I walked onto the street surrounded in a plume of evaporating body heat. The frost that lined the road glimmered and I knew the thermal shirt I wore beneath my muted flannel wasn’t going to fill the big shoes of an actual coat. As I walked across the muddy road I thought about the plastic bag tied tight on my kitchen floor. Inside it were all the clothing items I owned that were black or gray, essentially everything winter worthy, and I debated boiling the expensive clothes, something that could ruin them like my former favorite shoes and messenger bag. I crossed a street to avoid a minibus sized puddle occupying the sidewalk. I wore a Northface backpack that suggested I was either a dutiful student or a poor, bearded wanderer. The jury is still out.
Today, like many days before it, I planned on making a stand at school. I have a bad habit of coming into school hot with full intentions to stand my ground, but I waiver when I see the students in the hallway. As much as I vent and complain about Ukraine I am still a teacher and I love it when I have a chance to work with the few students that actually want to work with me in return. They are the true victims of the oppressive school system.
Once I arrived at school one of the teachers told me that I looked sick and asked why I came in. I told her it was worse than it looked. This was a lie. The previous night my counterpart called my Peace Corps regional manger and told him that I had missed too many classes. She explained that dealing with bed bugs, a non-concrete school schedule and being sick were not good enough reasons to miss so many days. I told him they were great reasons and further more that I had given sufficient notice and received feedback.
I planned on making this known and that I did not appreciate the workaround they pulled against me but when I got to school there was no one there and the teacher I normally work with was home sick. I asked several people about my schedule and everyone told me it is still up in the air.
So I left without my schedule. I wrote an email to my regional manager and explained the current situation. I signed off with, ‘Now you know and they know that this system is not working and it is not from some fault of mine. If they do not start communicating with me then it will not bother me when I miss a class and they try to complain about it.’
Drama Club! Today was the day when it finally happened. My University students were so happy to see me. One of the girls was blushing from excitement when we were all re-united. It felt great to be working with a group of kids that genuinely want to speak in English and that appreciate the work I am doing. If my only task was to work with these University kids I would love my time in Ukraine. As part of my Counterpart’s plan for my drama club she infused some of her Lyceum kids into the mix. Only three kids showed up; one of them is really good at speaking in English while the other two, a pair of girls, follow me to every activity that I do but never speak in English. They are all giggles all the time. I am hoping that they will speak more English as this club unfolds.
At the start of the club I asked them to define what a club means to them. In Ukraine they do not have clubs. The after-school club is a mythical creature that exists only in American movies about High Schools, not a reality. I like that I am breaking through these boundaries with them.
‘I would like to begin by telling you that this is a club in every sense of the word. It is just for fun and if you do not want to be here then you should just go home. This is not a class and will never be like a class. Do not call me ‘Mr.’ or by my full name. This is supposed to be relaxed and social. Just call me Gibbs.’
‘Ah yes. Ok.’ My Counterpart felt inclined to jump in. ‘Well, all the kids from the Lyceum are volunteering to be here because it is required by me for them to be here and will be good for them.’
‘That doesn’t really sound like they are volunteering.’ I said to her.
Long pause. One of the University students exhaled loudly and I had to fight off a smirk.
‘It appears you have this under control,’ She said to me, ‘I am going to go. Perhaps at the conclusion of this you will assign them some kind of home task?’
‘Well its a club and that means no homework. None. This is just a fun, relaxed environment.’ As I said this I couldn’t help but feel how strongly I was filling a stereotype. My beard is almost five months untrimmed, my plaid shirt is unbuttoned and I am wearing an earth-tone green shirt beneath it with a Buddha necklace hanging around my neck. I am wearing mountain climbing boots and light brown corduroy pants.
‘Ah ok.’ She left.
We hung out for a while after but the drama kids said they would be willing to meet again this week without the Lyceum kids. We planned on it. We’ve decided to do a Christmas play.