Monday, May 26, 2008

Time on My Hands Now

Today was the final bell that marked the end of this school year. Hurray! A very big hurray! I’ve finished my first year of school. I got through the English Clubs, Teachers Meetings, Classes and various other events without losing any fingers or toes!
Looking back on my year, I definitely see room for improvement. I can spend more time making sure my students are engaged in the material and are really learning it, not just regurgitating the lesson. End of the year testing I think reflects as much on the teacher as it does on the students, and most students did not do as well as I’d hoped they would.
I think overall though, it was a good experience and I’m going to consider it warm up. I only spent 6 months at this school instead of the full 9 (the first three months were at my training site). Next year I will have the entire school year, from first bell to last, to work with my students and perfect their English…or at least get them all to say Good Afternoon instead of Good Morning at all times of the day.
Slava, my counterpart, is no longer going to be a zavuch (vice principle) because the Education Department doesn’t think our school needs two. He’s happy with the decision because now he can take more classes. He tells me that he will work with the elementary students (those are the cute 3rd and 4th graders) and younger grades. I’m excited about this because I enjoy those kids and am eager to work with them as well. He’s also going to take more of the younger grades, 6-8th, which I also enjoy.
Let me switch it around and tell you about this final bell ceremony. As you can guess based on previous posts, it was an event marked by music and speeches. The graduating 11th graders paraded out of the school in their uniforms to rhythmic clapping and stood beneath their balloon arch. Various speeches about the end of school and taking the next step were given by teachers and administrators. The 10th graders and 1st graders both made presentations to the 11th graders. It was actually fairly similar to an American graduation, except it was also a ceremony for the younger grades.
There was another ceremony inside the school where the 11th graders sang songs to thank their teachers. This was the time for tears! Oh man, it was like watching sprinklers go off in a line. The first girl started crying, then those next to her joined in, and it continued down the line. Hopefully they were all happy tears.
Sadly, for the 11th graders, their school isn’t over yet. They have another week of consultations with teachers as they prepare for their big exam, the ENT. Every student takes this and is tested in the typical academic subjects plus one of their choosing. Only one kid is doing English, but that’s fairly normal. This test decides their academic future, even more than our SAT’s do. Depending on the subject you choose you will enter your field of study and get a job based on that.
Anyway, that’s on June 2nd, and their final graduation ceremony where they get certificates is on June 20th. I imagine they’re all fairly nervous.
Now I’ve got about three weeks to sit around, trying to think of things to do. On the 15th I have an English camp here in Zhelezinka where I will attempt to teach baseball. On the 23rd our Frisbee camp begins which is pretty exciting. Right after that, I’m coming back to you guys! August will be my slow month, with much sitting around. All throughout summer I will also be running English Clubs as normal, so that’s at least something to keep me busy.
Lastly, I have found a new host family. I will be moving in with them on the 1st. Highlights include: cows (no geese), chickens, sheep, a summer kitchen, running water (no indoor toilet though), a live in grandma and grandpa and another wild toddler (though this one seems quieter). They seem like a friendly and warm family. There will be the before mentioned grandparents and baby, plus the mom and her brother. I imagine this will work out much better than my last family, I’ve got faith.
That’s all I have for you guys. My brother is planning a big bash including soccer and BBQ to which everybody is invited. I’ll get anybody interested my new mailing address once I know what it is. See you all in July.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Potato Stories

