Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Easter Redux

Hello again! How’s America? Ukraine is good.

The past two weeks, as I said I would, I’ve been teaching lessons on HIV/AIDS and human trafficking after school. The first week, I went to School #1 and taught a section of the 9th grade there. I’d like to reach more students, but I’ll take what I can get for now: the plan is to have a big training seminar next September so that local students and teachers can get the resources to teach these lessons themselves after I’ve left.

On the third day, I showed the movie “Svetlana’s Life” on my laptop – a short movie in Russian that I think I’ve mentioned here before. It’s just text and pictures, with classical music playing in the background, contrasting the history of AIDS in the world with the life of a Ukrainian woman who becomes infected with HIV. When she learns that she is HIV+, the music cuts off abruptly and a black bar appears over her eyes, and those of other HIV+ people. As she becomes more involved with HIV education, etc., the music rises again and the black bars disappear. It’s in Russian, so I’m not too clear on the specifics, but I can always tell how effective the movie is at the point when the music suddenly cuts off: because there’s no dialogue in the movie, some students will invariably whisper a little during the beginning, but by the time the music stops, the room is dead-silent.

Things were slightly more comic for me on the second day, when I arrived at the school over an hour early. After waiting in the teachers’ lounge for a while, I asked an English teacher where the bathroom was. Now, Peace Corps Volunteers in Ukraine quickly become experts in where the nearest bathrooms to any given location are, and the quality of same often informs our daily decisions, like where to have lunch. However, I was not familiar with the facilities at School #1. The teacher stood to leave the room – to show me where to go, I thought – so I started to follow her. She told me to sit and wait, and she left. Several minutes passed. I started to wonder if there was some special teachers’ bathroom (these things exist) that she was getting permission for me to use. Then she appeared at the door with the other English teacher, and beckoned for me to come. Now I started to panic: thinking, Oh no, maybe the building doesn’t have a bathroom and now they don’t know what to do with me, I’ve embarrassed them, etc. I walked over to them, and they indicated the classroom across the hall, where I had taught on the first day. Before my mind could begin to process what this might mean, one of the teachers explained that they had gathered the students, and were now ready for my lesson. They thought I had been asking to start my lesson early. I’m not sure why – maybe I mumbled and they thought they understood but didn’t . . . oh well. I just got my things together and went ahead and taught my lesson.

Back at School #2, my students have been good. My 5th graders have been getting pretty hyper, maybe because of summer approaching, or because I’m fairly lax with my groupies. It’s been taking them longer than usual to grasp new vocabulary – but they’re still energetic. An example:

Virginia Robertivna: What does “free” mean?
Groupies: Tre!!!
VR: No, not three . . . free!
G: Derevo!!!
VR: . . . no, not tree . . .

My 6th graders are split into two groups, and at the beginning of the year, one of these groups was significantly quicker than the other. I always got at least a page’s worth of material farther with the first group, every time. Well, strangely enough, by this point in the year they’ve switched places! It’s good news – the first group hasn’t gotten too much worse, it’s mostly the second group improving.

However, this Monday the second group was gutted because the teacher down the hall had claimed the best students to show off in her demo lesson that period. I was left with the students who never spoke at all. We went ahead with the story of King Arthur as a boy anyhow, and, with a lot of acting out and translation, we got through a good part of it. They’re well-behaved students, just not good in English, and unfortunately it’s almost impossible to catch them up when most of the class is so far ahead. A lot of students here seem to be passed from each grade to the next as a matter of course, like the students in America who end up in middle school without knowing how to read. I wish I had more time with them alone, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m not very knowledgeable in education theory (to say the least), but it seems to me that the perfect secondary school would have lots of kids, almost as many teachers, and very small classes. Lots of kids to help keep a claustrophobic clique atmosphere from developing (so, more like college), and lots of teachers so that there could be lots of clubs and activities (again, like college) and tiny, tiny classes. That’s my totally uninformed theory, and it would probably cost an obscene amount of money and be impossible. Unless it had the same tuition fees as a college would, too.

The week of after-school lessons at the Technicum went well, though several students insisted on speaking German to me (a foreigner is a foreigner, I guess).

On Thursday, I decided to plan something special for my 8th graders. They had recently studied “cosmonauts” (and “astronautics”), and all the jargon made me think of the skit from The Muppet Show, “Pigs in Space.” I happen to have one episode, in audio form, on my iPod, so I decided to bring it in. I typed out the dialogue for them, and attempted to explain the humor behind the characters’ introductions: “featuring . . . the redundant Captain Link Hogthrob, the arbitrary First Mate Miss Piggy, and the ubiquitous Dr. Julius Strangepork.” The scene centers on Miss Piggy asking to perform the “electrifying mid-course correction,” a procedure she studied for eleven years. Captain Hogthrob is reluctant to let her, because she’s “a woman,” and in the end his mistrust wins out and he pushes the button himself – but pushes the wrong one. The students thought the dialogue was funny after just reading it by themselves; but when I played the clips and they got to hear the characters’ voices, they went nuts.

