The Unofficial English Club

Today was a good day.

After many failed attempts and half-starts, I had my very first English Club.

I had tried several times to arrange meetings through the chain of command: principal, vice principal, head english teacher, my counterpart. It was a long process. And, it had finally come to a foreseeable conclusion when the Flu Quarantine was declared, and the school was chained shut for two weeks. This was followed by a Monday holiday for “International Women’s Day.”

Suddenly I found myself halfway through the Spring semester with nary a meeting to my name. And it wasn’t for lack of interest. Students in general are pretty fascinated by American culture. They wear American brands, listen to American pop music, watch Hollywood movies, and snap pictures of me in class with their cell phones. I wasn’t really worried about students showing up to my club.  I was more concerned with getting the proper permission and following protocol. I was trying to respect the Ukrainian emphasis on authority and obedience.

Note my use of past tense.

Yesterday it just hit me. If I don’t get this club rolling, it might never happen. With a key to the English Teacher’s Cabinet in hand, I announced to all my high-school age students that there would be an English Club Wednesday at 3 p.m. “Another lesson?” they asked skeptically. I assured them it would not be a lesson. “I want to talk about American culture, show pictures, and play music,” I said trying to lure them in.

Now what I really envision for this club down the road is more akin to a debate club or a writer’s circle, but that would scare them away.  And I intend to start small and entertainingly. My school doesn’t really have a “club” concept. They have a lot of plays and drama presentations, but other types of enrichment clubs are nonexistent. In the Soviet Union, students were required to do a certain number of after-school activities. Ukraine rebels against this idea in much the same way that they rebel against drab colors.

In the Soviet Union, the only colors students could wear to school were brown, black, and navy blue. Knowing this history helps explain the tangerine orange jackets, purple pants, and lime-green sweaters I see peering at me from behind desks. The club phenomenon is another verse of the same song. Activity overload gave way to a dearth of clubs and organizations. And students and teachers alike are understandably skeptical of such ideas. After all, it sounds like more work, but without grades or pay. This is not entirely untrue, but clubs can also be a place of discovery, authentic learning, cultural exchange, and fun. A more controlled, academic sort of fun, but still a valid entertainment source, I think.

Well, one meeting down and I’m feeling pretty positive about the possibilities. Ten students, all female, were waiting for me outside the English Cabinet today at 3 p.m. sharp. I was encouraged to say the least. I was also a bit confused. Some of the students who attended aren’t even in my classes. And the ones who are always coming up to me after lessons (and sometimes during them) and asking to take a picture with me, or hear about my tastes in music, movies, and food, were notably absent. Logic tells me that those over-eager students would jump at the chance to spend an extra hour with me, but logic doesn’t get me too far these days.

I started the club by playing pop music (Justin Timberlake, Kelly Clarkson, Michael Jackson, etc), and showing a slideshow of pictures from various American cities. I had prepared a good bit of flashy entertainment as well as a slightly dry worksheet on the differences between American and Ukrainian cultures. After about 20 minutes of pictures and generic lyrical ballads, I posed a question. “Do you want to see more pictures, or do you want to talk about American and Ukrainian values?” I fully expected them to choose the mindless work of picture browsing. After a full day of lessns, I could hardly judge them. But, once again, I was wrong.

“We want to talk about America,” one girl said. I pulled out a large sheet of white paper with “Ukraine” on one side and “America” on the other. I had about twenty slips of paper with opposing world views on them, such as “formal” and “informal” or “group-oriented” and “individualistic.” It was a good old-fashioned Venn Diagram , with some of the values like “freedom” and “hospitality” going in the middle column. The ensuing conversation surprised me, not only because it was so robust, but because we so frequently disagreed.

At first, the girls put the slips where they belonged for them. Words like “authoritative,” “reserved” and “flexible” were on the American side, while “loud,” “private,” and “ambitious” were on the Ukrainian side. Their categorization was interesting to me, especially considering that I had done this exercise with Ukrainians before during training and they hadn’t put the puzzle together this way. In that group, we had nearly unanimously agreed that privacy was an American concept, Ukrainians were far more flexible than those across the pond, and authority was much more respected in the East. But as we began to discuss their choices, it appeared our disagreements stemmed from different definitions of the words themselves.

The girls described privacy as “fences and gates around our homes,” and “not talking or greeting people they didn’t know.” I had to admit they were correct. We (I speak for the South at least) frequently greet everyone we meet with a smile and hello, regardless of friendship or acquaintance, and sit out on our front and back porches.

But the privacy I was thinking of was of a different stripe. Our children have locks on their doors, and parents are generally expected to knock before entering. We like to live alone at some point in our lives, and value time to ourselves. Two different definitions of privacy, but both very accurate.

Our definitions of ambition also differed dramatically. The girls defined it as “getting married and having a family,” but this was an ambition not just for girls, but for boys as well. Family here is everything. When I explained that in America, when you meet someone for the first time they will inevitably ask you, “What do you do?” not “What’s your family like?” they snickered. But it’s true. And I’ve found the reverse to be quite shocking in Ukraine.

As I went through the ritual of meeting new people, I couldn’t believe the number of questions they asked about my family. “Do you have a brother or a sister? Are they married? How old are they? Where do they live?” were all asked frequently, but what I did for a living rarely made the cut. I think many people whom I consider friends in this country still don’t know I worked as journalist in the states. But they know that I’m the youngest child of three and that my mom had a kidney transplant last year.

When it was my turn to arrange the values, I did a 180 on the aforementioned ones. We had a really fruitful discussion not only of the characteristics themselves, but on how we defined them, which really told a lot about our cultures as well. At the end of our non-lesson, I posed a very Ukrainian question. “When do you want to meet again?” In America, we would meet on the same day, at the same time, in the same place. But in Ukraine, life and plans are always subject to change (hence my categorization of flexible).

They decided to meet Monday at 2:30 p.m. Why not. I’ve learned enough in the nearly six months (wow! i can’t believe it’s been that long) to know not to ask why this Wednesday was good and the next one is not.

I’m sure they have their reasons. All I really care about is seeing them again and having more conversations like this as often as possible.