Friday, December 21, 2007

Snow and Ice; or, “Virginia Robertivna, the devil is coming!”

Hello again. The Peace Corps gospel about the second year going faster than the first must be true – I communicate with the outside world much less than I did before (when I wrote mountains of letters home regularly) – and I barely notice . . . but then I remember, and feel guilty. Sorry! I also feel like I have fewer interesting things to say – the things that used to seem like something to write home about now seem normal to me.

In my last real entry, I even forgot to say that I went to a wedding (vice-principal’s daughter) – it just didn’t come up in my mind when I was trying to think of things that had happened recently. In any case, I did go – I brought an odd number of flowers (even is for funerals) that weren’t yellow (yellow is for death or saying goodbye) and some money (also a traditional wedding gift). I was nervous about the yellow tones on the backs of the rose petals . . . but I was assured they weren’t too yellow. I and the other teachers who came to the reception waited for about an hour and a half for the couple to return from taking pictures, and then we ate a lot of food. Besides the general things about Ukrainian weddings that get on my nerves (you see brides every Saturday in every city, so you have plenty of opportunities to critique the wedding gown styles . . . and to get tired of the dove-releasing routine), it was cute. They played a game where the bride and groom stood back to back with two flowers each – one color representing the bride and one the groom. Then they were asked questions about who would be in charge of various things in their future life – cleaning, raising children, cooking, etc. It was funny to see the differences in their answers, or when they agreed. The groom was willing to help with a lot of traditionally female jobs, and lots of times they raised both flowers – but not when they were asked who would get to count the money they got that night. Speaking of money, the guests raised more with the game of stealing one of the bride’s stiletto shoes and holding it for ransom. I left with my coordinator and her husband before the all-night dancing in the freezing cold outside the café began . . .

To finish off the semester, I gave my 6th through 11th graders a writing assignment. Some of them even did it! In their defense – writing papers just doesn’t seem to be part of the routine in schools here, if by “writing” you don’t mean “copying a text from some book.” I tried to make it difficult to plagiarize by writing lots of different questions that focused on what they thought or felt about certain things (mundane things, don’t worry, I didn’t get political). But of course, as I discovered with a few of the papers, where there’s a will, there’s a way. My questions ranged from “Do you think it’s important for someone to decide what they want to be early in life?” to “If you could have a super-power, what would it be and why?” After introducing the idea of an opinion paper and, for the older students, a thesis (and where to put it), I crumpled up slips of paper with the questions written on them and let each student pick one. Even the kids who don’t understand a word of English were excited about that part (though I’m sure the discovery that the paper just held more unintelligible words did something to dampen that enthusiasm). Everyone was looking at each other’s – though I made sure to go over the question, Why did I give you different papers? They knew the answer – they know I don’t like the days when I see the same homework answer in everyone’s copy book – but that doesn’t mean they all care.

I also tried to introduce the idea of a first draft and a final draft. It seems I mostly got either one or the other, but not both. For me, it’s enough to have just introduced the idea – next time (and there will be a next time) it will be easier, hopefully. After my semi-successful attempts to collect the first draft, I sort of let the idea of a due date go for this time. However, a few dedicated students didn’t forget – and even without begging, I will occasionally look down at my desk and find a paper about someone’s favorite movie or opinion on whether pets should be kept outside. They often label their “thesis” statement (or, for the 6th graders, “theziz”), but it can show up at any given point on the page, top, bottom, middle, or back. Overall, I got about 4 or 5 per class (out of 20something). The ones I got mostly turned out to be great! An 11th grader who never speaks in class wrote that she’d like to be telepathic (fitting, now that I think of it); a 10th grader would like to change the way young children are taught English, and to incorporate more games and pictures into their classes; a 9th grader likes “The Last of the Mohicans” and wanted to be an Indian when he was little, etc. etc. Only one, that I could tell, was straight from a textbook, and there were only two instances of multiple people (two or three) turning in the same thing. So, I hope to build on that next spring!

As I wrote before, I showed “A Christmas Story” to our big city English club. I forgot how wordy the narration is – how they sort of play off the simplicity of the story by making the narration dramatic and full of five-dollar words – but they seemed to get the gist fine. None had heard of Little Orphan Annie before, or “hip shots,” etc., but nothing crucial was missed. I showed it later that week at my school, and I’m sure that much more of the dialogue went over their heads – but there’s so much visual humor (the tongue on the telephone pole, the lamp) that they were all laughing anyway (and looking back at me to make sure I was laughing too). So, thank you to Kimmy for sending it to me!

