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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The Balkan Sprint

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling in your stomach when you realized a mistake? Perhaps you slept through a crucial meeting or forgot to turn in an important assignment for school. Like most people, I’ve had this feeling a handful of times in my life, but perhaps none was as upsetting as the one I experienced a few weeks ago.

After a wonderful week in Croatia, I hopped off the bus in Kotor, Montenegro. Even though I had to shorten and change around the dates of my trip to fit my school’s exam schedule, I was having a great time. While strolling through sunny Kotor, halfheartedly looking for my hostel, but more just trying to soak in the city, my mind started to wander:  I couldn’t believe that my time in the Balkans was coming to an end. The previous 10 months had flown by, and I felt so fortunate to have learned so much.

I then started thinking ahead to the next couple of days. I’d go back to Silistra for the last day of school, have a goodbye dinner with my amazing neighbors Krassy and Nadia, and then head to Sofia for goodbyes with my friend Valentin and the Fulbright staff. Oh, and of course I had plans to get coffee with Diana, who had put me in touch with the school in Alfatar I had volunteered with a few months before. When was that meeting again? I glanced at my watch: June 29th. Wait a minute…June 29th?

That’s when it hit me. That gut-wrenching feeling when you know you’re right, but begging to be wrong. If today is the 29th, that means tomorrow is June 30th–the last day of school. If my watch is right, then my flight that was meant to get me back to Bulgaria in time had left a few hours ago. A quick glance at my phone confirmed my suspicion, and the full weight of my mistake starting to sink in:  I was going to miss the last day of school. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing my final opportunity to say goodbye to the students who had made my year so transformational and enjoyable. How could this have happened? I rushed to the nearest cafe to regroup.

“I’ll take a Coke, please,” I told the waiter, knowing it was the cheapest way to the WiFi password. My laptop calendar was the final nail in the coffin, as I confirmed for the third time that it was indeed June 29th. I realized that I had been working off an older version of my itinerary that I had put together before adjusting my travel schedule. It was a silly mistake, but it was also a big one. Before my Coke arrived, I had already scoped out numerous flight options, realizing that my predicament was pretty bleak.

It was about 2:30 p.m. and I needed to be in Silistra, Bulgaria by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. It didn’t take me long to realize that this wouldn’t be easy. Because Silistra is so remote, there were literally zero flight options that would get me to Bucharest, Romania (the closest airport to my hometown) early enough for school. Once I had exhausted my flight options, I started thinking outside the box. Maybe I could drive…Google Maps showed a 14.5 hour trip, but the route would take me through Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia all before crossing Bulgaria in its entirety. I entertained the option for a few minutes before realizing that was probably not wise. I would have no cell service for navigating, and had no idea what sort of visa requirements (if any) might be necessary to pass through places like Kosovo.

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Drive from Kotor, Montenegro to Silistra, Bulgaria

If driving from Montenegro wasn’t an option, maybe I could fly somewhere closer, and drive from there…Aha! Belgrade! I had just been on a road trip from Silistra to Belgrade with Krassy, so I knew the route decently well. A quick glance at Google maps suggested it’d take me roughly 9.5 hours to make the drive. That meant if I could get to Belgrade by 10:00 p.m. and drive through the night, I could probably make it! I quickly pulled up Kayak, and found a direct flight to Belgrade leaving in just a few hours–I had a plan! I slammed my laptop shut, left a few Euro for my Coke, and flagged down a cab as quickly as I could.

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Drive from Belgrade, Serbia to Silistra, Bulgaria

I arrived at the Tivat (Montenegro’s capital) airport stressed, but happy to have at least some semblance of a plan. After purchasing a surprisingly cheap ticket, the waiting game began. I used my 30 minutes of free airport WiFi to start researching rental car options, but held off on booking anything in hopes that I could find a better deal at the airport. I sat patiently for the short, 50 minute flight, trying to plan out my next few moves.

Upon arrival, I headed straight to the rental car kiosks in search of something very specific: an automatic transmission, GPS, and the proper tags to get me across the border. I also needed the flexibility to be able to pick the car up in Belgrade, but return it in Bulgaria. I learned right away that it wasn’t going to be cheap. Most rental car companies charge exorbitant “drop fees” to drop off a car in another country.

