Thursday, December 5, 2013

Too Cool for School!

So today I visited a school in Novosibirsk.

I had a really good idea of where to take it from there but all my thoughts are mashing together. Maybe it's just that the entire event was so incomprehensibly Russian. My mind is blown.

I'll start from the beginning. My contact, with two of her students from the 10th grade, picked me up at the ungodly hour of 8am this morning (seriously, the only other time I was outside at 8am in Russia was the Saturday night I spent dancing my tail off in Синий Инней). A coupled of things about 8am on Pedagogical University "island" in Novosibirsk. 1) Outside the university is consistently the worst traffic jam I've seen since any time I was on an interstate within 100 miles of Washington D.C. 2) It's still pitch black at 8am. 3) It was snowing. None of this was exactly planned for, so my contact was in a serious hurry to get to the university. As one of her students used GPS to try to find alternate routes (there are few), we raced as fast as we could through the traffic jam. When the traffic did briefly open up, we zoomed along to find two people nonchalantly crossing the road immediately in front of us. I felt the car slide - I feared disaster - but somehow we dodged them (I swear we went through them as if they were ghosts, I don't know how they escaped).

From there, we alternated between sitting in traffic and cutting down side "streets." As most shortcuts of this nature usually turn out, they probably didn't save us any time, but it did make for a nice adventure! I say "streets" because a series of potholes and torn up pavement doesn't quite qualify as a road, but you can drive a car down them if you are careful. If your not in the center of a city and it's not a main road, you better be careful in Russia. It may have involved blocking several lanes of traffic at various intersections, but in the end what should have been a 15 minute ride turned into an hour-long tour of Oktyabrskiy district, but eventually we made it to the school.

The school looks just about like you would expect a school to look, but noticeably featured four floors and narrow hallways. I was greeted at the door by two students holding a sign saying "Welcome Alex," and was quickly whisked away to a classroom to store by coat. With little fanfare, they then put me into a class of 7th graders and asked "what are you going to do with them? There had been some conversations about what would happen, but somehow I imagined only teaching senior students (11th grade) who spoke English well. However, based on my past experiences here, I knew I needed to be ready for anything. Fortunately, I had brought my flash drive with all of my presentations and spit out my much rehearsed presentation about New Hampshire. One student, Igor, served as my impromptu translator. This was followed by a question and answer section that included such novelties as, "Do you watch anime," and, "Could you compare the playstation 4 and the XboxOne?" Eventually a bell rang, and most of the students left, but the rest formed a little cluster around me asking more questions until eventually the teacher made it clear we had to go somewhere else.

The student cluster was to be a recurring theme. Perhaps I was the first American any of them had ever seen, or perhaps they thought I was a movie star, or maybe it was because I stood out like a sore thumb due to my clothes. No one managed to mention to me that Russian schools have a black-tie dress code - everyone wears suits. The university is casual, so I wore the argyle sweater that I often wear to teach at the university. Let's just say that an argyle sweater stands out pretty vividly against a sea of hundreds of navy blue suits. So everyone knew I was the American visitor, and the students would literally gather in the hallways and follow me around when possible.

These clouds of new friends were in addition to the group of 10th graders that was specifically assigned to be my tour guides. Our first stop was a 1st grade PE class, where I was goaded into participating in some calisthenics and several traditional Russian games. The first, called "hamsters and holes" is like musical chairs without the music and without the chairs (I guess you have to be more creative when you have less). It involved 1 group of students (the holes) standing with their legs apart, and another group of students (the hamsters) walking in a circle around them. When the teacher blew the whistle, the hamsters had to find a hole, but there was always one extra hamper. This unfortunate hamster would then leave the game and take any person from the "holes" group with him or her to make sure there was always one extra hamster.