In the past few weeks, the snow has really arrived. It was pretty, and then people walked on it and it froze, so now it’s just sort of treacherous. However, I have my Yax Trax grips for my boots, so I’m not afraid. Last year I only really needed them for two days (and only had them ready for one), but this year I’m erring on the side of caution. Plus, it’s nice to keep my trek to school only a half-hour long. Also, after finally deciding that I could not live at the temperatures my baba housemate, Nina, does, I have broken out my PC space heater. I think I waited so long because I was scared of having to make a Plan B – what if this dinky little heater wasn’t enough for my high-ceilinged room, or only heated a four-inch radius around itself? But it’s great! At medium setting, it makes things comfortable enough that I no longer live in my fleece jacket, or overtly dread emerging from the covers in the morning.

You may be wondering about the title for this entry – well, the other day, as I walked out of school, one of my 6th graders said the funniest thing anyone has ever said to me in Ukrainian: “Virginia Robertivna, the devil is coming!” When you hear that, you really can’t ignore it, so I looked around the corner and saw that one of the 11th graders had a crazy Halloween-style demon mask on. Not earth-shaking, but worth it for the quote.

My younger students continue to be wonderful and enthusiastic, my older students (9th through 11th) not so much. I’m working on it. The 5th graders are addicted to hangman, and almost all of them have asked to have my phone number. Occasionally one will come by the classroom and give me candy or a little gift, very cute. With my 8th graders, for the last couple of weeks, I taught O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” which I read in 8th grade (albeit much faster)! They understood it very well, and were appropriately giddy when they realized what had happened at the end. Did any of you ever see the SNL parody, with the Trumps? So funny. Donald sold a yacht to buy Ivana a gold-encrusted door for a mansion . . . but she sold the mansion to buy him an anchor for the yacht . . . and then they realize they can just buy more stuff.
My plan for the 8th grade was interrupted by a scheduled “open lesson” – the circus-like affair when teachers and administrators visit your class, and the students show off. They prepared for days with my coordinator, memorizing questions and answers, routines for activities and “games” (is it a game if you know how it’s going to end before you play??), etc. etc. etc. The theme was authors’ lives, so they all claimed to be devoted to Rudyard Kipling or Alan Marshall (whom they have admitted to me that they never heard of outside of their textbook, and neither have I), and have mock conversations in which they frenetically rattle off dates and facts about the authors’ lives and upbringing, in the presence of visitors who don’t understand a word they’re saying. I was allowed ten minutes to show off, myself (though I didn’t rehearse with them beforehand), so I taught about O. Henry’s life: how he was accused of embezzlement, ran to Honduras, returned because of his ailing wife and subsequently served five years in prison, where he worked at the pharmacy! Who knew?! (Wikipedia knew.) So that was a little something different for them . . .

My last fun story about school is the English club I did this past Tuesday on “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Six of my hard-core devotees from the 5th and 6th grades attended, and they were a very good audience. I passed out the poem and read it, having the group translate as we went along, with the help of colorful pictures I had drawn. Then, I played an MP3 I have of Art Carney reading the poem to a jazz beat (don’t ask why I have this . . . I have a lot of Christmas music), which they thought was funny, and they read along with him. Then I explained the phenomenon of “a cappella” groups at colleges, and played the Gentlemen of the College singing “Merry Christmas Chopsticks” – the poem, sung to the tune of “Chopsticks,” very funny. I made my coordinator a CD of Christmas music so she can repeat the activity, if she wishes, with the same pictures next year . . .

Speaking of which, I will indeed be home in less than a year, now! This means a couple things. One: you have less than a year left to visit me. Seriously. Ever wanted to see Ukraine . . . with a free translator/guide??? Two: you have less than a year to take advantage of my poetry for news exchange (see previous posts).

And, in the meantime, I’ll be trying to get my act together and figure out some projects I’ve dreamed up. Attention: if you know of a person or organization that might be interested in supporting (monetarily) a Peace Corps grant project in Ukraine involving either public health and education, or the preservation of Jewish heritage and history – please, please let me know. Thank you!!!

Merry merry Christmas, I miss you all and hope that you’re having a wonderful holiday season. I get to see one of you this week, though! Mary E. is meeting me in Germany for my vacation and much needed switch back to the Gregorian calendar (e.g., Christmas on the day it should be). Enjoy yourselves, eat lots, keep in touch and I’ll write again soon!

Love, Virginia

P.S. If you didn't notice, am taking advantage of fast internet in Kyiv to put huge pictures up . . . (the cat is Clara's)


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