Tough Goodbyes

After an emotionally taxing day, packing up my apartment was not easy. I made some progress, but it didn’t take long for exhaustion to overwhelm me. Despite all I had to do, I allowed myself to fall asleep early, knowing that the next day would also be hectic.

Eight hours of sleep felt great. I woke up with more energy than I’d had in weeks, and finished up the majority of my packing quickly. At 11:30, I started the walk to school for the last time. Valentin, my mentor and friend, had told me that I had a final meeting with the principal at noon, and I didn’t want to be late. When I arrived, Valentin was waiting for me on the steps of the school with a big smile on his face. “I hope I’m not too casual,” I said as I walked up to him. I had packed most of my work clothes, and was donning my Silistra t-shirt from the day before.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Wait out here. Let me make sure the principal is ready.”

No more than 30 seconds later, Valentin bounced back down the front steps of the school, and ushered me inside. I expected we’d be going into the principal’s office, but instead he led me to the teachers’ lounge–“strange,” I thought.

When the door to the teacher’s lounge swung open, I immediately realized that there would be no official send-off meeting with the principal, as I had expected. Instead, the “meeting” was a guise for my going away celebration. As I walked in, I noticed that the large teachers’ table, usually overflowing with textbooks and grade books, was covered with a vast spread of Bulgarian dishes. Valentin called for the group’s attention, and shared some words about my role as a teacher at Peyo Yavorov Foreign Language High School.

Now I have to take a minute to talk about Valentin. He has popped up in my blog from time to time, but until this point, I think I’ve failed to communicate just how instrumental he was during my time in Bulgaria. Without Valentin, my life in Silistra would have been tough. In addition to showing me around town, Valentin taught me how to pay bills, lesson plan effectively, and navigate a foreign culture. He has been a great friend outside the classroom, and a great co-teacher and partner inside the classroom. An exceptional teacher, he not only teaches students English, but also instills important values, and does it all with a great sense of humor and a big smile on his face.

After Valentin spoke, the school principal said a few words, and presented me with a gift: a hand-carved wooden sculpture of two owls. At first, I was a bit perplexed, but as she started explaining, I began to understand. The owl is our school mascot, and the big owl with outstretched wings symbolized me, the teacher, watching over the baby owl, which represented my students. I felt honored to receive such a gift, and will treasure it for a long time.

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School principal and me

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Peyo Yavorov faculty and staff

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English Department! (Margarita, Kremena, me, Aneta, Valentin)

A couple hours after the school celebration, it was time for another tough goodbye. Nadia had taken a day off of work to be in Silistra (she typically worked in Varna during the week), and she and Krassy had prepared a fantastic goodbye dinner. They invited Valentin as well, and it was fun for me to have them all together. I savored every bite of my shopska salad, knowing it might be my last one for some time, and even treated myself to an extra glass of rakia, fully aware that the plastic two-liter bottle from Krassy filled with the stuff wouldn’t fit into my already overflowing luggage.

Towards the end of dinner, after Valentin had left, I tried to articulate to Krassy and Nadia just how much their friendship meant to me. And to be honest, calling our relationship a “friendship” just doesn’t quite do it justice, because in reality, they treated me like family. I started off trying to express these feelings in Bulgarian, but quickly realized I didn’t have all the words I needed to fully express myself. Frustrated, I switched to English. I knew Krassy wouldn’t understand the words, but I made sure our watery eyes connected, and knew that he understood exactly what I was saying, despite the language barrier. All the time we spent together enhanced my Bulgaria experience, and it would not have been as meaningful or as enriching of a year without these friendships.

Fortunately, Krassy, Nadia, and I have been in touch over Skype! I got Krassy set up before I left, and have had lots of fun reconnecting with them. We’re still working on keeping our faces aligned with the camera, but are making progress! Of course, Krassy always wears his USA shirt for the call!

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Skype call with Krassy and Nadia

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Skype

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Last Day of School

**This post immediately follows The Balkan Sprint post from July 28th. I recommend reading that post first for the full context of this one.**

After driving through the night in the “Balkan Sprint,” I arrived at my apartment utterly exhausted. Having just picked up my apartment keys from my mentor Valentin, I was excited to get a couple hours of sleep before heading into school a short while later. However, less than a minute after my head hit the pillow, my doorbell broke the silence with two quick bursts–“Krassy,” I thought to myself as I hopped up to get the door; he must have heard me come in.

“How are you my friend?,” Krassy inquired in his usual, fatherly tone. His damp hair and perky attitude signaled he’d just gotten out of the shower, and already had at least one morning coffee.

“I’m tired, Krassy. I want to sleep,” I replied in Bulgarian.

“Yea, Valentin called me and said that you drove here last night. You’re crazy,” he said with a smirk. Then immediately back to business: “Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little at his invitation. I was so tired, I could hardly keep my eyes open, much less make dinner plans. “We’ll talk later, Krassy, but tomorrow night might be better for me.”

“Okay. Nadia and I just need to know, so we know when to buy the lamb.”

“Let’s plan on tomorrow then,” I said as I started closing the door.

A “sleep well,” slipped through the crack of the door just before the latch clicked.

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I awoke to my alarm after what felt like two minutes. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that it had actually been closer to two hours. I rolled out of bed and willed myself into the shower. As I thought about the last day of school, my energy started to return; pure adrenaline would get me through the day.

Running on fumes, I decided to treat myself to a taxi. Before long, I’d be back in the U.S. where a 5 minute taxi ride would cost me $20 instead of 3 leva (less than $2)…might as well take advantage.