I started to get worried after striking out at Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty rental car services. Finally, I caught a break at Enterprise, where they told me they had an automatic car that met my needs…but it wouldn’t be cheap. I stopped at a few more desks before the agent at Sixt took an interest in my problem, and bent over backwards to help find me a solution. Unfortunately, he came up empty handed, so I returned to Enterprise and told them I wanted the car. One agent smiled and opened the drawer to get my keys and the appropriate paperwork. All of a sudden she froze, and looked sheepishly up at the other agent, whispering something in Serbian. My stomach sank again. She looked at me apologetically and said, “I’m really sorry, but we just realized the cars we have available don’t have the right tags to get you across the border.”

Defeated, I grabbed a seat back in the waiting area, grasping for any possible solution. Every minute that passed put me one minute closer to missing out on my last day of school. If the Belgrade airport doesn’t have any solutions for me, perhaps I could rent a car from somewhere else….maybe even Sofia. At about the same time this thought occurred to me, the Sixt agent came over and sat beside me. “What if I have one of my guys drive you to Sofia?”

“That would be helpful,” I said, “but I actually need to get all the way across the country, which is another 6 or 7 hours Northeast of Sofia. “Would the Sixt branch at the Sofia airport have a car I could rent, and pick-up late tonight when I’d be arriving?”

We walked back over to his desk, and found a car that met my specifications at the airport in Sofia. I called the agent there, and he agreed to wait around until 12:30 a.m. for me to pick up the car. Things were starting to fall into place! The price he quoted me was the same price it would have cost me to rent the car in Belgrade, and drop it off in Bulgaria–expensive, but worth it to me to get back for the last day of school.

I started to get a bit suspicious, however, when I began to understand how their driver planned to get me to Sofia. Rather than using a car from Sixt, we headed over to another rental kiosk (the cheapest, I presume), and proceeded to rent a car under my name. It dawned on me that these guys would make a killer profit off of me by essentially charging me the drop fee, but then not having to pay it since the driver would bring the car back to Serbia once he returned. Realizing that the helpful agent was more likely trying to play me, I headed out to the taxi stand to do a little price comparison. Through chatting with a couple of the drivers, I realized that a taxi to Sofia would be about 2/3 the price.

After a short bidding war between a taxi driver and the guys from Sixt (I was essentially running back and forth between the two), it became apparent that taking a taxi was my best bet. I think the three guys from Sixt and the other rental agency were a bit frustrated, but they were unwilling to match the taxi driver’s price…I guess splitting the fare three ways wouldn’t go very far. The guy who won my business was more excited than a kid in a candy shop. I like to think it was my good company he was looking forward to, but in all likelihood it was his good fortune to score such a long ride.

I glanced at my watch as we hopped in the car, and calculated that we’d be in Sofia shortly after midnight. We made a quick stop at a gas station for some snacks and drinks. As we walked into the gas station, the driver turned to me and whispered in broken English, “If you want…you can get some BEER for the road”…typical Balkans. Despite my refusal to buy beer, my driver insisted on buying me snacks and a water for the road. “Thanks for the snacks,” I said as I took my seat in the car.

“Thanks for Sofia,” he responded. It was clear that this trip was a big deal for him, as he spent the first 15 minutes of the ride chatting excitedly with his wife about it. Once he finished up on the phone, he began showing me all sorts of pictures and videos of his wife. While I wanted nothing more than to get some sleep in preparation for my nighttime drive, I didn’t have the heart to quell my driver’s enthusiasm. However, after the 5th or 6th video and several dozen pictures, I politely told him that I needed a nap. Sleep didn’t come easily, but I spent the majority of the 4.5 hour trip trying to get some rest.

We pulled up to the Sofia airport at around 12:45 a.m. After paying my driver and wishing him well, I rushed into the airport, where the rental car agent was waiting for me. As he pulled up my paperwork, I took advantage of the WiFi to fire off a couple of important e-mails. Most pressing was to let my mentor Valentin know my plans, as I would need to retrieve my apartment key from him upon arrival. I had left the key with him so he and the school accountant could inspect my apartment and decide whether or not another Fulbright grantee would live there next year.

Ten minutes later, and I was on the road to Silistra. By the time I left, it was about 1 a.m., which would put me home around 7 in the morning…just in time for a quick nap and shower before school! I spent the majority of the ride chugging coffee and blasting Bulgarian music with the windows rolled down. While I was upset with myself for an incredibly stupid travel mistake, I was pleased to have mitigated the damage. The last day of school would prove to be memorable, and made the expense and inconvenience of my “Balkan Sprint” worthwhile. More on my last day at school coming soon!

