The Commute Forward

This is the essay I wrote for Peace Corps Bulgaria’s annual essay contest.  My mom discovered I won the contest while dutifully stalking me on Facebook and asked me to post the essay here.  Thank you very much to those who have already read it, and particularly my dear friends who helped me revise and edit it.

February, 2011

“Vasilena?”

“She travels, Gospozha!”

“Djunait?  He doesn’t travel, does he?”

“No, he lives in town.  He should be here!”  10A and I enacted this little ritual every time I took roll call, every day for my first three months as an English teacher at Gimnazia Tzar Simeon.

“Ivanka?”

“She travels!”

“Kristina?”

“Travels!”

“Lyudmila?”

“Travels!”

Ms. D___’s Professional English Class tends to fall near the first or the last class period of the day.  Roll call is not a simple question of “here”/“not here,” but who’s in class, who’s missing class deliberately, and who’s absent because they’re on a bus transporting them to or from their village.  The “traveling” students rely on the public buses to get to school.  Half the price of their ticket is subsidized, and they must pay for the other half.  If whoever writes the bus schedules is aware that many of their clientele are high school students who should be in class between 7:30am and 2pm, they don’t seem to care.  Buses get into town around eight every morning, and leave just after one.  Perhaps a third of our students miss either or both of their first and last classes, every day.  These students obviously can’t help but miss class, but neither can they obtain an excuse slip for every day of the entire school year.  Their class teachers know who they are and the rest of us are instructed to omit their names from our list of absences, carrying on as if they are in school every day.

“But when will this be fixed?” was the naive question I posed in the teacher’s lounge on the first week of school.  Surely, I thought, we could speak to someone about adjusting the bus schedules.  From all sides I got a dismissive little nod and the sound of a tongue kissing the back of teeth.  The bus schedule could not be changed.

“Do you mean to tell me that you’re going to let a large portion of your students miss class every day?  That you won’t even help me try to change it?”

“That’s bulgarska rabota for you,” seemed to be the unanimous response.  Bulgarska rabota translates into “Bulgarian work.”  Bulgarians themselves use the term to describe anything shoddy or dysfunctional.  When they say it, it’s usually with neither shame nor pride.  Bulgarska rabota seems to mean that nothing works right and it’s nobody’s fault, simply the tragicomic fate of this country, which only leans further towards the comic when someone smugly thinks they can alter that fate.

I was walking back from the pazaar, with a load of organic produce that would’ve drained my checking account at Whole Foods, when I saw something that made me realize I wasn’t even beginning to comprehend the layers of dysfunction keeping my kids out of school.  Parked in front of the municipality was a fleet of shiny yellow buses.  What were they doing there?  Who were they for?

Every time I walked by the municipality, there they were, unmoved.  Surely a couple of these buses could be chartered to transport our kids.  Someone at the municipality would be sympathetic to our ragtag little vocational school, and since our director had already lined up a few sponsors, it was simply a matter of persuading one of them to sponsor our buses, so we could pay for fuel and a driver.

I laid out this supposedly brilliant proposal of mine over rakia and salad, to my good friend and counterpart Nataliya.

“No, that will never work,” she explained.  Something about someone at the municipality not getting along with someone at our school.  Something about administrative mismanagement and squandered funds.

It was as if the solution were inches away from me, but on the other side of a barrier that I could never tear down.  Every material necessity for getting these kids to school is already here.  We have a school, we have teachers, we have decent roads, we have empty buses, we have people willing to drive them and fuel to fill them.  Putting the pieces together is another story; over and over again I was assured that it can’t be done.

Some of my students can make it only to my morning classes, others only to the afternoon classes.  Holding after-school tutoring sessions is a boon for my motivated students who live in town, but since the “traveling” students can’t even stay until school ends let alone after school, it doesn’t address the problem of keeping these kids caught up.

Now, imagine you’re fifteen.  You live in a village with no high school and must commute an hour every day to the nearest town. The bus drops you off nearly an hour after school has started, and you can only go to your last class of the day long enough to ask the teacher if you can run to catch the bus.  Your parents, or grandparents, slip you a little money each week to ride the bus, but probably can’t spare any more money to ever take the trip to town themselves to see if you’re actually attending school or not.  You know your teachers will shrug their shoulders and give you the lowest possible passing grade, since your lack of attendance is beyond your– or, it seems, anyone’s– control.  Whether or not you’re in class, many teachers don’t seem to think you’re capable of learning much anyway.  Maybe this is because of your ethnicity, or that dusty little village you commute from every single day.

When I ponder this scenario, I am overcome with awe at my traveling kids for ever bothering to show up at all.  And more than ever I feel bound to stick up for them, to let them and my colleagues know I haven’t forgotten about them.  But how to do this, with these kids scattered to the corners of the region, and the buses in front of the municipality refusing to budge?

Desislav, age 16, is one such student.  With his enormous dark eyes and beanpole stature, he personifies eagerness.  He labored tirelessly over paper spiderwebs for our Halloween celebration, and he loves to draw pictures for me on the board.  He’s always ready to do anything for our class but read aloud, and betray his meager grasp of English compared to the boisterous townies in the front row.  Desko, as his family calls him, is smart and desperate to learn, but his commute forces him to miss half of our English classes.  How could I stop him from falling behind?

