On Wednesdays, I have the privilege of teaching 11A for both 4th and 6th period. For the second year now they are promising to be my best class: cooperative, interested in English, and close to each other. Even with the obstacles of drop-outs and unreliable buses from the villages, they are much further ahead of my 11Б class, which has been scheduled for 7th period almost every day of the week, meaning half the class can’t attend and the other half can’t be bothered. 11A also happens to be entirely comprised of self-identified ethnic Bulgarians and Romi, in fact Romi who call themselves “Romi” and not gypsies.
I had a straightforward review lesson planned for 4th period. The kids would help me make a list of verbs that were irregular in the past simple tense (there are lots of them), and then do exercises to help themselves memorize all those irregular participles. However, it hardly seemed like the time for boring English lessons. The Friday before in the village of Katunitza, a young ethnic Bulgarian had been killed by a van, driven by a Roma man rumored to have associations with a notorious mafia boss, Tzar Kiro, who was also Roma. The event sparked a massive backlash against Romi by angry Bulgarians all over the country, particularly around Plovdiv, where Katunitza is located, and in other major city areas. Over two hundred people had been arrested, Tzar Kiro was in hiding, and his house had been burned to the ground. Other volunteers told me stories of ethnic Bulgarians and Turks railing against the Romi, and Bulgarians and Romi screaming at each other in the streets to “get out.”
On the surface, my lovely town of П–––––– shows no such tension. But over the last year I’ve had enough conversations to know that everyone in Bulgaria harbors certain ethnic assumptions and suspicions. I can’t be sure how many of my students are Romi, but many people say over half of them are. Since most statistics claim that less than half– maybe much less– of Romi in Bulgaria finish 12th grade, I can only assume that my Romi students are exceptional. Conversely, my Bulgarian and Turkish students are exceptional in their willingness to study alongside Romi, when across the country I’ve heard reports of Romi ostracised or persecuted in schools and workplaces that are mostly ethnic Bulgarian. My students are a fascinating mix, and generally kind and respectful to boot; a perfect test tube for discussion. I throw in a couple questions and see what bubbles up, and this year my Bulgarian is finally at a level where I can appreciate most of what they have to say. It’s hard to focus on teaching them English when I have so much to learn from them.
So I took a detour last Wednesday morning, writing a list of English words on the board and asking the students to read them as I wrote: riot, corruption, bribery, to bribe, to accept a bribe, violence, protests, racism, until Stefan said,
“You watched the news last night, didn’t you, Miss?” Laughter filled the room and I smiled, too. My biggest fear was a tense, quiet room where the kids were too afraid of each other’s differences and my judgement to speak up. Already it looked like my worries were for naught.
“What’s happening in Bulgaria right now? What happened in Katunitza?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“There’s going to be a civil war!” said Vasilena.
“There already is a civil war!” said Julien. Several students gave a little nod and kissed their teeth in skepticism. Julien is growing up to be just like his father, who teaches geography: a wiry, fast-talking man.
“There won’t be a war,” insisted Stefan and most of the students agreed with him. I was also incredulous about the war prediction.
“Julien, is there a war here? It seems pretty peaceful to me.”
“It’s different, here, miss, because we don’t have a Roma mafia. Here the gypsies are fine, just like everyone else.” More than a few times I’ve heard Bulgarians and Turks complain that there are “too many gypsies” in П–––––––, and warn me against crossing the train tracks.
“Is there mafia here? Is there corruption?” I asked.
“Those are everywhere!” everyone responded.
“So we do have them? Who are the corrupt people here?” People got cagey.
“Umn, here it’s just more mixed. Everyone kind of does everything. And there are Turks, too.”
“How do the mafia get rich? Why don’t the police arrest them?”
“The mafia pays their salary, Miss!” said Veronika, and a couple other students mimicked her as she rubbed her thumb and forefingers together.
“So, in Katunitza, the mafia is Roma. But who are the police?”
“They’re Bulgarian!” Veronika answered.