Celebrating Success and a Personal Message from Adam Braun

I was running a little late on Tuesday morning. Instead of my normal, relaxing routine sipping coffee and watching The Daily Show, I was scrambling to pack my things for school and get out the front door. While jamming my things in my backpack with one hand, I dialed Vasko–my favorite taxi driver who I call in a pinch–with the other.

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he said in Bulgarian.

Normally, I only bring a backpack or small bag to school, but today I was also lugging a big cardboard box and my weekend duffel bag. Today’s lesson with 10A was going to be a special one, but I needed some extra baggage to make it happen. These were the reasons for my frantic call to Vasko more so than the hot weather or the fact that I was running a bit late.

Before the end of the school year, I wanted to have another lesson with 10A to both reemphasize the lessons we had learned from our fundraising efforts and celebrate our success. We started the lesson by watching a short interview with Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise, pausing after each key point to discuss.

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An attentive 10A

Next, I asked the question: “What did you learn from this project?” I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear students bring up things like “Empathy,” “Teamwork,” “Thinking big,” and “Believing in the impossible and in ourselves,” all without any prompting from me. Since this lesson, I have also had the tremendous pleasure of reading their essays detailing the personal growth they experienced during the project. I hope to get permission from them to share some of these essays, because they are incredibly moving, and indicate maturity and growth on multiple levels.

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Great list of lessons learned

After that, things got really fun. A couple days before, I had received an e-mail from Pencils of Promise unveiling the specific community where our school will be constructed. I hadn’t told the class yet because I wanted it to be a surprise. I was excited to learn that the $28,451 we raised would go towards building Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School in Ghana. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail I received that I shared with 10A:

“Kindergarten students [here] currently do not have a classroom of their own. The students attend classes under a tree and this makes the learning process very difficult. When the build is complete, there will be a 3 unit classroom that will replace the tree where the the kindergarten students currently learn. The community is friendly and the students are eager to learn. As a direct result of your support, Pencils of Promise now has the capacity to change the community and build a school for these students.”
Along with the e-mail were two pictures of the location where our school was to be built. It was exciting to see the actual setting for our school and the faces of the kids we would be helping.
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The future home of Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School

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The future home of Adaklu Torda Pre-School and Primary School (2)

After a fun conversation speculating how life would change for these students once our school was built, it was time to share the contents of the bags I had brought to school. First of all, Brittany, our partner from Pencils of Promise, had generously sent a package with a pencil and bracelet for every student. Additionally, I gave every student a copy of The Promise of a Pencil each with a short message expressing how proud of them I was. This was the same book my grandparents gave me that inspired the entire project. The kids were all smiles as they came up one by one to receive their gifts!
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That’s a lot of books!

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Passing out the books

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Krisiyana already read my copy, but now she has one of her own!      

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Christian and Miriyana show off their new books

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Mariella receiving her book, pencil, and bracelet

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Raiya with her new book

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Vicky excited for a new read!

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Inna with her new book, pencil, and bracelet

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Deni reaches for her new book

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Koko will have to return my copy now that he has his own!

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Ivana is all smiles…per usual!

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Sesi with some new reading material

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Maria cheesin’

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Mecho checking out his new book

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Meli showing off The Promise of a Pencil

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Of course my partner in crime Kremena gets a book too!

Now with five minutes left in class, I had one last surprise up my sleeve. You might recall from a previous post that I wrote an e-mail to Adam Braun telling him more about my class and the amazing work they had done. Despite being incredibly busy, Adam took the time to send 10A a personalized video thanking my students for their fundraising efforts!

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The fact that Adam took the time to recognize our work demonstrates the type of leader he is, and is part of why I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I had every intention of filming my students’ reaction to the video, but I was caught up in the moment as much as the kids were. I managed to whip out the video camera partway through, and was able to catch a few moments of them taking in Adam’s message.

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10A Group shot!

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Showing off some PoP swag

Pencils of Promise – Silistra Fundraiser

In a previous post, I told you a little about the variety show my students organized in pursuit of our $25,000 fundraising goal with Pencils of Promise. With our campaign completed (successfully!) and the school year winding down, I finally managed to carve out some time to elaborate a bit more on the event. Fortunately, we had a photographer and videographer, so you can relive it yourself! To quiet the crowd and get things started, we played a fun, uplifting Bulgarian music video. To be honest, I don’t know the backstory behind it at all, but it was catchy and served its purpose.