The next game was something along the lines of "the fisherman and the fish." It involved one person in the middle spinning in a circle with a jump rope, while everyone else had to jump over the rope when it appeared underneath them. I think the closest I had ever come to playing this game before was in a round of Mario Party, but for the second round they decided to let me be the fisherman. However, my 10th grade hosts that I made play with me (heck, if I'm participating in this 1st grade PE class, they had to too!) were some pretty elusive fish, and I left the game dizzy and defeated by 16 yearolds. All the while one of my hosts filmed and photographed just about everything. Actually I think he filmed every thing I did while I was in the school.

After PE came tea time, which is where things really started getting a little awkward. I'm not used to being treated with formal hospitality, and, while it is flattering, it makes me uncomfortable because I have no freakin' idea what the protocol is! In one classroom they had a table set with tea, cakes, chocolates and even a samovar. They offered me everything on the table but didn't take anything for themselves until they had me completely situated. We then had an awkward 20 minute conversation about nothing in particular - Russian tsars, Russian tea traditions, what they want to be when they grow up...

Just as it was becoming more natural they decided now was the time to go on a "tour" of the school. They took me to various classes and I met with teachers and students. They even took me to the headmaster of the school, but everywhere they took me they only let me stay for 3-4 minutes and then they strongly suggested it was time to leave. Some rooms were comfortable, and some were downright awkward. There were many questions and answers and curious looks from 1st graders and 11th graders alike. I even visited a German class and tried to remember how to speak German (not very successfully). I met one PE teacher who had competed in track and field and had a brother in Reno, Nevada. This part of the day is all kind of a blur.

After lunch in an underwhelming cafeteria (it's a school cafeteria, what can one expect?) came the daily surprise. We set out for the school theater, and I was a little confused why. Oh, another stop on the tour? Nope, it's my presentation. My presentation?! What presentation? Presentation wasn't exactly written on the schedule, but they decided that I would be giving a presentation about my home state and answer some questions. Ok, same old, same old, no problem. But did they really have to scare me with this surprise presentation business?

The presentation went off without a hitch, and I'm not sure if anyone actually understood anything I said (it was all in English), but at the end they asked some interesting questions and they seemed to enjoy the whole process (although the young boys in the front row seemed to have more fun punching each other in the leg than listening to the presentation. I can't say I blame them).

After the presentation, I decided I had done enough and really needed to get home and get some rest (8am really is early for me). But making an escape from this school would not be easy, as we all gathered for a group picture, then changed photographers, then had individual pictures, and then we finally escaped to the room I had originally placed my coat. As I tried to make my escape, more students found me for photographs, and I said my goodbyes to my gracious hosts. One student, who spoke the most English and served as my primary host throughout the visit, deserves great thanks for her hospitality, and we shared a long goodbye.

We all exchanged gifts, and they gave me a pair of wool socks, a flash drive, two giant tombs on Russian history, and all the candies they could find. I returned the favor with a small flag of the United States and a postcard from New Hampshire with the Old Man on the Mountain on it. I felt like my gifts paled in comparison to theirs, but at least I had given them something. After some final pictures, I was finally home free! But then arrived two fourth grader girls (possibly?) who, of all things, requested my AUTOGRAPH. I can't say I've ever given my autograph before, but I obliged and they were as happy as two peas in a pod as they skipped off to their class.

The day in sum was both awkward and flattering. I'm glad I was able to bring such excitement and, I guess, joy to the students and teachers of this one small part of Russia. They treated me like royalty, but I feel horribly inadequate. I feel like a simple college graduate with a decent job in a foreign country, not much older or superior than anyone else I meet, but these students and teachers treated me like I was the American ambassador. It's hard for me to accept that I truly am in a senior, powerful, respected position here in Russia. It's an unnatural position for an American, and it's not entirely comfortable, but it does have its benefits.

Russia is really one of those places that picks you up higher than you've ever been one day, than drops you to the lowest of lows next. Those Russians who want to be your friend or impress you will treat you better than any American ever would, but those who have no reason to care about you will rudely make it clear what an intrusion you are in their life. After today, I definitely have some bad karma coming to me from the ladies in the coat-rooms and grocery stores.

In conclusion, hooray for mutual understanding!

1 comment: