Friday, April 09, 2004

School Daze

There was a distinct, definite moment yesterday where I stepped outside my body for a moment, looked down at myself, and echoed the sentiment below re: Iraq: "What in the hell is going on?"

We define ourselves, to some degree, by our surroundings. I live in Washington. I go to Saint Ex to drink beer. I work downtown. So what am I doing in a village at the base of the Caucasus mountains surrounded by a hundred schoolchildren from ages 6 to 18? What on earth will I say to them?

I drove out to the town of Telavi and surrounding villages to visit the schools that have started their first Student Councils with the help of my organization. The woman coordinating their activities wanted me to see the condition these students learn in, and speak with them myself.

Telavi is in Georgia's wine-growing region, and everywhere were great vineyards and fields being plowed with horse-drawn plows. I still cannot accustom myself to the sight of horses pulling carts along the road, or pigs and chickens and sheep scurrying by your feet. Women leading their cows along the road.

The first school we visited is housed in what was once a palace - a building over 250 years old and showing every day of its age. There's no heat in any of these schools, glass for windows is rare, walls are falling apart. No toilets either, and nobody really was able to tell me what the students and teachers do about this. Maybe I don't want to know. They brought me in to a small, crumbling room where 8-10 students instantly rose out of their chairs and stared at me shyly, curiously. They'd steal glances and avert their eyes when I looked at them. Me, I was terrified of them. I haven't spoken to high school kids since my sister was one.

But once we started talking, everyone seemed to relax. These students were on the Student Council, and they jabbered endlessly about the clothes and food they'd gathered and donated to the elderly in their community, the massive clean-up they'd organized of the school and nearby roads, their plans to train nearby schools on forming councils and running elections. They asked me a lot of questions about how Student Councils work in America, and I managed to answer them without betraying the fact that they were basically resume-padders for the college-bound, and nobody really cared. Does it mean I've gotten old, if I'm inspired by the fresh-faced optimism of youth?

The second school was the site of my out-of-body experience mentioned above. On that day, they had organized a school-wide clean-up, and everyone was in the yard working. Little 2nd-graders were hauling wheelbarrows, and older students were burning rubbish and stray foliage. We decided to meet with the Student Council members outside, so we settled on a bench in the garden. Of course, the stranger from Washington was not an event to be missed, so the entire clean-up ceased and I was very conscious of the crowd that had gathered all around. Little bitty ones toddling from foot-to-foot at my elbow, the older boys in the back scoffing and trying to look bad. I felt sort of like Jesus and tried to think of some parable about fish and bread or something. There were giggles everywhere when they heard me speak English, before my translator clarified things. So that's when I stopped listening to myself talk and thought: here I am in a tiny village in the middle of Georgia, with a mob of strange children looking at me as though I was from Mars, and freaking roosters wandering around behind them.

It was simultaneously very cool and very disorienting. When I'm back in Washington, drinking beer at Saint-Ex, I doubt I'll believe I was really there.


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