It’s amazing how much perspectives can change in a short time. 18 months doesn’t seem that long when you’re living with fun, entertaining people. 43 days seems like forever when you’re waiting to see people you love and miss. And 50 potato holes don’t seem like much when you have hundreds more to dig…
Last weekend was potato planting time in Zhelezinka! There are fields that spread out over the step, tilled by the government and sold to families and organizations that need somewhere to plant their potatoes. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into when I piled into the car with Slava, his wife Tanya, best friend Sasha and Sasha’s mother, Vera. We had a trailer with several sacks of potatoes, four shovels and some buckets.
The trip was over dirt roads that remind you of the 25 cent massage beds in cheap motels. After a short search among fields, looking for our specific plot of dirt, we pulled up next to a strip of dirt that looked like any other to me, but Tanya assured me we got stuck with bad dirt! The nerve of these people! Giving US bad dirt.
There were people all over the place, digging small holes and tossing chunks of potato into them. That day at school many students were absent, and excused, because they were planting potatoes. The process is pretty simple, but the more people you have the better. At least two people are required, and three makes it twice as fast.
The first person starts to dig small holes in a straight row. A woman, typically, follows with a bucket of potatoes, tossing them into the holes. Another man follows, digging new holes and tossing the dirt into the first hole. Potatoes are also thrown in his hole. In our case, we had three men so I came last, making the third line and filling the second holes. It was pretty efficient and I was impressed. The first day we worked about 3 hours, until we ran out of potatoes. I wasn’t feeling too tired, and didn’t think it was too bad.
The next day we went out to the fields at 9 am. There were even more people, and this time we were planting Sasha and Vera’s plot. It was wider than the first one, which made the work harder. We continued the process as before, and after a few hours my forearms were really starting to kill. We took a lunch break: tea, hard boiled eggs, pickles, cucumbers, radishes etc and then set back to it. It was a six hour day and by the end I was pretty beat.
We probably planted over 1000 potatoes. I imagine I personally dug over 300 holes. I also managed to get a slight sunburn, though Slava and Sasha, who didn’t use my sunscreen, got it a lot worse. I enjoyed the work though, being outside in the nice weather and being able to mostly zone out during the work. In August I’m going back to dig them up, which I’m told is a lot more work…
I’m in my final two weeks living with Slava and his family. Peace Corps wants me moved out, but family searching is not going so well. Apparently there are some families out there that want to host me, I just need to visit their houses with Slava some time and see my options. I looked at an apartment for rent, where I would be living alone, but it doesn’t look like it will work out.
I pay 20,000 tenge a month to families to stay with them. That includes food, rent, utilities etc. The man wanted 18,000 just for rent, and I would have to buy furniture, utensils etc. Tanya figured it would cost about an entire months pay (40,000 tenge) to get settled in, and then 25,000 to 30,000 every month, something I can’t afford. Other problems would be the loneliness. Living alone I would not have somebody to talk to every day like I do here. My Russian would suffer and I think homesickness would be much worse. Finally, Tanya warned me that some of the dumber people in the village, when finding out there was an American living alone, would come and vandalize my apartment, throwing rocks through the windows and things like that, so it’s better if I don’t live alone.
That said I never really wanted to that much. In Seattle, I might enjoy my own apartment, but I can always go visit someone and hang out, or they can come to me. My friends here are still pretty limited, and we only hang out in the space we see each other regularly. I have my soccer friends that I play soccer with, I have teacher friends I see at school and I have Nora’s friends that I mooch whenever Nora and I hang out with her friends.
That’s all that’s new in life here, as far as I know. I’m counting down the days until I get to see you guys. Now that I have bought a ticket, thoughts of home occupy a lot of my time. We’re also getting all the work done for our various camps we have coming up, which should keep me somewhat busy in June. It’s the last week of school and everybody is getting a bit antsy, this guy included.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Little Rascals and More

