Learning Out Loud

“Arright, here’s the deal. I don’t feel like doing any work today.” It’s amazing how much noise a handful of teenagers can make. “But I didn’t say you wouldn’t do any work. You can ask me whatever questions you want, but I’m going to answer them in English, because this is English class and speaking Bulgarian all day is a huge drag. So listen up if you actually want to know the answers.”
The students in my 9A class are intensely curious about me. They often interrupt our lessons to shout personal questions at me, which I deflect with a swift “Ask in English!” It’s a class of 31 kids with an astounding truancy rate; I average about eleven students each class which I’ve heard from other teachers is 9A’s best turn-out by far. One day last week a student shot up his hand and shouted, “Госпожа! There’s 19 of us today! I think this is a record!” Even with such a small group, herding their unruly little minds in the same direction for forty-five minutes is a task akin to passing sweeping health care reform in America. They yell, they flirt, they run around the room. They try to get me to repeat Bulgarian obscenities. Several of the kids are motivated to learn English, but still hopelessly noisy and undisciplined.
Discipline is a huge problem in Bulgarian schools. The bigger problems, though, are conformity, apathy and fear. When asked to write sentences or produce anything creative, it’s not uncommon for every single student in a class to write exactly the same thing. 9A’s insatiable spirit inspires me even as it turns my hair white. They ask surprising questions, not just about me but about the English language, and some of the more advanced students go out of their way to write something unique and delightful.
Example: A few weeks ago, in response to the question “What do you like to eat?” little Denis wrote, “I like to eat sausage and intestines and the horse. I like to nibble the ears of the pig.”
Several factors contributed to my decision to give 9A a free day today. My counterpart (and friend) and I were both suffering after a late-night “planning session” that included way too much домашно wine. I’d been teaching since 7:30am. Another teacher hadn’t showed up for work, which meant her students were wreaking havoc in the halls all day and making it nearly impossible for the rest of us to teach. Finally, someone pulled the bell 25 minutes early during 4th period, which sent dozens of gangly screaming teenagers into a state of total unmanageability. Today was also auspicious, because 9A’s worst-behaved student was among one of the many absences. His attendance is perversely impeccable, so today was a rare opportunity to engage the rest of class without him monopolizing all the attention. I also knew that his friends would tell him we had a totally awesome free day without him, and I couldn’t help but hope that would really annoy him.
So go ahead, kids. Ask me whatever you want.
“Does that piercing hurt?”
“What do they eat in the United States?”
“Do they eat crocodile?”
“Have you ever eaten crocodile, Госпожа?”
“What’s a smurf? Is it like a dwarf?” Smurfs, I explained, were blue and had their own TV show. “Dwarf” is a much broader term. The plural of “dwarf” is “dwarves,” and it occurred to me that the plural of “smurf” really ought to be “smurves.” But it isn’t, it’s “smurfs.”
Sultana is a thin girl with a strong nose and two feet of frizzy black hair. She prefers to be called Suzy. At least once a day, Suzy interrupts class to yell, “I love you Miss!”
A tireless romantic, Suzy asked me, “Miss, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No.”
“Do you have one in the States?”
“No, I have no boyfriend anywhere. Who here has a boyfriend?” I asked the class, “Raise your hand!” Four girls proudly shot up their hands.
“And who has a girlfriend?” Only Viktor, broad-shouldered and over six feet tall, raised his hand. “And what does your girlfriend think about your eye?” I referred to Viktor’s recent football injury, which had burst a blood vessel and turned half of his right eyeball bright red. “Госпожа, but it looks much better than it did last week!” He protested in Bulgarian. I agreed that it did.
But they would not be so easily distracted from their teacher’s relationship status. Viktoria, who I’ve secretly nicknamed Posh Spice, rested on her elbows and turned her palms out to me entreatingly, “And why don’t you have a boyfriend? Don’t you want one?” This is another question I’ve already prepared an answer for. “I’m waiting to find a boyfriend who likes to cook and clean.”
”You’re not going to find that in Bulgaria,” said Hristomir, the only student who understands nearly every word I say in English.
“Hristomir says I won’t find a guy who cooks and cleans in Bulgaria. Who agrees with him?” Several hands went up. “Boys, do you cook? Do you clean? Do you help your parents around the house?” The response was inconclusive.
“Girls, what about you? Do you help your mothers?” In the boys’ defense, the girls were equally unlikely to say they helped around the house.
“Viktor? Do you help your mother? Do you cook and clean?”
“Yes, Госпожа! I’ll cook, I’ll clean, I’ll feed your cats!”
“You already have a girlfriend, remember? What about you Denis [of the intestines and sausage and the ears of the pig]?” Denis sucked his teeth and nodded to say ‘no.’
I asked every student in the room, “Nasko, do you help around the house? Hristomir? Stilian?”
“Stilian doesn’t help his mother Госпожа! He lives by himself!”
“What?”
”Stilian’s mother is in Greece!”
I looked at him and asked him in Bulgarian, “Stilian, is this true?”
“Да.”
“Where is your father?”
“Don’t ask about his father!” Hristomir wagged a finger at me.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Fifteen.”
“And you live alone? No brothers or sisters or grandparents?”
“My brother is visiting for New Year’s. Then he has to go back to Greece.”
Stilian’s clothes are clean. His hair is trimmed, he’s well-fed and he shows up to class most of the time. “So, you know about cooking and cleaning?”
“Да.”
The kids hopped over desks and jostled each other as they said goodbye to me. As always at the end of 9A, I held my head in my hands for a moment and gave out a great sigh, stunned at the relative quiet. I turned around and looked at the board. What had we accomplished today? Each kid might have said three words in English. On the board were some new words: “smurf,” “crab (“I looovvve crab,” simpered Posh Spice in Bulgarian).” A picture of a turtle, labeled “turtle.” The phrasal verb “to clean up after (oneself).”
Sweet, quiet Maria was the only one left in the room.
“Miss? Thank you for a wonderful class.”

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Learning Out Loud

  1. Natalie

    Huelo~ A huge smirk crossed my face as I read this entry. The sheer ridiculousness of BG schools, combined the loveliness that came out of your class and it’s fabulous 9A students is wonderful! So glad you’re able to use the cooking and cleaning reasoning when it comes to explaining a boyfriend or lack there of. You’re doing an awesome job- keep it up! Even if it does only include smurf, crab, turtle and to clean up after 🙂

    • I owe you so big for the cooking and cleaning tip. It’s come in handy so many times! Thanks for the encouragement and I hope you’re doing well. Let’s chat on skype sometime.

  2. Martyn Dunn

    Glad I checked in. Teaching head first. I think this could be a BBC mini series.

  3. Julie

    amazing 😀
    reminds me of how i liked going to spanish with ana sophomore year because we just talked about britney spears and legalizing marijuana or about our relationship troubles.

  4. Thanks for giving a glimpse into what you’re doing in Bulgaria, Huelo!

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