Last week was a bit rough. In general, things are cool. I’m adjusting to the new school year and my house is coming together, but I went to Mingechiver (about an hour and half away) with one of my students and left feeling pretty bummed out.
My student’s name is Fidan. She’s awesome. I met her last year when she was in one of my classes for a little while. I had never met her before, and during an English lesson, when most of my students are butchering the English language, she answered of my questions by saying “Well, I’m not sure how to answer that.” It was brilliant. After she scolded a boy in the class for actin-a-fool, I told her she needed to calm down a little bit. She responded by saying “Mr. Jeffrey, today I am calm like a cat.”
“Wow. What are you like when you’re angry?”
“Like a tiger.”
I almost fell down it was so good. For context, no one in my school speaks English this well. Not only did she know the words she was saying, but she spoke them with an ease and attitude that was missing from my other students. In eighth grade, she spoke better English than every other student in the school. It was great to work with a student who was really developing English skills, rather than simply flirting with the idea of learning English or not.
She also had a great attitude. Most young Azerbaijani women are shy and reserved, following the be-seen-and-not-heard mentality (this is true at least for young women around men, which by definition how they are around me. i have heard from female PCVs that they open up and become much more animated around other women. unfourtunately, I never get to see this). Fidan was different though.
As I mentioed in an earlier post, Azerbaijani culture is a mix of Soviet, Turkish, and Persian culture. Fidan’s family falls on the more ‘rusified’ part of that mix which makes them, and her, seem to have a more western mentality. She listened to different music, is critical of injustices in society, and has a strong intellectual curiousity. I thought she would be great student for the FLEX program, which sends students from Eurasia to America to go to high school for a year.
I talked to her before the school year started and told her about the program. She seemed understandably unsure about the idea of going to America for a year, but I persuaded her and her grandmother that it was a good idea, and that she is a great fit for it.
In preperation, I talked to her about American high schools, about the test, and about what she wants out of life. These conversation only reaffirmed my appreciation for her, and her wllingness to try something different. She remained hestient, but came to the conclusion that she would try to do it if for nothing else, but to see if she could.
We went to Ming and made our way through the zoo of students waiting to take the test. The test is in three parts, the first being held on that day, in which students demonstrate their understanding of English through a multiple choice test. The next phases were a listening and essay exam, and finally an interview.
I was very excited for her, and paced back and forth outside while she took the exam. As she came out, she looked at me and gave me a thumbs-down. “It was too difficult,” she said. I tried reassuring her that I’m sure she did fine, and that we have to just wait and see how she did, and whether she would be invited back for the next round.
The more we talked though, I could tell she didn’t feel very good about the whole thing. I think it’s because she didn’t do as well as she thought she should have, and that maybe she wasn’t as good as she had thought she should be, but eventually she said “I don’t want to do it.” I told her that she did want to do it, but she was facing an obstacle and that she needed to fight through it, but it fell on deaf ears. Eventually, I saw the look on the face of a kid who just failed a test and I left her alone.
I felt terrible. I think I wanted this for Fidan more than she wanted it for herself. I had no idea whether to tell her to keep fighting or that it’s okay not to succeed all the time. I had completely inflated my expectations for what I ninth-grade kid can be expected to do, and I projected my own feelings and hopes on this girl who was probably outside of Ujar without her family for the first time. Not only that, but I put a bunch of pressure on her by saying “You’re going to take the test, right? You want to go to America, right?” rather than, “Do you want to do this?”
Once I had come to this conclusion and gotten over being crushed that she didn’t do very well on the test, I approached her again. I told her that she should be proud that she tried, and that even though she didn’t pass, she was brave enough to be the only student from our school who had the guts to even try. “Maybe that’s important for you, but no one else knows.” She was right, she went out of a limb because I told her to, and in a way she fell. I didn’t really know what to say.
“You know what Fidan,” I said, “it doesn’t matter if other people realize it, or not. All that matters is that you know it, and that you realize that trying to succeed matters.” I hardly believed the words that were coming out of my own mouth, as I knew it wasn’t going to make anyone feel better.
It was hard for me to try to say anything to her at that point. This was probably the first time in my adult life that I’ve ever had to talk to a child about being brave or the virtue of “realizing” something when they get older. I felt like I was patrionizing her, but I really didn’t know anything else to say.
She never got the call to tell her she passed the test and would be invited to the next round. I’m still a bit disparaged by it, but maybe it wasn’t the right time. In the end I really am proud of Fidan for taking the test and seriously consider going to America for a year. It’s a serious consideration, and I know that 90% of my students wouldn’t really want to go, even if they said they did. I remembered how fragile kids can be at that age, and how they can’t always see the big picture. I also realized how my aspirations for my students can only go so far. They need to come from the kids themselves. Even though it didn’t work out like I had hoped, I think Fidan and I are both better for having gone to Mingechiver last week.