Saturday, September 26, 2009

Getting to the Starobilsk English Club

Everything I'm doing in Ukraine is a journey. Starting an English Club is no exception.

When I arrived in Starobilsk, on June 19, I knew not a soul, not a place, not a center, not a town. First I met Vera, the director of NGO Victoria, my first assignment, then Luba, whose house I'm staying at until an apartment becomes available. It was me and my nice little bedroom. A lot like Van Gogh's painting of his room. I was sick for the first few days, stomach flu and chills, so it was hard to accept the gracious offerings of fresh raspberries and sumptuous meals cooked on my behalf. Needless to say, my flu involved everyone in helping me, from Starobilsk to Kiev. It dampened enthusiasm I'm sure. I just needed to stay warm and sleep it off. No way to make a good first impression.

As soon as I felt better, I wanted to get the lay of the land. The Peace Corps calls it "community mapping," and that's what I did. Where was I? Luba and Vera obliged. They took turns walking me from Luba's house, past the bus station, the University and college, and various shops where I could buy necessities, into the center of town, where the city administration buildings and beautiful cultural center are, and finally into Lenin Park, where Victoria's office is. It was pretty much a straight shot from Panfelova, maybe a 25-minute or so walk. So I got to know my village. And to demonstrate my more energetic and curious self!

From there it was just a matter of branching out. I found the banks and ATMs, the public library, the post office, the computer store, school supply stores, food shops where I could buy water and cookies, fresh bread and cheese, a place to get online. And the bazaar. The bazaar is critical because that's where you can buy anything from food to clothes to toiletries and everything in between. I learned the hard way, as I learn most things, that it is only open from early morning to 13:00 (that's 1:00 pm here).

I began to meet and talk to people. Most knew right away that I was from America, and most were friendly and accomodating. I met volunteers associated with Victoria, terrific activists. I met teachers, doctors, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, store owners, computer experts, young students, college students, friends and neighbors of Luba's. I met those fantastic women who took me to Berdyansk. I met the directors of the Cultural Center, the Library, the Park. I met folk artists, musicians, and historians, and one anthropologist in Lugansk who spoke English. I met more faculty and students at Camp Sosnovy. I am still learning my town, but at least I know where I am and can walk and bike my way around the place. Most folks along my path know me as well, the Amerikanka on the red velociped, or walking with a dictionary in her hand.

In the process of getting to know the community I met people who were glad to meet an American. Several wanted to practice their English. I was more than happy to talk with them. I realized there was a need, and that I could begin a tried-and-true Peace Corps activity in my new town: an English club.

I talked to teachers and students and had several meetings with Iryna Andreevna, the director of the Biblioteca, a Rayon-wide (county-wide) library serving Starobilsk and about 10 nearby villages. I had the help of Anton, a poet and free spirit whose mother is a librarian, in talking with Iryna, who knows no English. I drafted a flyer in English; Iryna reviewed it; we made some changes, then she translated it into Russian. All this took time. She offered to pass the flyers out from the library, and I did the same with the schools, the university, shops, and anywhere else I happened to be. It was mostly word of mouth, and through the teachers of English at schools #1, 2, and 3. The English Club was on the way.

We had our first meeting on September 19, exactly 3 months after I got here. There were twenty-three people: 6 adults, 4 college students (of Natalia's and PCV Mike Young), and the rest were school students, mostly in the 11th form, equivalent to high school seniors in the US. Our youngest member is Vlad, 12 years old, who comes with his sister Yana. They are terrific. So are all the members. Several said they wanted to make English their profession. So smart, so good at a foreign language, and thinking ahead at such young ages! Meet Ukraine's future teachers, translators, business people, and civic leaders.

They came because they want to practice their English and meet other people who do too, and they want to learn about America. I didn't know what to expect but we had a great first meeting. We played games: Who are you? What do you see? (I made a poster with photos of the USA, Ukraine, the world, and others with some cultural significance), and What do you want to do? It was fun, with a high level of participation. That pleased me.

We decided to talk about holidays for our second meeting. I passed around a handout of American and Ukrainian holidays. We got to October 31, Halloween. Great sharing all around. If some of them fumbled or got embarrassed I reassured them that I wish I could speak Russian as well as they spoke English. Lots of clapping for encouragement!

Before ending, I introduced the theme of Autumn with four poems I had selected from around the world. One was by Robert Louis Stevenson (Scotland), another by Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand), and a third by Roselynn Curro (American), who wrote about going "tricks or treating" with her son, she dressed as a 1920s flapper and he a soldier. The fourth poem was a Haiko, a three-line poem by a 16th century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho. We read it together because it is short.
Autumn moonlight--
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.
We talked about how to write a Haiku poem. I suggested that we each write a Haiko and bring it to the next meeting. I'll write one too, I promised. We'll share and make a Fall Holiday Tree. Great excitement.

I didn't tell the club that poet Roselynn Curro is my mother, and that the young soldier she wrote about so lovingly was her son, my kid brother Loren, my children's uncle. That's for next time.

So this is how we got to an English Club from knowing nothing, with interesting stops along the way. Now we have to keep it going, with games, suspense and surprises, interesting topics and stories, some luck, and a little magic.

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