© 2011 Daniel 002

Darling You Got To Let Me Know…

Dear friends…

I’ve hit the one-year mark and the slow thaw of spring has suddenly turned into this burst of activity. Some of the new challenges are proving to be difficult to handle and I’m regularly asking myself if I should stay or should I go. Even though perseverence has won out so far, I feel these stressors chipping away at my will to stay in this country.

Meanwhile, progress is being made on my work and I feel compelled to stay and see things through. I regularly work with every class between the first grade and the seventh grade. The opportunities for observation have helped me put together plans for English programs this summer that should greatly improve my students’ speaking and listening fluency. If it’s effective, maybe I will be able to convince other teachers to rethink their approach to the classroom.

If you’re interested in how the Bulgarian school system works, read on; If not, skip down three paragraphs. Classroom discipline is extremely poor and fistfights often break out during classes. Many students don’t bother to listen and will outright refuse to participate in activities they deem uninteresting. Truancy is a problem at all grade levels, but is especially serious at the later grades with entire classes occaisionally missing from class. The grading system has adapted to this, and many students still earn a 5 (American “B” grade) despite performing solidly in the F-level by American standards.

University entrance admissions do not require a CV or teacher recommendations. Placement is determined by entrance exams, so there isn’t a direct connection between good marks on high school coursework and admission to a university. I’ve heard that the university-bound rate at my school is in the ballpark of 5%. Those who do graduate from a university tend to leave the country in search of better job prospects, either in Europe or in the American Midwest, resulting in a brain drain the country already cannot afford.

Primary and secondary schools have progress measured by nationwide tests. The tests for English are inappropriately difficult for non-native speakers and are given at short enough intervals that teachers are forced to cover material faster than even the best students can reasonably learn. Because of the rapid course pacing, students retain little information and need to relearn much of it the following year. The 5th, 6th, and 7th grade textbooks all introduce students to the past continuous tense, but good luck finding even one student able to form more than two sentences correctly with it.

The current system is broken. And unfortunately, because the greatest problems are trickled from the top-down, real change is unlikely to come by the work of any number of Peace Corps volunteers. At the same time, passivity isn’t the answer because well-educated young Americans oughtn’t stand by idly while the young Bulgarian generation suffers from the Ministry of Education’s ineptitude. A futile effort is only a hair away from no effort, though, and it’s infuriating to work on a horse that doesn’t want to drink.

Personally, the frustrations are exacerbated by racism and unacceptance. I’m regularly called a “motherfucker” and flipped off, sometimes by the very students I am teaching. Some people, after I walk by, will call after with a “konnichiwa” and mock Asian-speech. A few kids thought it would be brave of them to shout “fuck you” from the school’s 4th floor window while I was working on outdoor activities with my 4th graders. I grit my teeth. The insults bother me less than the thought that these kids are part of Bulgaria’s future, a future that I’m making my own sacrifices to build but they would put so little investment in and have so little appreciation for.

This past week had already been extraordinarily trying. Without going into too much detail, it involved a mafia taxi, spoiled groceries, some rope, stepping on metal shards, kicking down my own door, and a hangover. The problems here just don’t take a rest. If it’s not a broken water heater, an electrical fire, or a medical evacuation to Thailand, it’s something else. It’s clear now why everyone in town tells me to find a girlfriend and get married: Fixing everything alone in this country is well on the path to insanity. (Well, also that many marriages here occur around 18-20; At 24, I’m kind of the village’s male spinster.)

All that said, there have been a lot of bright spots in my work here. I had a lot of fun at the annual May 1 village picnic. I ate a ton of food, played ultimate frisbee, and had a chance to meet some more high school students. Hanging out and socializing helps people understand that I’m not some sort of strange, alien foreigner. I eat Bulgarian food, I speak Bulgarian, and I can get along well with Bulgarians. The vice-mayor was excited to have a picture taken of him cooking some rabbit. I asked him where he bought rabbit meat and he told me that he caught a rabbit in his yard. I guess that should have been obvious to me by now.

I also challenged a Bulgarian teenager into seeing who could eat a larger serving of “Dave’s Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce” – a sauce 300 times spicier than tabasco that I had shipped over from the states. He didn’t know, of course, that I’d been building up an immunity to the sauce over the past several months and that a normal serving is one drop, not one tablespoon. There was much hollering, then much drinking, then much laughing.

And working at the school, as sisyphean a task as it is to teach English while adhering to national testing standards, did help me build enough of a relationship with the director to receive permission to use a room and a projector over the summer. I’ll be starting a weekly event for watching American films in hopes of sharing some of our culture and teaching some basic English phrases. I’ll also get to start an independant English class, unencumbered by the national tests, and I’ll probably be bringing some American foods to share more culture and bribe kids to attend.

The program my kids are the most excited about, however, is my fitness program. I’ve made it clear that we’ll be focusing on calisthenics and that there absolutely won’t be any kung fu, but all of the boys have still promised to come. I figure it won’t hurt to give the boys an outlet for their pent-up energy, and I can just download a Tae Bo video and have Billy Blanks take over if I can’t keep up. I hope I’ll have a good chance to talk to the kids about smoking. They’re all still too young to smoke, but maybe they’ll think about their health more carefully before making that decision someday.

Official classes end in about two weeks and I’ll probably have a lot of free time then. I’ll have to start putting my webcam to good use over Skype, again.

Daniel

5 Comments

  1. hc
    Posted May 28, 2011 at 5:06 am | #

    It can only be the Spirit and God’s love that sustains you. Remember your armor-belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes preparation of the gospel of peace, helmet of salvation, shield of faith to quench the fiery darts of the evil one, and the sword of the Spirit, Word of God.
    We are praying for God’s blessings and protection for you.

  2. Michelle
    Posted May 28, 2011 at 5:17 am | #

    Hey Dan! Sounds like you’re doing a lot of good over there! But whether you decide to stay or come home, you’ll always be supported. Stay motivated, and above all stay healthy!!

  3. Posted May 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm | #

    Hey Dan. When i get fusterated just remember that you ARE making a difference in these kids lives. Come to Isperih anytime you need an escape.

  4. Ev
    Posted May 31, 2011 at 10:29 am | #

    Thinking of you dear friend :) Stacy’s going to be my roommate! She moved her stuff here this weekend. But she won’t be back until after she goes on OEX this summer.

    I know things are difficult there, especially with the education. Remember that all God requires of you, is to give your best. That isn’t going to be enough to fix everything (it was never your job to ‘fix’ everything anyway), but give it anyway.

  5. Posted June 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm | #

    Kind of hard to believe that a year has already flown by since you last left the U.S.!

    Although it may seem tiresome and tough, I am certain that you are making a big difference in the lives of these kids. Think of this experience like…growing vegetables! It’s hard to get results instantaneously and tough work to maintain with all the weeds and critters running around, but careful maintenance and determination will pay off and it may take a while before you can truly reap the benefits of your hard work. When you finally leave Bulgaria, those kids will show you their true appreciation in the end.

    Hang in there Dan! It’ll be over before you know it!

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