“Who likes to read novels?”  I asked the class one day.  A few people listlessly raised their hands.

“Who likes to read poetry?”  I expected blank stares and the sound of crickets, the response poetry always elicits in an American high school classroom, but hands went up to my surprise.  “Hristo Botev!” someone shouted.  It’s a pity that none of our American revolutionary heroes were also celebrated poets.

To wrap up our lesson about books, I asked each student to bring a book to our next class.  The book didn’t have to be in English, but it had to be from a library, and they had to tell me in English what kind of book it was, whether it was fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.  It was an assignment they could all complete regardless of their English level, and a chance for them to use one of the area’s sorely neglected libraries.

Desko wasn’t able to attend class the morning the books were due, but he found me in the halls to show me his book.  Preoccupied and in a hurry to my next class, I glanced at the book and thanked him without stopping.

“But Gospozha, there’s something else,” he stopped me, “The woman at the library wants to meet you.  She asked me what the book was for and I told her about you.  She invited you to my village for a holiday.”

The village of Zhitnitza has a population of about one thousand.  Eighty percent are Roma, and the rest, save for two Turkish families and one British couple, are ethnic Bulgarian.  Then there’s Bistra, a Macedonian woman who married a Bulgarian, and moved to Zhitnitza from Varna a year ago to lead a more spokoen (peaceful) life.  She became fast friends with Marusia, a Roma woman who has spent her whole life in the area, and together they have big plans for Zhitnitza.  It was Marusia who inquired after me at the library, and Bistra who found a car to pick me up and bring me to Zhitnitza’s Baben Den celebration.  Between cheering my rudimentary horo skills and treating me to copious quantities of food and drink, Bistra and Marusia laid out some of their ambitions for the village.  They wanted English classes during the summer.  Outside of the restaurant, excited children were peering in the windows at me.  They wanted to organize concerts, to showcase Zhitnitza’s proud musical tradition.  They wanted to know all about Peace Corps, and what it would take to have a volunteer of their own.

“Years ago, the town center was full of the most beautiful roses,” Marusia looked past the dusty lot in front of the restaurant, as if she could still see the roses that once were there.

“Here, you see, we all live together,” Bistra added, “A Makedonka with Romi, with Bulgarians.  We eat together, we dance together.”  She gestured towards our jubilant table, and the coil of women dancing horo around us.

That afternoon I met more of my students’ parents than I had during the entire first term.  Desko gathered his little sister and several of her classmates and took me on a tour of the town.  As we walked the girls mined me for useful words.

“What’s ‘cow’ in English?”

“What’s ‘flea’ in English?”

“What’s ‘chicken’ in English?”  I looked to Desko first, only filling in words he didn’t already know.  Jingling from his pocket were the keys to the city: the school, the church, the community center.  Desko was proud of his village, showing me the dairy cooperative, and lamenting the stadium’s current state of disrepair.  The younger children admired him and the adults trusted him.  At school, he sat quietly in the back, but here in Zhitnitza, he was an emerging leader.

The last stop of the tour was the community center.  Desko unlocked the auditorium and led us all to the narrow little stage.

“It’s too cold here in winter,” he motioned towards the windows, some cracked, some glassless and covered with plastic, “but in summer we put on performances.”  He was the M.C. for these shows, he told me.  Above the auditorium was a cramped room full of archives.  The town square looked more modern in the forty year-old, black-and-white photographs than it does today.

“Look how beautiful it was before,” Desko said.  He repeated what Marusia told me about the roses.

When those photos were taken, students like Desislav didn’t have to commute to school. Zhitnitza, like many Bulgarian towns, was twice its current size.  Only certain people were allowed to move to the cities, and almost no one could escape to the western European countries where many Bulgarians work today, supporting entire families on the Euros they earn picking oranges or busing tables.  As the small towns and villages shrink, the high schools are the first to go.  Some villages are so empty of young people that they have to close school entirely.  How easily a town like this could submit to hopelessness and petty rivalries, I thought, reminded of the numerous people who insisted the bus problem couldn’t be fixed.  Yet, people like Marusia, Bistra, and Desislav are optimistic and proud of their communities.  They’ve even set aside widespread ethnic animosity, and together they’re working for a better future for their village, and their country.

Two weeks later, my intrepid village students greeted me warmly at the bus stop.  Since I had no seventh period class that day, I was going back to Zhitnitza to meet with Marusia.  The news was passed like a cigarette lighter among the group.

“Ms. D___’s going to Zhitnitza?”

“Next week you have to come to М______ !”

“No, Т______ !”

“In М______ the crocuses are blooming,” Stefan, one of Desko’s classmates, held his palm close to the ground, indicating the tiny spring flowers, “You’ll come see it, right?  М______ is very nice!” His head bobbed under the hood of his jacket.

I lined up alongside my students when our bus pulled up.

