All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.

Robert Kennedy

Thursday, September 1, 2011

First Bell

Today was the first day of school, but unlike anything I've ever seen. Moldova sure knows how to celebrate education. Vica told me to come in at 8 instead of the usual 10. Boy, a few weeks of sleeping in until 9 really does spoil you. I felt like it was 5am. But I made it. As soon as I arrived here at the college, I knew that things were different already. 
First, to clarify, it isn't a 'college' in the traditional American sense. Kids here are required to go to school until 8th grade. From there, if they choose, they can either attend a public high school, or a specialty 'college' for four more years and then go on to University if they choose. The college that I work at, from what I'm gathering and I may be incorrect, specializes in the Arts. There is a large population of the students who are studying English and Psychology to make the better candidates for University or to study abroad which is a major goal of all of the students. The office that I work at, AO Perspectiva, is located inside the college as we recruit the students to be volunteers for the organization as well as be there for them to suit their needs. The past few weeks being in the office has been pretty slow as there were no students and it was usually just me and Vica and the occasional professor that walked in. It is an old building...and I mean old. I know in California, old means anything before 1950, on the East Coast you can find buildings from the 1800's. Here an old building was built in the 16th century. I don't know technically know how old this building is, but it is incredibly old. (Guess I'll have to research that one.) But the halls and stairwells echo which makes for fantastic acoustics when a lone saxophone student is practicing in an empty classroom or an opera singer is practicing her arias. But up until this point I've only experienced these random, lonely sounds echoing throughout the halls. That was all about to change.
Another cool thing about Moldova is that the entire country from kindergarten to University begins school on September 1st at 8:00am. There is a ceremony and all the students gather with all the administration to celebrate education for another year. And ceremoniously the 'first bell' is rung to signify the new year. I didn't know what to expect as I kept seeing previous volunteers wishing everyone a happy first bell. It is a real celebration and holiday.
I arrived and there were already over 600 students standing outside waiting. They were all dressed in their best dresses and boys who were so young that their bodies haven't grown into their dress shirts yet were surrounded by their parents, many carrying flowers as it is customary to give their instructor a flower for the first day. Imagine that, unconditional respect for teachers. The director of the college stood on top of the stairwell and welcomed everyone. 2 students followed his speech and were the emcees of the ceremony. They introduced speakers, singers, they sang the National Anthem, it was quite a hoopla. Then they introduced the incoming class and group by group, led by their new instructor, they 'freshmen' were led into the courtyard and joined their new class making the group over 800 large. The director introduced his staff and wished the students success. Now sometimes when people are speaking Romanian, Russian or any foreign language really, I tend to tune out. I'm a little lazy and ADD that way. So as he was talking my eyes wandered around the courtyard at all of these kids gathered here to learn. The one main difference I saw was that they were at absolute attention. Nobody was whispering to each other while the adults spoke, they weren't making fun of the speakers or laughing at the singers, they stood at attention and applauded when they were finished. Absolute respect. It was inspiring. So as I was taking all this in, my subconscious here's the words "America...California...Jennifer." So my head snapped back to attention and I realized the director was talking about me. He said something else and then began applauding as did the entire group of people and I realized I was being summoned up to the microphone. Remember that nausea in high school when you had to get up to give a speech or introduce yourself or 'say something about yourself' in front of a large group of people? Yeah so that was back...and multiply it ten fold as it had to be in Romanian. Suddenly I had absolutely no knowledge of Romanian. Actually, to be honest, English had escaped me completely as well as all I could think as I was walking up the stairs was "please don't trip, please don't trip, please don't trip..." I've never been afraid of public speaking. Hell, I'm a theatre major, I love when all eyes and attention are on me. But now I was standing at a microphone in front of over 1000 people and I had to introduce myself to them, make a first their language. Also, I had been listening to the ceremony for over an hour and somehow I must have been drinking a bottle of sand because there was no tone in my throat at all. 
I smiled at the director and turned to the thousand pairs of eyes who were now standing at complete attention to hear an American speak. I swallowed heavily, took a deep breath and said "Bună dimineaţa. Numele meu este Jennifer. Eu sunt din America de la Los Angeles, California. Îmi pare bine. Va multumesc ca ati mine." I smiled and heard applause and I walked down the stairs to Vica. I leaned over to her and said "was that okay? What did I say?" She explained that I said '"Good Morning. My name is Jennifer and I am from America from Los Angeles, California. Nice to meet you and thank you for having me."
I don't exactly know which part of my ass I pulled that from but somewhere deep in my subconscious I must have pulled it from one of our first weeks of language classes way back in June on how to introduce ourselves. I barely remember saying it but I did it. Soon after, two young freshmen came up to the microphone and received the bell (yes an actual bell) and together they walked around the courtyard ringing it signifying that the year had officially begun. Vica and I came back upstairs and she again complimented my grace and calm exterior (EXTERIOR!) and said I had made a good impression as no one was expecting me to speak Romanian. So now they know who I am. I can't be invisible any longer which I haven't decided yet if that's a good thing or not. Time will tell.
The energy of the building has already gone under surgery. It went from lonely echoing halls to chatter and shoes clinking and laughter and excitement. It will be interesting to see where things go from here. But is time for some wine...

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