Warning, this is a big of a heavy post, but I promise, it has a happy ending!
In the last month, my life has been turned in a complete 180 from where it was. There were a lot of things that I didn't write about on here because 1) I didn't want anyone at home to worry, 2) I don't like focusing on negatives, and 3) I never really know who is reading my blog. But because of the changes that have occurred recently, I feel like I can now go back and fill in some of the gaps.
If you noticed, I never really mentioned work in my posts or told you what I do. I talked about wonderful things like na gostis, adventures with fellow PCVs, and minor quips about daily life, but I never really talked about real life. My first year here was tough. It was really tough. There were a lot of things I struggled with. I had many issues with my living situation. Obviously my heating was an issue as I mentioned being cold all the time, but there were other things too. I lived about a 15 minute walk from the town up on top of a hill where there were lots of families. 15 minutes walk is no big deal, but it does wear you down when you are doing it with 10 kilos of fruits and vegetables from the pazar in 100 degree weather or trying not to kill yourself on the ice and snow while going downhill to school each morning. My landlords were great, but they were quite busy and often in Skopje dealing with health problems so they were not always available to fix problems when they came up. My electricity bills were ridiculously high and I was going above my electricity stipend, which left me paying a lot out of my living allowance. My location was also quite isolating. I had wonderful neighbours that treated me so well, however, it was all families and I didn't really fit in with them. I was treated as a child by many of them and the adults often would leave me to just hang out with the kids. My neighbour kids were great and a lot of fun to be with, but there were many times I longed for an adult conversation. Because of not living right in the town, I didn't really know anyone down in town so my times not na gosti-ing were spent trying to occupy my time alone in my big house (this is part of the reason all PCVs should have an external hard drive and a large supply of books). There were little things too, such as no washing machine (fine in the summer, but horrible in the winter), very limited hot water for showering (max of 5 minutes even if the boiler had been on all day), and of course no internet! All of this was manageable, however, when added to other issues, it became too much.
School was also a challenge for me. I wasn't sure what my place was there or what I could do. My assigned counterpart is a wonderful lady and a fantastic teacher, but very busy. I struggled at times to know how I could help her in the classroom. The education system here is one that has a lot of problems (like any education system frankly) and politics play a large role in every aspect of the school. I wanted to do creative activities and games with the kids sometimes, but had to respect the fact that most of the teachers don't have tenure and they are very worried about their jobs, so they are cautious of what goes on in their classroom. Many of my games would have been too wild for the type of classroom they felt they needed to maintain. So I did a lot of sitting, staring, and not feeling useful. I knew that my counterpart wanted to involve me in class, but I think we were both unsure as to how that was supposed to work. I was also challenged with the fact that there is some dissent between the English teachers at my school and it was really hard being the monkey in the middle. I felt trapped. I didn't want to step on any of their toes and was trying to please them all. The dang Minnesota nice genes were in full force and did my best not to ruffle any feathers, which lead to not a whole lot being accomplished. I tried to focus on the little wins, such as getting my counterpart to use picture flashcards when teaching the students new vocabulary words and incorporating BINGO into class a few times.
Because of my lack of connection to projects in my town, I filled my time with secondary projects through several Peace Corps committees. I became involved in the National Essay Contest, National Spelling Bee, assisted with Model UN, then YMLP and GLOW, and VSN (the Volunteer Support Network). I figured if I had other projects to bide my time until I could get things at site figured out, I would be just fine. I kept setting small goals for myself, such as things will be better by the second term, then by March, then April, and finally the end of the school year. When I saw no hope of improvement, I reached out to my fellow volunteers and spent a fair amount of time with them as a means of obtaining happiness. I wouldn't say I was ever severely unhappy, but there were many days and nights that I just felt useless. I never considered going home and ETing as an option, because then I would have felt like I had failed. For some people it is the right option, but I knew it wasn't right for me.
In June, right after school got out and our Language IST, I set up a meeting with all the English teachers and the Director to share all of my ideas with them and work on figuring out how to involve me more for this next year. This was the straw that broke the camels back when only two teachers came, one 45 minutes late. This was the moment I really questioned why I was here because I didn't feel like it mattered- the people who wanted my help felt trapped by the politics and the others didn't care. I left for YMLP, GLOW, and Istanbul incredibly frustrated and completely unsure how to change my situation. The day we finished YMLP I received a call from my Program Manager at Peace Corps about my VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form that is the piece of paperwork that is hated by pretty much every PCV out there!) because it hadn't been emailed in right. After discussing that issue, I told her about everything at site because I really felt like I had tried every option possible given my current situation. She told me to not worry about anything at site right then and focus my energy on GLOW and that we would talk once that was finished. After returning from Istanbul, I went to the Peace Corps office and talked with many of the staff members there, including my Program Manager. She and I had a long talk that involved her asking me if I was hoping to stay where I was or move. At that point I realized I needed a big change and maybe moving sites was the only way to solve the situation. The Country Director wasn't in right then, but she and the Safety and Security Coordinator promised to talk to him as soon as he came back to the office. I left with a slight weight off of my shoulders knowing that at least I was no longer alone in dealing with all of it.