On Saturday, I went to the store to find egg dye like the kind I bought last year. I bought ten eggs to dye, and Nina gave me four more of her own. She then stuck around to watch me, and pointed out everything I was doing wrong for about twenty minutes. (This is, I guess, what having a mother-in-law is like?) She couldn’t read the instructions on the packet because the text was too small, so she had to trust my version of them, which I guess she didn’t. [Which reminds me of a funny story about life with Nina. Once, I tried to force some food remains down the drain that did not want to go, and so, clogged the drain. I bought Meester Muskle to unclog it, but couldn’t understand the instructions at all, because they were in Russian. She couldn’t read them because they were too small, so I read them to her and we figured it out together.] She then borrowed the green dye and made four pretty green eggs of her own in the outdoor kitchen. We ended up with eighteen eggs of various colors, plus a few that she dyed somehow with an onion, according to an old Ukrainian tradition. I’ll put pictures of the eggs up soon . . .

Sunday was Orthodox Easter, so Happy Easter again! I started the day with Nina and her family, and didn’t have a break from eating from then on. My coordinator Lyudmila’s daughter Yana came over with more eggs, chocolate and a pretty cloth depicting a Ukrainian Easter scene. After that, my friend Ira and her husband picked me up to join their family. They had me over for Easter last year as well. She’s my age (with a three-year-old son), and used to be an English teacher at the orphanage, but now teaches at the Technicum.

We went to her aunt’s house and ate a lot of food, and then to her parents’ house where, thankfully, most of the food had been eaten. Taking advantage of the lull in eating, Ira decided to do my make-up. I insisted that I had put on make-up that morning, but no one believed me; I tried to explain my subtle technique, but it was no use. She took out a big compact filled with different shades of eye shadow, and asked what color my eyes were. Maybe she meant what color I wanted my lids to be . . . but in any case, she used green, and a lot of it. I was a little shocked by my brief glance in the mirror, but looking at the picture I took of us together afterwards, I see she actually did a nice job! Maybe a little more lipstick than I would use, but for green eye shadow, it doesn’t look bad (again, pictures soon). So, I spent the rest of Easter as a painted lady.

Ira and her husband then collected the extra food from her parents’ house, and we went to meet their friends for a picnic. There were seven of us: Ira and her husband, me, Ira’s brother and his girlfriend, and the godmother and godfather of Ira’s son. They actually refer to the godparents as “Godmother” and “Godfather” in conversation – or, “Kum” and “Kuma.” It’s pretty cute. Everyone had a few questions for me about America, and Kum brought up the approaching election. I was trying to explain that it wouldn’t be a choice between Hillary, Barack and McCain, but between two of those, and they got stuck on Barack’s name. They thought it was funny – though I’m not sure why any one non-Slavic name would appear stranger to them than another. Surely, McCain sounds a little weird to them too, lacking v’s as it does. I attempted to make him more than just a funny name to them by telling them about his trip to Ukraine a few years ago, and his encounter with the traditional Ukrainian dish “holodets” (an example of which we had jiggling on the blanket). He referred to it, I think, as “a questionable meat-jell-o dish” (it’s in his second book, look it up!). So, they thought that was funny . . .

At one point, when I was speaking Ukrainian, Kuma said that I sounded like Mrs. Yushenko. I laughed, but I think it’s a compliment! She’s the First Lady, and a Ukrainian-American by birth. The picnic was very nice, though I found out that Ukrainians my age are just as insistent on making me eat as their elders are. Kum actually took my fork and put food on it for me.

The night ended, as you might expect, with gunfire. Well, it did. As the sun was setting, I looked up to see Kum holding a gun. I was pretty freaked out, but it turned out to be a bee bee gun, and I calmed down when I heard the tiny noise it made when it fired. The men took turns aiming at a cup and an empty plastic bottle, without much apparent success. I guess my experience in Ukraine would not have been complete without some time spent watching a man gesture expressively with a gun while drinking vodka.

In other news, I’ve just about finished watching the last of the DVDs of TV series that my family and friends generously sent me two Christmases ago. See how I’ve made them last? To be fair, I have watched a few of them multiple times, and on several occasions when I would have moved on to a new one, I found I had lent it out. So, on my own behalf and that of all the Volunteers in my oblast who’ve enjoyed them, thank you again for the DVDs!

Finally, thank you to Kristen for the very cute letter! That’s about it. I hope that you’re all doing well. I miss you, and am looking forward to seeing you in roughly six and a half months.

Love, Virginia


At April 30, 2008 7:28 PM, Blogger ScienceGirl said...

Hey - I am a Ukrainian in the U.S., and have been reading your blog for a little while. I thought I'd de-lurk to suggest that Barack sounds funny to Ukrainians because it is pronounced exactly like the word "barrack" in Ukrainian.


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