Notes on Returning to School

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After two years in Macedonia, I sometimes find myself believing that there’s nothing new for me to see here, that nothing has the ability to surprise me anymore. I’ve walked down streets surrounded on all sides by sheep, I’ve sat outside drinking coffee ten feet from the cow my family’s slaughtering, I’ve gone up to strangers who I’ve been informed are holding on to my missing cell phone for me and gotten the phone back (people here are so honest it continues to amaze me; when I visited the States in July I needed constant reminders not to leave my cell phone on a bar while I went to the bathroom, or my bag unattended on a train), I’ve seen twelve-year-old students of mine driving station wagons down the street.

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What going back to school for my last few weeks is showing me is that there are still surprises in this country. Among the second, third and fourth graders whose classes I’ve been in, there are three or four girls who have started wearing head scarves; and not just scarves, but hijabs that cover their entire bodies from head to wrists to feet. In two years I’ve never seen a girl at my school dressed like this; not even the older girls have ever worn head scarves, at least not in school. It was a shock the first time I saw it and I’m still wondering what has changed in the last year that brought such a dramatic shift in how some of my female students dress.

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A few families must have moved back from America this summer, because many of my classes now include students who speak flawless, unaccented English. Yesterday I was giving instruction to a third-grader I’d never seen before when he stopped me and said, “Speak English! I know English!” And honestly, I love standing in the room listening to that NJ, NY region accent, which to me doesn’t sound like an accent at all.

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It’s so hot that my school has shortened classes to thirty minutes and shifts to two hours, total. I went in at 8am today and left at 10, walking through a crush of older students coming in for their 10 to noon shift. Even last year it wasn’t this bad; we never had a shortened day for the heat. Also, it has rained maybe two times (for a total of ten minutes) in the past two months, which is upsetting to me because all heat should be accompanied by enough humidity that you feel like you’re being walloped every time you step outside. And because it is unnatural to apply lotion in the middle of summer.

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I’ve already written too much on here about the library grant I helped my school apply for last year. Today I was walking out of my school when the director and vice-director asked to speak to me, then launched right into grant discussion. Had I talked to the grant organization? Could I take the money into my own account? Could I get the money for them? Could I tell the organization to give the money to Peace Corps, who could then give it to my school? (Answers: of course, but I stopped six months ago when it became clear my school would never do the grant; no; no; no.) This probably shouldn’t be surprising to me, but it is disappointing and frustrating. I spent a lot of time struggling to get my school administration to care about the grant they had asked me to help them apply for. That they are suddenly asking the same questions they were asking me when we won the grant nine months ago, and that I answered repeatedly and honestly (see again: no, no, no) makes me want to cry, because this isn’t something I want to be negatively coloring my last months of service.

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On a more positive note, A. and I made cookies today. They turned out well. Really well!

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3 responses »

  1. Sometimes I think life is mostly about big disappointments and frustrations with the small joys (baking cookies) mixed in, and maybe focusing on those happy things is the key to sanity and tranquility. That grant story is similar to a lot of my experiences where I get really frustrated and then have to remind myself, “Sometimes, no matter how clearly I communicate to people, if they are not making themselves receptive to that communication, or if they are interpreting it in some other way, there is nothing more I can do. I’ve done everything and my best I can do.”

    • Yeah, I think you’re right about the small joys. I’d rather focus on those things and make my last few weeks in the Peace Corps a positive experience. Yesterday when A. and I were starting to make cookies I was still worked up over the conversation at school (she had come over about two minutes after I got home) and tossed her out going, “I can’t make cookies! No! Not today!” Then I felt terrible, of course, and went over and apologized with this explanation that the director had something stupid to me. And it was fun making the cookies, and those are the things I want to focus on, not my frustration the school administration is blaming me for the failure of a project I tried so hard to get them to work on. I don’t know quite how to manage this yet. Run in the other direction every time the director or vice-director approaches? Develop selective hearing?

  2. Hmm, sometimes I try smiling and acting sweet but dumb. Like I don’t know as much as I do. Since there might be no way to convince those people that THEY are the ones who dropped the ball/didn’t give you what you needed/did something counterproductive. A former place of employment of mine was like this. I would get instructions for something and try as I might, could not get them in writing (which is how I tried to handle things after the first mini-disaster for which I unfairly got blamed) and then later, it was as though reality changed when my back was turned – suddenly I would get, “Remember, I told you to do (blah blah blah, totally the opposite of what I was told to do)” and even if I was like, referring to notes with documentation and dates, the response I would get is something flustered or totally unrelated or just a really belligerent, “No, that’s not what happened.” And also that day, the sky was green and left was right and everyone walked backwards and referred to each other by their last names.
    It’s most frustrating when you get that response from people who are acting (fake) nice and smiling at you.
    I’ve found turning that back around on them is an effective way to handle things. If nothing else, they decide that you are this kind yet poor stupid person and leave you alone.

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