A week later I had a meeting with my Program Manager and Country Director where lots of tears were shed by me in complete frustration about feeling trapped. After talking about lots of different options, we set up a plan to give it one more try and if that didn't work, I would be moved. The Peace Corps staff made several visits to my town over the next couple weeks and we identified new housing and meetings were held with the Mayor and the School Director. The end of August I was excited about my new living situation and my parents coming, but still apprehensive about how school would go. But I had vowed to give it my all for one month to see if the situation could be improved. It was rocky at start with a school staff meeting where the Director called out the teachers for not being at school when Peace Corps came because they were supposed to be and I felt all the eyes in the room staring at me, some in anger, some in curiosity about my reaction. I was confused, had only kind of understood, and felt incredibly uncomfortable having so many eyes staring through me.
As I said, my life is a complete 180, so clearly something else has changed too! The first day of school we got in not one, but two new teachers. One a young female German teacher and the other, a young female English teacher! Right from day one this new English teacher took an interest in me and demanded that I help her in class. She was outgoing, full of energy, and full of ideas to make class fun for the kids. Plus, she has this "I don't care what the other's think as long as I am doing what is best for the kids" attitude about her that I love! I was a little sad when my parents came and interrupted this new budding site as I moved into my new house and immediately left to be with them, not even spending one night there, and when I had only been able to be in 2 or 3 of this new teacher's classes.
I can now say, one month in that I LOVE my housing and I LOVE the teachers I work with at school. Both of the teachers I work with are extremely focused on doing what is best for the kids and their learning and both are excited to have me in their classes. I now am in almost every fifth grade and sixth grade English class each week and get to spend one class in first grade and one in fourth grade. I have worked with all but the fourth grade class before as quite a few of the first graders were in my class at the kindergarten last year. I have also been able to go out for coffee with the new English teacher several times and can honestly say I have my first local friend who is about my age. I have also started teaching an adult English class two nights a week for a few employees at the Opstina (local government). I have only had one class so far, but I think it will be fun. It is nerve wracking and puts my Macedonian to use a lot, but the three guys I had come this past Monday were all very respectful and nice and supposedly I will get another 2 or 3 students tomorrow too. I am working with the two girls from my town who went to Camp GLOW this past summer to start a Club GLOW in our town and they are both very passionate, intelligent, and wonderful young women and I really don't feel I could have a better two to work with on this project. I have several activities in the works too including two English Clubs for 4th-8th graders, possibly another adult English class, and hopefully finally getting World Wise Schools going where some of my students here will be able to be pen pals with American students. I also still have all of my Peace Corps committees going and wanting to spend time with my new host family, so there isn't a whole lot of "me" time left!
To make this all come full circle, I want to finally share a few last thoughts.
- The Peace Corps staff here is wonderful. Everyone complains about their bosses on occasion or the rules or whatever, but ultimately, it is so clear that they are all there to do whatever they can for each and every PCV here. I know it is their job to support the volunteers here, but they really do an amazing job at it and I don't think get enough credit.
- I remember being told during PST by a current volunteer that the first year can just plain suck, but they then encouraged all of us to stick it out, no matter how hard it is, because the second year can be completely different and so wonderful and that is something I can personally attest to.
- It is very important to find your allies in Peace Corps, whether they be Peace Corps staff members, HCNs, or another PCV. I know if I hadn't had my VSN member/friend/dechko Phil here, I would have had a much harder time. Everyone needs someone, at least one person, that they can completely rely on. While friends and family in America are nice, they can never really understand what it is like, no matter how hard they try. This is one of the things that drew me to becoming a VSN member. You sometimes need someone to just listen to you grip about things that only another PCV can understand.
- One thing that this all has made me really think about is that sometimes no matter how hard you try to change something, you can't. You sometimes have to wait until it changes itself a little and then try again. If my housing had changed, but nothing at school had, I don't think I would be where I am now. It took a change in the teaching staff to shake up the status quo enough to where I could step in and make a few changes.
- I can also say that I have reached the "I don't care" phase of my Peace Corps service and it is a wonderful place to be. It doesn't sound like it, but let me explain a little more. I finally feel like I have reached a point where I have given up caring about what people will think about the small things. I have given up playing polite all the time and getting no where. While believe me I am not stirring up any trouble, I have reached a point where I do what I need to do to have the best experience. Example: Teachers are supposed to stay at school until 1:30 even if they don't have class. Last year, I did that everyday. Sometimes I would be done at 11, but would then sit for the next 2 1/2 hours doing nothing just to play by the rules. Now, I leave when I am done with class. My time is put to much better use planning for my adult class or getting things figured out for National Essay Contest, or spent sitting talking to my host mother. I know that the time I used to spend just sitting there was a great source of frustration for me so to take that away, all the better. That said, I do 100% believe that I needed to put in the time just sitting there until 1:30 everyday last year. I strongly believe that the first year, as hard and frustrating as it is sometimes, you need to play by as many community rules as possible. I think that because of that, I have finally gained the trust of a few more people to the point where I can now put some of my ideas into action.
Ok, enough of the deep post full of revelations. Hopefully I will have a little time to get a photo post up soon to balance all of my text here!
I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed. ~George Carlin
*Good thing I use denari not dollars!