As I stepped into the taxi, my phone started ringing. “Where are you?” my mentor Valentin asked.

“I’m on my way!,” I replied. “I thought you said 10:00.”

“I did, but some students are here waiting for you.”

“I’ll be there shortly.”

“I’m going to miss him,” I thought to myself as I hung up the phone. “Always looking out for me.”

After hurriedly paying my cab driver, I rushed up the front stairs. Before I could even collect myself, I was ushered into a first-floor classroom where I found my entire 8A and 9A class waiting for me. Standing in a semi-circle with me in the middle, they started singing “Happy” by Pharell Williams. It was an obvious reference to one of my favorite lessons where we discussed what it meant to be truly happy (along with many synonyms and antonyms of the word). Eva, one of my stellar 9th grade students and an excellent singer was leading the group with a big smile on her face.

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Eva leading the class in song

After the second chorus, the music suddenly stopped. Dayana, one of the best English speakers in my class was standing at the tip of the semi-circle, and addressed me on behalf of the class. She thanked me for being not just a teacher, but also a friend and an inspiration. Before the last word had escaped her lips, Nikolai, standing on the left side of the semi-circle spoke about one of our favorite lessons together, and how it had moved him. Then Ellie, off on the right side, thanked me for coaching her on our debate team, and giving her a newfound confidence. Everything after that was a blur as I felt my eyes start to well up. My eyes darted around the semi-circle from student to student as each shared a memory, triumph, or lesson learned during our time together. Somehow, they did it in a manner that seemed both random and well-orchestrated at the same time.

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8A and 9A – Love these kids

Even as I type this, my eyes start to water up as I think back on the moment. That’s how much these kids mean to me. I like to think that it was the lack of sleep that made me more emotional than usual, but if I’m being honest, there was probably more to it than that.

Once the last student had shared, I was presented with several gifts: A t-shirt, calendar, and magnet from Silistra, and a Bulgaria coffee mug. I’ve worn the t-shirt proudly several times since then, and I can’t think of a way I’d rather start my morning than by drinking coffee from a Bulgaria mug and reflecting on this very moment. 9A also gave me a big thank you card on poster board with messages from each student and 8A wrote me a nice post card expressing their gratitude.

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Poster board from 9A

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Poster board from 9A

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Post card from 8A

As I scanned the classroom, my watery eyes met several dozen other pairs of watery eyes as I thanked the students from 8A and 9A for an amazing year and a transformative experience. I thought the best way to express how much they meant to me was to tell them the story of my past 24 hours. I told them about my overwhelming sadness when I was all but certain I would miss the last day of school, and hoped that the story of my overnight “sprint” to make it back in time would adequately communicate how much they meant to me.

After our time together, we went out to the front of the school where we took the below picture. You can see my brand new Silistra shirt front and center!

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8A and 9A and co-teachers Valentin, Kremena,Margarita, and Ani

After a number of individual goodbyes with students, I went back inside and collapsed on the bean bag in our school lobby, not sure exactly how I should be feeling. At right about the same time, I noticed the students of 10A all starting to trickle into nearby Room 103. “What were they up to?,” I wondered.

Shortly thereafter, the door to the room swung open, and I heard Frozen’s “Let it Go” blasting from the classroom speakers. It was at this point I determined that perhaps sleep deprivation had gotten the best of me, and that I was really losing it. But sure enough, the unmistakable sound of Elsa’s voice emanated from the classroom mixed with the voices of twenty-six 10th graders. Several students came over and shepherded me into the classroom where all of 10A was waiting. The song selection was of course the result of my less-than-stellar rendition of “Let it Go” at our fundraising talent show a couple of months prior. Despite my tendency to butcher that song, I couldn’t help but sing along.

With Elsa’s final words still reverberating in our ears, Miriyana and Mariella stepped forward and presented me with a beautiful flower. While the flower was a heartfelt gesture, what they presented me with next was 1,000 times more meaningful, and will be the souvenir I go back to again and again. It was a notebook with a personal entry from every student in the class reflecting on our time together. Not surprisingly, most of the entries focused on our fundraising project that successfully raised $28,500 to build a school in Ghana–I don’t think anyone who was involved will ever forget it! I included a picture of the message from Meli. She is very artistic and creative, and always has an interesting way of expressing herself–calling me an “alien” was no exception!

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Flower from 10A

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“To Michael from 10A”

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Message from Meli

I told 10A how proud I was of them for raising such an impressive amount of money for the greater good, and promised to keep sending along updates about the progress of our school. Those kids are destined for greatness, and I can’t wait to hear about all the amazing things they will undoubtedly accomplish in the upcoming years.

After our group goodbye, I had a number of individual conversations with students who came up for a final (for now) few words or to take a picture. Conversations with Christian and Dorotea, two of my B.E.S.T. competitors, stand out in particular. They each made a special effort to get me one-on-one to share what they learned and express thanks. Ask any teacher–that means a lot. Christian is the one who wrote and performed a rap song as part of our school build campaign; I am so proud of how much he has grown and matured this year. Dorotea was one of the top students in my class, and really impressed me both inside the classroom and as part of my speech & debate team.

After an emotionally exhausting day, I walked home and fell fast asleep for several hours. When I woke up that evening, I continued the long packing process. Despite the long nap, I went to bed early that night, still drained from the previous 36 hours. I had a final meeting with my school principal the next day, as well as another round of emotional goodbyes with Krassy, Nadia, and Valentin. More on that next time!