“Do you know about this bus?” Stefan asked me, “It’s a Chavdar.  A genuine Bulgarian model!  From which century, I couldn’t tell you, but, there it is.”  Several students laughed and even the driver smirked.  His remark was wry, but his tone was boastful.  This is the other meaning of Bulgarska rabota, I thought to myself.  Stefan is sixteen and speaks Turkish at home, but he has a timelessly Bulgarian pride in making the most out of very little. His education depends on this bus, built during the era of Communism that ended before he was born, its remnants rusting all around him.  He is one of the best English students in the school.

In twenty-four months, I can’t tear down all the barriers confronting my community.  But my ‘traveling’ students have shown me how these barriers can be worked around, tunnelled under, climbed over.  With the future in the hands of young people like Stefan and Desislav, Bulgaria’s best days must be ahead. And even if one volunteer can’t move buses, she can still ride them.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “The Commute Forward

  1. Carolyn Wood

    Wonderful Huelo! I rode the bus with you and sat in on the classes. Are you going to teach summer school in the village?
    On this rainy day my heart feels warm. Brava!
    Ms W

    • Thank you thank you; you made my day Ms Wood. Yes, I’ll be teaching there in the summer. They got me a white board and markers and everything!

  2. Heather Roberts

    What a wonderful article and was quite impressed with the mention of an ‘english couple’
    Out of interest, how many children travel on the bus from Zhitnitsa for schooling?

    • Hi Heather, thank you so much, and yeah that ‘English couple’ is you! 🙂 I couldn’t give you an actual number, but we have at least six students at my school and I know there are more from 6th to 8th grade who travel as well. There are usually about a dozen coming back on the 2 o’clock bus.

      • Heather Roberts

        Hi Eli
        if you are able to procure drivers who had cars that were able to do a couple of journeys do you think that there is a possibility that the fuel cost could be reimbursed?
        #

  3. gramps

    3 cheers for Molly, as we fossils may have missed knowing of this marvelous essay. Is there anything we can do about this situation, such as funding a bus? Is that even practical?

    • Thanks Gramps! Peace Corps discourages us from “throwing money” at problems, which doesn’t necessarily mean that funding a bus is out of the question. However, I think the school could find the funds easily if they had the will and organization. It’s a tough situation. I’m sensitive to the fact that my colleagues are skeptical of my ideas, since I’m young and inexperienced and from a different culture (I’d be skeptical, too, in their place). The most important thing I can do is show my students how committed I am to them, and hopefully that will make an impact within the school as well as outside of it.

  4. Irina Dimitrova

    Yellow school buses at the municipality? I’m sure your mayor is getting ready for the elections…and the next mandate.
    A very stirring essay, Huelo!

    • Благодаря много Ирина! Вие точно разбирате какво означава “Българска работа,” на ли?

  5. Terry Daugherty

    Excellent. You’ve really captured the hope and frustration of life in Bulgaria. Now if we can just figure out a way for those bright young people to make their contribution in Bulgaria and not migrate. There’s a lot to be said for the very young and the very old but the twenty to forty somethings drive the economy and culture and they can’t do that from Hamburg. Well. Really well done.

  6. Martyn Dunn

    Well done Huelo. If you cant get the kids to school go to the kids.
    Will look forward to your progress thru the summer. I,m alway’s proud of you.

  7. Rachel

    Huelo, I love reading about your town, I could read a whole book of these stories. (hint hint)

    Also, I hope you stay optimistic in the face of all the post-communist pessimism. Zhitnitza sounds like a refreshing break from the downers. Can’t wait to hear more about it in the summertime.

    much love, r

  8. Irina Dimitrova

    Чужденци винаги виждат повече и усещат нещата по-дълбоко, но и по-болезнено приемат факта, че готовността да помагаш среща странни погледи и учудване. Има неща, с които се боря вече 35 години, без резултат, но продължавам. Успех, мила Ели!

  9. Robert Sullivan

    “Bulgarska rabota seems to mean that nothing works right and it’s nobody’s fault, simply the tragicomic fate of this country, which only leans further towards the comic when someone smugly thinks they can alter that fate.”

    It is this bit which makes me want to do a lot of screaming or drinking. (Sigh) But we soldier on becuase the other options are unacceptable.

  10. Bravo, hoof stomps, brays, Itty Bitty squeeks!

  11. ayshe

    “…Bulgaria’s best days must be ahead. ” Amen. I wish I could believe that.
    About “Българска работа”: a Bulgarian friend of mine used to say that the only good thing a Bulgarian can make are children, because then he doesn’t use his hands. Congratulations for the essay! : )

    • This made me laugh a lot! And you might have noticed that many of my best students are Turks. 🙂

      • ayshe

        You mean I might have noticed that from your blog? Or maybe you are confusing me with someone else.
        The last few months I commute to work and there are students in my bus also: Monday mornings and Friday at 5pm (they live in a hostel). The way they behave makes me very pessimistic about Bulgaria’s future, by the way they are all Turks except one. But today one of them gave her seat to an old man and it is so unusual that it cheered me up. 🙂

      • I meant from the blog, and in the essay I make some allusions to it. Most of my students are Turkish and Romi. Thanks for sharing such a nice story!

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