  • The first concert act was Svilena, one of my exceptionally talented 9th grade students. I ran across a video of Svilena on Facebook one of my first weeks of school, and was amazed that such a young girl could have such a powerful voice. She displayed her incredible range in a performance of “Hallelujah.” Unfortunately, the first installment from our videographer was truncated after only four minutes, so only the beginning of Svilena’s performance was captured.
  • Dorotea and Koko were cut out as well, but they did an awesome job welcoming everyone to the event and explaining our project; we watched a video about Pencils of Promise that they dubbed over in Bulgarian and showed the video my students made.
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Koko and Dorotea. Both brilliant.

  • Yoana read some well wishes sent by the mayor who was unable to attend the event. He did, however, make a generous 50 leva donation a couple of days after the show!
  • Every high school teacher has encountered the occasional uninterested, “checked-out” student. During my first few weeks teaching, that was my impression of Christian. He routinely fell asleep in class and didn’t seem to show much initiative. That’s what makes the transformation I witnessed this year so miraculous, and one of my favorite stories from my experience here in Bulgaria. During a lesson on ISIS, Christian’s curiosity and interests were piqued. While I usually struggled to get him involved, this particular lesson, I struggled (albeit, not very hard) to make him stop talking so others had a chance to participate. That was a turning point for Christian, and there was no turning back. Since that class, Christian has not only been much more active in our lessons, but he has gone above and beyond outside the classroom too. He joined my debate team and competed in a national tournament (one of the debate topics was about military action against ISIS) and started taking theatre classes to explore his interest in performing. Seeing that transformation underway, I was not the least bit surprised when Christian stepped up to the plate in a big way during our fundraising project. He shared his passion for what we were trying to accomplish by volunteering (along with fellow 10A classmate Krisiyana) to Skype with potential donors, securing a $250 donation along the way. Additionally, to help promote our fundraiser he wrote a rap song with verses in English and Bulgarian to spread the word about our cause. Unfortunately, the video cut out his live performance.

  • The first dance performance was a group called Лиденс. One of the 10A students, Desi, is a member of this dance group. The colorful costumes and upbeat music made for an awesome act!
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Great act!

  • 3:35 – Christian and Veronica did a great job elaborating on our vision in a section they called “Philosohpy of Life.” These two had such great stage presence, and I was really proud!
  • 6:18 – Denitsa and Iliyan are the singer and lead guitarist of a local band named Blood Sugar (influenced by the name of a famous CD by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of my favorite bands). I’ve gone to see their band perform 3 or 4 times, and they always put on a great show. Tonight, they performed “Standing Next to Me” by The Last Shadow Puppets.
  • 9:13 – The next dance group included four girls from 10A (twins Raiya and Denitsa, Miriyana, and Maria). They immediately had the audience clapping along to their dance interpretation of “I Want Candy.”
  • 11:58 – Dorotea introduced Mert (stage name “Floppy”) who gave what in my impression was one of the most entertaining performances of the night, which is quite impressive for an 8th grader. His beatboxing act had the audience on the edge of their seats. You don’t want to miss this one, especially once the harmonica comes out at 13:18.
Killin' it

Killin’ it

  • 14:54 – The next singer is a bit of a mini-celebrity in Bulgaria. Introduced by Yoana, Christina was a contestant on Bulgaria’s version of The Voice, and has one of the most unique voices I’ve ever heard. On this particular night, she performed “One and Only” by Adele.

  • After Christina finished up her performance, Veronica and Christian continue working through the script written by 10A students!
  • 1:22 – Krisiyana is my 10A student who first read The Promise of a Pencil. I thought it was awesome that it was one of only two books she had decided to read in English (the other being Harry Potter). Her dance group, Axel, performed an interesting piece at 1:22. Enjoy it!
  • 5:17 – Meli and Mecho, introduced by Dorotea, are the other half of Blood Sugar, the band I mentioned earlier. These two are both in 10A, and I rarely see one without the other. They are incredibly close friends and both a joy to teach. They also have an infectious energy that brings out the best in those around them. This act was no exception as they performed “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars. I’ve had this song stuck in my head ever since!
  • 8:57 – Desi from the first dance group goes solo. You can check out her captivating performance starting at 8:57.
  • 11: 12 – As I mentioned in my last post, my students pulled off this charity concert pretty last minute. As a result, I didn’t even know the full set list when the show started. That’s why I was surprised when 8 adorable kids walked out on stage to sing. The young Do Re Mi group put on a great show starting at 11:12.
  • 14:18 – While the rest of Do Re Mi cleared the stage, two kids stayed behind and effectively stole the hearts of the audience with their duet. This was one of my favorite parts of the show. I could not believe the stage presence these two had at such a young age!
  • 17:30 – Interested in hearing some Bulgarian folk music? Fast forward to 17:30 to hear a group of students (Добруджанче) sing traditional songs. Four students from 10A were amongst the performers: Preslava, Vasilena, Dayana, and Daniela.

