It’s That Time of Year: First Day of School

Summer’s over (it’s been a long one), which means school is starting. Last year I was so stressed about the beginning of the school year, but this year I’ve embraced the zen life and am having a great time going with the flow.

Technically, teachers have been working since mid-August, but since I’ve been busy with my camp and with finishing up summer projects, I only got called in for the last big hurrah: subbotnik. Subbotnik basically means “group clean-up,” and it usually applies to kids having to clean up the school grounds. In anticipation of all the guests coming to Cholpon-Ata for the World Nomad Games, though, this subbotnik was for teachers. All the teachers from my school (and from schools of nearby villages) gathered for our assignment, which ended up being to pull weeds and sweep the sidewalk around the hospital. We spent a few hours doing this, or more accurately, an hour pulling weeds and then a few hours talking about pulling weeds, standing in the shade, admiring Colleen’s Kyrgyz, asking when there’d be a tea break, and taking pictures. It was a great afternoon, and I felt like I’d finally integrated because I showed up for hard labor wearing a sundress and wedge sandals. All that with the sloppy hat someone lent me had me looking like a real Kyrgyz teacher.

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group pic subbotnik

With Cholpon-Ata looking nice and clean, and our school gleaming with a fresh coat of paint, it was time for the students to actually show up to school. September 1 is the ubiquitous back to school day in the former Soviet Union, and it’s celebrated as Билим Күнү / День Знания / Day of Knowledge across the 15 former Soviet republics. Day of Knowledge entails a pep rally of sort, with students lined up by grade in front of the school, all dressed up in their галстуки (the little red kerchiefs) and бантики (poofy white hair-ties).
bantiki

At my school, we celebrated the Day of Knowledge with a flourish — a famous singer performed a Russian song about September 1, a 4th grade girl sang a song about being from a little village, and some 10th grade girls performed a traditional Kyrgyz dance. After all the singing and dancing, the director gave a speech imploring all the students to study hard and learn well, and finally it was time for First Bell.

First Bell is a special ceremony that ushers in the school year; it’s a big day for 1st graders, who are embarking on a long journey to primary education, and it’s a big day for 11th graders, who are starting their last year of primary education and have to take test after standardized test this year. An 11th grade boy carries a 1st form kid on his shoulders, while an 11th grade girl walks another 1st form kid in front of all the teachers, students, and school administrators. All the while, the 1st form kids are ringing tiny bells (hence First Bell).
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english teachers

Even though September 1 is the Day of Knowledge, there’s no actual class that day… And there was no actual class today, September 2. The bells rang every 45 minutes, to signal that students were supposed to switch from Kyrgyz language to biology or Russian literature to geography. But, the bells were ignored (except when my 7th grade homeroom class was scheduled to go to gym; then they all got excited to go to their lesson outside) and a group of kids joined my counterpart for a trip to the library to pick up all the textbooks. It’s unclear when, exactly, the regular class schedule will start here, but I’ve got a vibe from the director (a really sharp Russian woman, Lyudmila Nikolaevna, who’s got purple hair) that things will be on track very quickly.

In the meantime, I’ve got a smile on my face as I lead impromptu English games, am paraded around the school to eat pastries and drink tea, and wait for a meeting with the English teachers to figure out how many hours I’ll work with everyone. It’s funny to me now that a year ago my stress levels were through the roof because of the school schedule – maybe I’m less stressed now because Peace Corps really does change people, or maybe it’s just because my students are so dang cute.

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