Mark your calendars everybody. July 2nd to July 19th. I’m coming home! I’m hopping on three planes and spending 24 hours to arrive in Seattle (still on July 2nd). I’ve got some plans already in motion, others still in planning phase. I have a feeling my time will be scarce though, so book me in advance, and I don’t take personal checks.
Okay, that’s covered. Other news. First off, fishing. I went fishing when I first arrived here, in the winter. That was okay, but really cold. I have now discovered that fishing in the spring and summer is no different, except it’s a bit warmer. There’s no reel on the poles here, so you just kind of toss it out there and watch it drift back towards you, hoping the fish think the corn kernels and seeds are more appetizing than they appear. I went with four of my students: Albert, Dima, Sasha and Dasha (the token girl).
We met up at the school at o dark 30, fishing poles slung over our shoulders, and trekked out to the river in the morning twilight. I pictured myself walking along with Spanky and the gang, and wishing I had had a river or lake nearby my house that I could walk to through fields as I grew up.
Sadly, we didn’t catch a thing, though the kids claim there were some nibbles, I somewhat doubt it. After awhile fishing degenerated into wresting matches and throwing contests. I easily won the wrestling contest (I almost weighed as much as all three combined). It was a really good time, and I feel that I bonded with my kids. They also managed to get my phone number out of me, so they have called me almost everyday. “Can Mr. Whitehill come out and play?” Not today kids, he’s got grown up things to do.
Frisbee has also been catching on here lately. Nora and I (mostly Nora) have put together a Frisbee camp for the end of June, and so we brought them out to show off. I’ve got to say, I’m pretty sure my kids will dominate this camp. They’ve got the form, the energy and the can do attitude! Though, as Nora pointed out, they are also tiny. Some of my 7th graders look like 5th graders. But that’s okay cause the Little Rascals taught us that it’s heart that really matters.
Other things: holidays. In traditional Kazakhstani style, the latest holidays have been celebrated with singing, dancing and costumes. There was the 1st of May celebration, which was a cultural show. Schools and other organizations were given a culture to represent that lives in Zhelezinka. They came in costume, sang traditional songs and dance and occasionally food. My school represented the Caucuses (white people). The winners of that portion were the Ukrainians, who had recently bought new costumes and danced every chance they could get, showing them off.
The other events were fitness competitions. The first was jump roping and my (ex) host sister Ramzea dominated that with 115 jumps in one minute. Most people couldn’t finish the minute, so props to her, I didn’t know she had it in her. The next was lifting a weight over your head as many times as you can in a minute. I was tossed in to help represent our school. I pulled off a gentleman’s 26 lifts. The winner did 63, but I’m pretty sure he was juicing. I asked for a drug test, but no dice. I won for the most laughs though, because on my 27th lift, I tried to sneak my left arm in there to help. You should have been there, it was hilarious. On paper, not so much. The final event was tug-o-war, which our school was terrible at, but we won one match by forfeit, which was enough for us to get 2nd place overall in the entire competition!
There have been two other holidays in quick succession here as well. Young soldiers’ day, which, as you can imagine, involves the older students dressing up in uniform and parading around. There was a chemical weapons suit relay race, another race carrying a girl around, marching and shouting contests. Our school managed to get 1st place in this competition. This was followed by singing and people laughing as a small child tried to drag his brother out of the middle of the circle.
Finally, today, 9th of May: Victory Day. World War II is still a massive event over here. With the millions of Soviet soldiers that fought in the war, every village, no matter how small, has dozens of men who fought, and plenty that died in the Great War. They honor their soldiers greatly here, as incredible heroes. The day began at 10 o’clock at my school with a service to honor the village hero, Babin, who has a statue in front of our school. It moved onto the park, where there was another ceremony. I didn’t get to watch this though, since I was on the soccer team.
Earlier this week, soccer season started, and it’s been pretty good. I have become pretty rusty, and I’ve got a list of excuses why I’m not playing as good as I am…and here they are: horrible bumpy fields, 8 months since I’ve played, no jerseys to distinguish players, bugs, lack of vocabulary for soccer. I think they’re all pretty good excuses. I’m getting better every time though, and once I get enough practice, everybody will be happy again.
Anyway, there was a big 11 on 11 match at the park today. I was put on the team with 3rd school, in the small blue uniform. It was a good game, and I played my best yet (uniforms, better field, a little practice earlier) and had a good time. I didn’t appreciate being put at midfield though, and being told to constantly run back and support our 6 players defending two of theirs. It didn’t make sense, but who am I to argue? In Russian. Our team ended up winning 4-2, and I didn’t do anything to amazing, but I didn’t make any big mistakes either, so hurray for that!

The day ended with a bbq back at my house. Slava invited a couple locals over and Nora came as well. We BBQ's Shashlik (meat kabobs), had salad and played frisbee. It felt very American, except for the Russian pop music playing in the background. It was a really good time, and very relaxing. I can tell you more about it when I see you in July though.
That’s going to end this update, except for a few quick notes: I bought pointy slip on shoes because I lost my old ones, so now I look more Kazakhstani. Summer seems to finally have arrived. We had snow on the 3rd, but today it’s 30 degrees Celsius (that’s pretty hot). I’m still looking at for a host family to take me in permanently; I’ve got two lined up to look at next week. School is going well, but it’s all turned pretty lazy as the end of the year gets near. That’s all; see most or at least some of you in about two months. Take care until then.