day for the rest of my life” faded over the weekend, though, and I started to feel – I guess happy, a lot happier than I have been here recently. Things turned for me when I looked up photos of Elbasan and realized that (a) Elbasan is a city and (b) it’s a pretty city and (c) if I live in a city I’ll have a lot more privacy and draw a lot less attention than I do now.
After lobbing a healthy number of questions at the organization, I’ve accepted the grant. After I finish my service in Macedonia in October I’ll be heading straight over the border to Albania, where I’ll be studying and doing my research in either Tirana or Elbasan. I’m excited, and I also feel more present here in Macedonia than I have for a while. Knowing that I’m going to be in the region for a third year, I feel inspired again to study Albanian; tomorrow I have my first language lesson in months, and I’ve been finding myself doing nearly-forgotten things like downloading Albanian subtitles for movies and reading the newspaper, Koha.
Another advantage of the Fulbright? I’ll be taking the rest of my vacation days to visit America this summer. I am already making lists of all the foods I am going to eat and things I am going to do. I can’t wait.
What I’ve got so far:
* eat a giant cookie from Reading Terminal
* go to a Phillies game
* get a beer and veggie burger from Nodding Head
* go to a grocery store
* eat edamame
* buy a burrito on my way home from the airport
* ride my bike
* go to one of those Indian restaurants (I’ve forgotten their names now) in Old City
* get my teeth cleaned
Smiles, smiles, smiles.