“But, now the protesters are also Bulgarian. They’re saying the Romi cause crime and have special rights. Do you think they have special rights?”
Stefan rolled his eyes and was silent. Stefan is wise to all my feigned innocence about this topic, and generally hangs back in these conversations. Sanya just laughed, “No, Miss! Only the rich have special rights!”
“The police take bribes because the pay here is nothing.” said Veronika.
“So, should they get paid more?” I asked.
“NO!” The room erupted in laughter.
“If they do their job, let’s pay them well,” said Plamena. A few people ceded begrudging head bobs, and Sanya finished the sentence, “but first the corruption must be cleaned up.” Sanya is plump and cheerful, and Plamena is blonde and dry-humored. They are inseparable. They hold hands, apply each other’s mascara, and finish each other’s sentences. They are virtually impossible to stop from cheating on tests. I don’t think they conceptualize sharing answers with one another as cheating, since, much like we let our cell phones remember phone numbers for us, I think Plamena and Sanya assume that they will always be together, and that any piece of knowledge in one girl’s head is always accessible to the other, and therefore fair game on a test.
“Who is responsible for the corruption, then? The Romi mafia or the Bulgarian police?” I asked.
“Everyone is responsible, Miss,” said Vasilena, “No one trusts the police, no one respects them. They take bribes from anyone, either Bulgarian, Turkish or Romi.”
“So why are Bulgarians protesting against Romi? All over, not just in Katunitza?” I asked. Again Julien piped up,
“There in Katunitza this Tzar Kiro rules everything. He runs the town, the police do what he says. He doesn’t do what they say. And he says he’s not only the boss of Katunitza but the boss of the Romi. He wants Romi in government so they will do what he wants, all over Bulgaria.”
“The boss of the Romi, нали?” Again I feigned innocence. Sweet, nervous little Stella had run off to the bathroom. Several students were absent, most of whom lived in villages nearby, and Stefan never calls himself Roma although his father is. So I knew the answer to this question before I asked,
“Who in this room is Roma?” Sanya grinned and raised her hand. Throughout this conversation, and all of our conversations about this topic, I wonder how much of the restraint, and respect, that the Bulgarian students show for Romi has to do with Sanya. She is a proud, confident girl, and liked by everyone. Sanya is at once more integrated with Bulgarians and Turks, and more outspoken about her Roma identity, than almost anyone I’ve met. Without her in the room, this could have been a very different conversation.
“And Sanya,” I asked with a smirk, “Is Tzar Kiro your boss?” The whole room giggled and Sanya laughed and shook her finger at me.
“Miss, you know most of us want to live like everyone else! Just to go to work, have a little extra for our families and live a normal life. Corruption, mafia, we don’t have any business with these things.”
“The problem, Miss Dunn,” said Stanislava, “is Bulgarians want to blame all the Romi for the actions of only a few. We can’t say they are all mafia because of Tzar Kiro, just like they can’t say we are all like the football fans at the protest who hate them.”
“Why are the police accepting bribes from Tzar Kiro if Bulgarians feel this racism against Romi? If the police are Bulgarian, why would they help this Roma boss?” I asked.
“The police aren’t racist,” said Sanya, “Money makes them blind.” Heads shook in agreement.
The news last week was dire. Even more disheartening were the reports that many of the protesters were minors, some younger than my 11th grade students. It seemed festering fears and resentments were bursting all over the country. Prime Minister Borisov was saying all the right things, that this was a criminal matter and shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of ethnicity, and indeed, it looked like my students knew how to say all the right things as well. In the States we sometimes call that ‘lip service.’ Americans are aware that they’ll be stigmatized for overt racism, so they become fluent in codified insinuations, and on the surface, everyone tows a hollow line of tolerance and equality. Most people here still don’t feel obligated to tow that line, however, and Bulgaria, like the rest of the Balkan states, has recent and ugly examples of state-sanctioned racism in her history. As my students tumbled out of the room in high spirits, I had to believe it was more than lip service. Saying all the right things can be the difference between peace and violence.