  • 2:21 – Once Добруджанче finished up, Christian and Veronica explain more of the history of our project and even give Kremena and me a shoutout at 3:21!
  • 3:51 – The older kids in “Do Re Mi” perform a catchy song in Bulgarian. These kids can sing!
  • 8:15 – Kremena and I take the stage with my brilliant student Koko, who translates for me. Kremena expresses gratitude to everyone who helped us with the fundraiser and the variety show as I unabashedly try to sneak a couple more peaks at the lyrics I’m trying to memorize.
  • 11:48 – I give a quick update on the project and the money we raised throughout the evening
  • 12:45 – My fate is sealed; I’m going to be embarrassed.
  • 14:20 – I explain why things are going to get ugly
  • 15:04 – My costume goes on; I put wig together about 10 minutes before leaving for the show; I think it was a good last minute touch.
Oh geez...

Oh geez…

  • 15:56 – The crowd starts waving their hands!
  • 16:16 – 10A students come out unplanned
  • 16:45 – Forget words for first time! Oh no…that’s a long pause!
  • 16:59 – Continue fumbling for words…
  • 17:06 – Luck out by remembering a couple of words
  • 17:13 – Thank goodness everyone knows the chorus
  • 17:56 – ufff, forget words again
  • 18:13 – WENT FOR IT…and missed
  • 18:48 – Group hug
  • 19:00 – Apologize to the crowd; I’m glad that’s over
  • 19:25 – Birthday wishes to one of the performers!

  • :14 – The last song starts: “We are the World” by Michael Jackson
  • 1:36 – Caught up in the moment, 10A comes out with all performers
  • 3:20 – Kremena joins us onstage!
  • 3:38 – Don’t leave out the youngsters from Do Re Mi; they wanted to join in on the fun!
  • 5:22 – Give flowers to our amazing director who was unbelievably helpful

Want to see more pictures from the show? Check out Mila Dragomirova’s “The World Through My Lens” blog! Mila helped us out by photographing our event free of charge. I also tutor in English at my mentor Valentin’s private language center, and she’s a great student! Thank you Mila!

I was so proud of 10A for pulling this performance together, and so pleased to see the school and community come out to support us en mass! This was one of the most memorable nights of my life, and I can’t watch these videos without breaking into a huge smile. The youth of Bulgaria have so much potential, and these kids are living proof of that obvious fact.

A Letter to Adam Braun: Founder, Pencils of Promise

First and foremost, I’m excited to announce that on Monday evening, my class achieved and then quickly surpassed our $25,000 fundraising goal. As you can imagine, the mood in class on Tuesday was celebratory to say the least! Throughout the day, students from 10A and other classes came up to celebrate our success. Upon walking into 6th period with 10A, we all erupted into a booming applause; it seems my students were tracking our progress every bit as closely as I was. I feel quite certain I wasn’t the only one to get goosebumps, and I chuckled when one of my students sitting in the front row yelled: “Let’s build another one!”

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Even though we have achieved our goal, we will continue pushing until our May 1st deadline, knowing that additional donations will go towards teacher trainings and student scholarships. That means that it’s not too late to donate!

As we now start researching Laos, Guatemala, and Ghana to decide where we want our school to be built, my attention has shifted towards a new goal: connecting with Adam Braun, Founder of Pencils of Promise, and the person who inspired this entire project. Last night, I sent him the below letter via e-mail in hopes that he might be willing to engage with my class directly. He’s an incredibly busy man, but I hope to hear back from him and work something out!

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Dear Adam,

This letter is an invitation. It’s an invitation to visit Bulgaria and meet a miraculous group of students who have accomplished a feat that many thought impossible.

My name is Michael Pelehach. A few months ago, I read The Promise of a Pencil, and was moved by your story. Like you, I quit my comfortable job in corporate America in search of something more meaningful. That pursuit led me to Bulgaria, where I’m currently teaching English at a foreign language high school on a Fulbright Grant.

