The back-to-school signs are up announcing sales on backpacks, pencils and all other obligatory student education tools. But this year presents a special challenge for this teacher in sorting all that signage out.
This year the signage is in Russian and the students in the classroom will represent nearly 30 countries with 25 American students in the mix. On Sept. 2, the students of Quality Schools International Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet country in central Asia, will take their places nervously and excitedly behind school desks welcoming a new year of challenges and growth. One educator from Puposky will be right there with them in feeling that mix of emotions.
Auditions were held for Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet" the second week of school by that same teacher with a new twist - the names Montague and Capulet will be altered a bit to be a Kyrgyz and an Uzbek family name, but Shakespeare's eternal themes will still resonate.
As I ride the foldable bike I brought from Minnesota through the cool, leafy parks and into Ala Too Square, I cannot help but to reflect on some poignant contrasts of the costumed adult dressed as a Panda Bear strolling the concrete and posing for pictures with little ones and the hipster teens preening for the opposite sex with the realization that the blood of many Kyrgyz who died in an April uprising was recently scrubbed from those same concrete walks.
The Ala Too Square now has a new monument in a country with a plethora of Russian and Kyrgyz hero monuments. I note in my bike rides that a new bouquet of flowers is placed daily on a shiny, speckled marble marker as only five months earlier the then-President Bakiyev ordered that snipers shoot from the rooftops ordinary citizens whose anger simmered the electricity rates rose by 200 percent. There were also regional ethnic underpinnings to the coup d'état in April as the clans of Kyrgy and Uzbek have held grudges for decades - shades of the Capulets and Montagues. Pres. Bakiyev was deposed, and many citizens died in that uprising. An interim President Rosa Otunbayeva has been appointed to serve as Kyrygz's leader to bring stability .
Two months after the revolution in Bishkek, ethnic tensions bubbled over the steaming pot again as the Uzbeks were driven from Osh, and Kyrgyz people burned neighborhoods, killed more than 350 people and displaced 400,000 people. A Kyrgyz teacher of preschool, whom I will help with a few classes for English language instruction, told me over a supper at a traditional Kyrgyz restaurant that she was very ashamed of her own Kyrgyz people, but also saddened at the Uzbek leaders who were stirring up the Uzbek people to secede from the Kyrgyz Republic .
Kyrgyzstan is not a country of many resources with 85 percent of the land mountainous where agriculture is a challenge. Top exports can be listed as gold, cotton, walnuts and a growing tourism industry unsupported by an infrastructure of accessibility.
Our teacher in-service included a tour of the school to locate the "panic buttons" as they were called by Anna the secretary. She recalled a time when her 2-year-old son accidentally hit one button formerly located in her office and within 45 seconds two very heavily armed U.S. Embassy guards appeared. Many diplomats' children, as well as Chinese and Korean business people's children who desire a rigorous and English focused education, enroll in the school as well as United Nations, Red Cross, and other non-government-organization workers' children. One of my brilliant students is the son of the lead officer for the High Commission for Refugees for the UN.
The teachers are also an interesting mix of South Africans, a Briton with whom I will work on the Shakespeare production, a Canadian from a far northern Indian Reserve of Manitoba - we relate to each other because of life with mosquitoes and cold -and another Minnesota teacher from Hinkley.
Other curiosities of living so far from the familiar are my spotting canned horsemeat on the shelf at the supermarket today and the large plastic coolers located on every other corner selling beer. Then I know I will also be required at some point to try to down fermented mare's milk as it is the national drink. Remembering my gag reflex in Nepal trying not to offend my hosts as I drank fermented yak milk, I will try to stay clear of those who might offer mare's milk in the near future.
There is the delight of crusty artisan breads for 15 cents, bags of organic fruits and veggies for 20 cents and the risk taking of trying cheeses that are nothing like my motherland of Wisconsin's versions. The city buses are 5 cents and, despite my bike being the cheaper mode of transport, I may jump on one in the snowy months or onto those crowded marshukas vans with their touchy-feely pickpockets.
One morning I was awoken by a very eerie wailing at 4 a.m., and as I wiped my jet lagged eyes and walked into my sun room, I was delighted at the beautiful male voice singing his Muslim call to prayer from a very distant mosque. It induced a spiritual uplifting.
Another joy is that my housing is located several blocks from the beautiful Russian Opera and Ballet House, as well as around the corner from the art museum. I am four blocks from the Russian Theater and only a few away from the Kyrgyz Drama Theater. The park near my locale is filled with rose gardens and nearly 50 stone carving sculptures. I can hardly enjoy Russian drama, however, without even knowing how to say "Good morning" to the Russian elder who smiles and calls friendly paragraphs to me each morning as I fly by on my bike over rough sidewalks. Privihet! To solve that problem I began Russian lessons two times a week and hope to deliver some Russian to the ears of friends around Bemidji by the time I head home for the summer.
So it is back to school for me. Back to serving families and children. Back to learning about this beautiful country and even time for late entry into schooling to become more bilingual. So how do you say, "Welcome, students. I look forward to learning a lot with you this school year," in Russian. Perhaps I will just start with "Good morning."