Unlike Minnesotan schools, there’s a set “first day of school” in Kyrgyzstan: First Bell, which falls on September 1. (Note: There’s an exception if September 1st falls on a Sunday, the day off of school at most places here.) I spent much of August dreaming of September 1st, as it marked the ending of my Peace Corps training and the beginning of my work as a teacher at Jalal-Abad State University.
Gulbara, my assigned Peace Corps counterpart with whom I’ll be team teaching for two years, called me on the evening of the 31st to let me know about a very important meeting in the English department the next day. She told me to get there at 8am sharp to discuss the semester’s schedule and course calendar – important stuff! I made it to school fifteen minutes early, just in time….to wait. 8am came and went, then 8:15, then 8:30. At 8:45 I abandoned my post in front of the locked door of the English department, only to find a crowd of maybe 50 university students loitering on the steps of the building. I found a group of English teachers standing and talking together; they told me they never heard of an 8am meeting, and that we were all waiting for the 9am First Bell ceremony.
I stayed huddled in a tight circle with the English department and a few English-speaking teachers from the Linguistics department; we chatted about our summers, whether I still like Kyrgyzstan (the answer is yes), inter-departmental gossip, and whether I have tried [insert traditional Kyrgyz food here]. I finally get a chance to talk to Gulbara at 9:15, who stopped by our corner only for a moment to say hello and to tell me that the class schedule has not been finalized. “Maybe come back next week, it will hopefully be fixed then,” she suggested.
Come back next week? Hopefully it will be fixed by then? I couldn’t help but be frustrated by the lack of certainty, especially at a well-known public university. At Georgetown, professors submitted syllabi many months in advance; maybe there were some issues with matching rooms and classes according to size needs, but the first day generally flowed pretty smoothly. Students knew their schedules far in advance of the first day of class; there was no crowding around hand-written tables every day to check whether the schedule of classes offered had changed.
The 9am First Bell ceremony didn’t end up happening until nearly 10am, after which I followed some English teachers back to the department office for some gossip about the price of purses. When I got home and told Nazgul, my host mom, that I was feeling bummed about how the first day went, she wisely reminded me to see the silver lining: No work the first week meant another week of relaxing and hanging out at home with my host siblings. I tried to be patient, embrace the seemingly never-ending summer, and come to terms with sitting this particular scheduling battle out. This involved spending a morning pulling the leaves out of a few thousand strawberries to help Nazgul make preserves to last the winter, watching Russian-dubbed Shrek, and finishing a book I’d put aside in the last phase of training.
A week later, and I got called in to work to discuss my work schedule for the semester. The classes haven’t been sorted out yet, both in the sense that the subjects teachers will work on haven’t been finalized and in that the time table is not set. But, Gulbara tells me she thinks we’ll have a conversation class three times a week, a class on culture and education in the U.S., and a class on “phraseology.” At first, I was convinced this was a made-up field – but a few hours of research and a decision to make the best of it, no matter what, actually has me excited to teach it.* I’ve started working with Gulbara to build a syllabus and will be teaching these classes with her as of next week.
*For reference, phraseology is the study of fixed expressions, in which a phrase takes on a meaning more specific than the sum of its individual words. So basically, I get to teach people idioms (think on your feet), proverbs, similes (light as a feather, busy as a bee), and collocations (words that are habitually used together; strong coffee, speedy recovery) for a semester. Send me some of your favorite phrases, please!