After reading your book and researching your organization, I was motivated to take action. I had been searching for a way to teach my students about empathy and empowerment. You see, Bulgarian society places almost no emphasis on volunteerism and many people here suffer from a sort of pessimism or “communist hangover” effect that often impedes progress. What looks to you or me like an opportunity looks to many Bulgarians like an insurmountable barrier. I wanted to challenge that notion.

Reading your book sparked an idea: What better way to teach my students that they were capable of achieving significant, positive change than by challenging them to accomplish something monumental like building a school?

Unbeknownst to my students, I spent the next couple months teaching lessons I knew would be crucial to our success. We studied education inadequacies to develop empathy for children around the world who lack the tools and resources needed to learn; we learned about crowdsourcing and how online communities can rally around shared goals to accomplish something big; we discussed the power of story-telling to generate interest and compassion for a cause; and finally, we looked at examples of individuals or small groups making a big difference.

Once these lessons sunk in, I showed my students this video, officially challenging them to raise $25,000 to build a school with Pencils of Promise. While I was supremely confident in my students’ abilities, I was nervous about how they would respond to the challenge. I was asking them to take a big leap of faith by going after something unheard of in Bulgaria. But my concern quickly vanished as twenty-six wide-eyed 10th graders stared back at me, their faces painted with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement. Several of us were dabbing wet eyes, touched by the emotional moment; the energy we all felt suggested that determination would overpower skepticism.

The next few months were exhilarating! We broke into four teams (fundraising, incentives, production, and marketing) to ensure every component of our project had the necessary level of attention. My students worked quickly to set up a personalized fundraising page, film a YouTube video to tell our story and raise awareness, plan local fundraising events, and create social media platforms.

Since launching our $25K in 25 School Days on March 30th, we’ve experienced extraordinary success! Media outlets in both Bulgaria and the United States picked up on our story, Bulgarian celebrities responded to my students’ requests for help by contributing money and spreading the word, the local community showed up en masse to our charity concert, all while donations steadily poured in from around the world.

Our campaign ends this Friday, May 1st, and I’m happy to report that we’ve raised $26,150 so far, breaking all sorts of rules and cultural norms along the way. As a teacher, I’m so proud of my students’ hard work, determination, compassion for others, and willingness to challenge the status quo; this truly is a extraordinary group of students.

I would like to formally invite you to visit our school—Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School—in Silistra, Bulgaria and meet the students who willed this project to happen. My apartment has a vacant guest room that you would be more than welcome to use during your stay; otherwise, there are several comfortable hotels in town. In addition to welcoming you to our school, I would be thrilled to show you around the country I have grown to love since moving here in August. I assure you it has an interesting history, fascinating culture, and wonderful people.

One thing that you and I share is a love of travel and adventure. The inspiration and exhilaration you found in India, Vietnam, and Guatemala, I found in Peru, China, and South Africa.  Like you, I have also found the relationships in my life that cross borders and cultures to be some of the most fulfilling; your Joel, Lanoy, Sam, and Cornelio, are my Dulia, Alison, Valentin, and Krasimir. People are what make travel worthwhile, and I’m eager to introduce you to the students, colleagues, neighbors, and friends who have made my time here in Bulgaria so special and made this project a reality.

I will be in Bulgaria until early July, and I encourage you to consider accepting this invitation. Not only will you certainly have an enriching experience, but you will also inspire youth to accomplish big things.

I look forward to your reply, and would love to discuss details about your potential visit.

Regards,

Michael Pelehach

English Teacher – Silistra, Bulgaria

Best Day Ever?

I’ve been fortunate to have a tremendous amount of support here in Bulgaria–from an incredibly helpful Fulbright staff, to a teacher mentor determined to make me feel at home, to a hilarious neighbor who has adopted me as his own son, to eager and welcoming students, to a steady stream of visitors from the states, and to enthusiastic Fulbright peers happy to discuss the many highs and occasional low of our experiences. All in all, that’s helped me avoid feeling much in the way of homesickness. This past weekend was a bit of an exception. It marked my five year Duke reunion in Durham, and I was thousands of miles away.

My Gmail inbox filled up with Duke friends coordinating hotel and transportation arrangements. My Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with pictures from events on campus that I longed to be a part of (BEER PONG IN CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM…ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!). Groups of friends sent pictures that I should have been in. My jealousy only grew as I thought back to the Duke Community that I love so much.

