"Please! Can we have English?"

Ukrainian ClassroomI’m finding it harder to write these posts because there is so much going on that narrowing down what to say is a struggle. In addition to our daily language classes, we’ve started teaching four times a week. Probably one of the funnier experiences I had in the classroom was the first time I taught fourth grade. The great thing about the younger classes is that they are completely enamored with Americans. They are the ones who shout “Hello America” as I walk down the street, and follow me when I go for jogs. So when I entered the school for my first lesson without a Ukrainian translator, I was feeling pretty confident. I went into the class and started setting up, but there were no kids. There wasn’t even a backpack or a jacket lying around. Confused but undeterred, I double-checked my schedule and the room number. I was in the right place at the right time, but I was apparently the only one. I decided to wander the halls for help.

That’s when I saw Stas, a little boy I knew to be in the fourth grade. I flagged him down and we started having a very labored conversation in Ukrainian. “Is this your classroom?” I asked, relying heavily on gestures. “Yes,” he said proudly in English. “My class.” “When do you have English today?” I questioned. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Upstairs.” I’m not really sure about the last part as it was in Ukrainian, but that’s my best guess. “Tomorrow?” I asked skeptically. “Not now, not today?” There was something in little Stas’ grin that made me think he was messing with me. Let’s be honest, if you were 10 and had a foreign teacher asking you in broken sentences if you had class, you’d probably say no. I know I would.

As we were talking, a substantial crowd had gathered. After a few more questions I discovered they were in the 4th grade. Feeling clever, I decided I had uncovered an attempted mutiny. “Okay, everybody: It’s time for English,” I said as I rounded up the little ones and pushed them toward the door. At this point, several little girls squealed with delight and one actually hugged me. This should’ve tipped me off that something was amiss, but I was thankful for the encouragement. Just as I was about to begin, a Ukrainian teacher opened the door and, either not seeing me or assuming I was a student, started telling everyone to get out of the room and go outside. I approached her and found out that the fourth grade actually had recess right now. There had been a change in the schedule. Chuckling at my own conspiracy theory, I apologized and said I hadn’t heard of this. But the kids were no longer in the mood for recess. After all, they had an American all to themselves. They weren’t going to give this up without a fight. The girls cupped their hands together and pleaded, “Please! Can we have English?” Incredulously, the teacher looked at me and said, “Well if you still want to have class, you can.” Thinking I’d be a fool to turn away such thirst for knowledge, I said “Of course we’ll have English class. Why not?” The children erupted in applause.

Now I’d like to tell you they were angels after this ceremonious beginning, but that would be a lie. My intrigue disappeared the moment we started drilling vocabulary and the kids realized they just volunteered to skip playtime. Preying on my limited Ukrainian skills, they ran around the room and dared me to discipline them. Using a handful of powerful words, I told them to sit down, be quiet, and listen to me. That worked for about a minute. Then Vladik staring hitting Sasha, and Sergihy decided to pound his fists on his desk. Remembering my own elementary experience, I put Sasha and Vladik on opposite sides of the room and brought Sergihy up to the front. I didn’t really know what to do with him so I just had him stand there, away from anything that could possibly double as a drum. Ironically, the boys reveled in my attention. It’s kind of hard to discipline children who are beaming at you in adoration. Through the magic of markers and white paper, I was able to bribe them into behaving. There’s nothing like a drawing activity to quell an elementary insurrection. By the time the bell rang, they were all working quietly, and had even spoken a little English. Sure, it was no recess, but I’m pretty sure they enjoyed themselves all the same.