**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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!