Senior housemates minus me

Senior housemates minus me

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to stop feeling sorry for myself, because Tuesday night just might have been the best night ever. It was the night of my students’ charity concert and for many reasons, it’s a night I will never forget.

In the days and weeks leading up to the show, we broke a lot of rules. Typically when my school organizes an event like this, it is several weeks or even months in the making. Scripts are carefully written and edited, performers rehearse multiple times, marketing efforts start early, venues are booked well in advance, and directors, sound technicians, and lighting experts are contacted ahead of time.

We didn’t do any of that. Three of my students in 10A wrote our script the week before the show. Being well-rehearsed was out of the question as our set list wasn’t even finalized until a few days ago. We lucked into a director after our first choice refused to work with us because we were getting such a late start. The only reason we had lights was the individual efforts of one of my amazing ninth graders and her connections with a local theater. Our marketing effort could best be described as a last-minute scramble, and our first full rehearsal ended an hour before the show started. But when you set out to accomplish big things and give yourself an aggressive deadline ($25K in 25 school days), sometimes moving quickly is more important than being perfect…somehow my students figured out a way to do both!

I loved the idea that we were breaking the rules. Since arriving in Bulgaria, I’ve constantly heard “this is not possible” or “this is not the way.” We were trying to prove that, as the saying goes, when there’s a will, there’s a way. That also meant that a lot was on the line; and we were behind.

To be honest, when the curtains opened last night, I didn’t know what to expect. Things had been moving quickly in the days leading up to the show (they had to), and I wasn’t exactly sure how it would go. It wasn’t that I doubted my students or their abilities; I just knew how fast we had been moving!

But then, the next couple of hours happened…and they were truly magical. 10A and some key support partners had stepped up to the plate, and the result was brilliant. Unfortunately, our photographer and videographer need a few days to process content from the show, so I’m going to save the play-by-play for my next post. That being said, I want to share some of the highlights as they are moments that moved me greatly and that I will never forget.

In no particular order…

  • Going into the show, our hope was to raise 900 leva ($497). We were thrilled to exceed our goal, raising 967 leva (~$532), which was a huge success! Even more exciting for the campaign is that we had two donors willing to match our charity concert fundraising efforts. Becky and Roger Tuuk, extremely generous friends of my family from back when we lived in Michigan, posted a $500 match, and an anonymous donor opted to match the entire $532 amount. For those keeping score at home, that’s over $1,500 in one night!
  • A few minutes before the show started, a couple of ladies I had never met came up to me and presented me with a rose. “This is from the mothers of 10A,” they said. “Thank you for what you’re doing for our children.”
From the mothers of 10A

From the mothers of 10A

  • The performances of my students were fantastic. There are so many good stories here, and I promise to elaborate more once I have the photos and videos to do them a bit more justice. In the meantime, I included a few pictures below to whet your appetite. Suffice it to say that I’m unbelievably proud of all the performers and the amazing acts they put on.
Youngsters

Some youngsters joined us for the show, and they definitely stole the hearts of the audience. I was amazed by their voices and stage presence!

Desi dance group

Dancing group

Meli Mecho

Two of my stud musicians from 10A

One of my 8th graders KILLED IT with his beat boxing

One of my 8th graders KILLED IT with his beat boxing

  • As an additional motivator, I agreed to sing a karaoke song at the concert if we raised 300 leva on top of ticket sales in a box labelled “Embarrass Michael.” A few acts into the show, some of my students passed me a note letting me know that the box had 420 leva in it (later updated to 484 leva), and my fate was sealed in the form of Frozen’s “Let it Go.” In my three and a half minutes of fame, I made just about every mistake possible: I forgot the words, I was out of tune, and I’m pretty sure my voice cracked at least once in an ambitious pursuit of the high notes. Needless to say the crowd loved it. My students unexpectedly rushed on stage to sing and dance along and the song ended in a huge group hug. It felt magical in ways that I’m sure not even Elsa has experienced.
Let it go

The Elsa wig I made just before the show left something to be desired.

Let it go - support

Happy to have some support on stage!

