In the staff room all the teachers share desks, including me, because in my Peace Corps contract it is stated that I require working space within the school, like any other teacher, and a place to sit. I have my own chair and this really constitutes the bulk of my personal space.
I arrived twenty minutes early. I am always early because I am American and we are an impatient people; we tend to rush to get to our destinations so that we can be wrapped in the warm cocoon of being the first one there to wait. I have been here in Ukraine for a year and I have been unable to kick this habit.
Twenty-three hours before I sat down in my chair my Ukrainian counterpart called me. She is the Ukrainian teacher that has been assigned to me by the school to work as my liaison and cultural navigator. The more we get to know each other the more we avoid talking directly to one another. The less than one day notice to be at school is testament to the strength of our working relationship.
My half of the desk is covered in debris and it is the only one in the room that is being used for erroneous storage. There are cabinets and boxes in the room and I can’t help but feel that this is someone’s way of starting off the school year with an indication of how they feel about my presence in the building. My mission statement is to work with Ukrainian teachers to show them how to alter their current teaching methodologies to be more encompassing and interactive; in theory, that is. What they believe is that my job is to teach half or most of their lessons so that after class they can explain to me how much they disliked it. That is, of course, assuming they stayed in class to watch. Most of them just leave the room entirely.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am unpaid. My living expenses are covered just enough by the United States government that I only have to beg for money from my family if I want to eat anything aside from rice, noodles, and buckwheat. Luckily these are diverse food groups that can be eaten in a variety of different manners. I tried eating meat a few times but ran out of money by week three due to its expense.
An hour and twenty minutes after I was told to arrive to my school the meeting finally starts. To arrive early I had skipped my morning coffee. My goal was to get the coffee going while I took a quick shower but found that the water had not been turned back on. This is very common and we sometimes go most the day or a pair of days without running water. Not because there is a shortage, mind you, but because Ukraine is what I like to call ‘Almost Russia’ and it is run by corrupt politicians and the various sects of mafia, and they control where the city’s money and resources go. It doesn’t go into road repair or twenty-four hour water unless you live on the side of town where the ‘invested’ citizens live. I spent some time fuming about the lack of running water and washed myself using a bucket of cold water beside the tub. This method of washing does not leave much leisure time for drinking coffee.
When the meeting at school finally begins I find myself sitting next to a teacher that has slid her phone across the table with an English word game on the touchscreen.
‘It’ll help you stay awake.’ She told me in unbroken English.
The meeting lasts for three hours and it is in rapid-fire Russian. My language skills extend into ‘survival’ and I have not sought to develop them further. After a few rounds of the English game on her phone I slide it back to her and gaze out the window. My reverie is broken when I suddenly hear the school’s Headmistress say my name.
She tells the staff that I am still there and I wave. I never know what to do in these situations. She then tells them what my responsibilities are in case they had forgotten over the long summer. The Headmistress lists many things, none of which are actually what I am suppose to be doing, and then asks me to tell everyone how I enjoyed my summer. I tell the English teacher beside me and she translates.
‘Is it easier to teach adults than kids?’ She asked me after the Headmistress moves on to other topics.
‘Much harder to teach adults, actually.’
‘I see. It will be a challenge for you then.’
‘Yeah. Wait, what? What’s going to be a challenge?’
‘The Headmistress she tells us that you will be teaching the entire staff English. She also said you will be creating a newspaper this year as well.’
I stared at her for what felt like a long time but I am sure it was really that slow motion haze that occupies your senses while you are breaking through the veil of disbelief. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am constantly re-arranging my schedule. Currently I am a leader for two committees within Peace Corps Ukraine, a teacher at my school, and a teacher at a neighboring University. Now I find that more duties have been added to my plate.
So, that sums up my first day. Tomorrow I will go to school and find out why I was not consulted for any of these new assignments. Depending on their responses will determine if I will actually take them up. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am not a member of the actual staff. In Ukraine the management runs in that you do whatever the boss says, as if your position makes you property to be utilized how they see fit. This is something I will have to battle out.
Here is to a great new year!