Group hug

  • The concert ended with a big group singing of Michael Jackson’s “We are the World.” An extremely talented vocal group, Do Re Mi, got us started, but inevitably all the performers once again flocked to the stage to sing along. There was so much joy and energy in the room!
  • After the show, I joined about 10 of my students at the local pizza joint. As I devoured a large pizza (pre-show prep had caused me to skip a couple of meals), we celebrated the progress we’d made towards our fundraising goal and hypothesized where our school might one day be located and how the kids would benefit. It was fun to hear my students admit that when I first issued the challenge, they were excited, but didn’t believe that it was possible (that’s actually reason I wanted to do this project in the first place). With over $21K raised, it’s safe to say that nobody feels that way anymore!
  • Krassy rang my doorbell shortly before I left for the show, and gave me 4 leva–the price of two tickets–even though he and his wife Nadia could not attend. Shortly after that, he came back with dinner, knowing that I was busy preparing for the show and might not have time to eat. I’m going to miss that man so much.

DSCN2424

  • Many of my teacher colleagues and the principal from Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School came out to support the cause! Regardless of whether they came to see me humiliated or to help build a school, I was extremely appreciative of their attendance. I was especially moved when the school’s chemistry teacher–a favorite of many students–thanked me for challenging our students to tackle something monumental and pursuing such a worthy cause.

In conclusion, despite feeling down about missing out on time with many of my best friends at my reunion, Tuesday night solidified that I was exactly where I was supposed to be this week.

LAUNCH DAY!

Written yesterday, 3/31.

After almost 6 weeks of preparation, my class launched our campaign to raise $25,000 in 25 School Days (3/30 – 5/1) through the Pencils of Promise organization. Regardless of how much money we make (though I’m confident it will be BIG), watching my students come together to create something impactful and that we are proud of has been such a joy. In previous posts, I expressed my desire to teach my students that they have the capacity to make a mark on the world, and though we still have a long way to go in the campaign, I’m already starting to see signs of that happening. Each of our four working groups (Marketing, Production, Incentives, and Fundraising) can already boast a long list of accomplishments and optimism is high. A more specific example came in the form of a Facebook message from Mariella that was like music to my ears (notice her flawless English).

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 7.08.01 PM

Mission Accomplished!

When I walked into class today–day two of our campaign–students were already gathering around the computer to pull up our fundraising page. The borderline obsessive page refreshers were eager to show their classmates the most recent couple of donations that had come in that morning. I smiled contentedly as they quickly decided who would respond with a punctual “thank you” post. Before the bell had rung to indicate the start of class, our generous donors had already been thanked. If you haven’t already, you can check out our fundraising page and YouTube video here: https://fundraise.pencilsofpromise.org/buildthemaschool

As I write this, our fundraising balance reads $3,272 which represents 13% of our goal! While we’ve jumped out to a quick start, the students are far from sitting back on their heels and getting comfortable.

Day 2 Campaign Selfie!

Day 2 Campaign Selfie!

  • Our fundraising team is planning local events including a talent show and potentially a pie booth. This will be incredibly important as we aim to engage the local community! We have also had a couple of donors match local fundraising efforts. Let me know if you’d be interested in joining that group!
  • A member of our production team has recorded a Bulgarian/English rap video about the importance of education and is working on editing the video. I’m so excited to see the final product and share it with those of you following our story.
  • The incentives team just completed a “donation thermometer” to hang in front of our school so that everyone is aware of the progress we are making. They are also making handwritten Thank You cards for local donors.
Build them a School Thermometer!

Thermometer to share our progress! Excited about the $2,907 at the time we snapped the photo!

  • And last but not least, the marketing team is posting blog updates on our fundraising page, contacting local media outlets, and helping us tell the story through social media (Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; entering your e-mail when you make a donation will also alert you to my class’s blog updates). I also just found out that a representative from bTV, a national news outlet in Bulgaria will be coming to our class tomorrow to do a story on our project. Last but not least, Adam Braun–founder of Pencils of Promise–has now acknowledged our specific campaign twice! That’s caused lots of excitement in class!
Recognition from PoP Founder Adam Braun

Recognition from PoP Founder Adam Braun

As much fun as I’m having being a part of this campaign, it’s unfortunate that I’ll likely end up in jail afterwards for not filing my taxes. Speaking of which…I’m outta here! But before I go, here’s something to leave you with. We watched this video in class and discussed the meaning of the word “promise” as more than just a commitment, but as a an indication of future excellence…something that we all possess.

**Note: If you are interested in making a larger donation ($500 or greater) to this campaign, please send me an e-mail at michael.j.pelehach@gmail.com to talk about matching opportunities**