If there was ever a day to reflect on my Peace Corps service, today is it. I just got home from Son Zang, which means Last Bell in Azeri. It’s the Azerbaijani equivalent of an American graduation ceremony, but with Azeri additions like singing, dancing, and a seemingly endless string of speeches, including one by yours truly.
Son Zang itself is actually kind of boring, and most people seem distracted during the event (and it probably doesn’t help that I couldn’t understand all of what was going on). People were chatting it up on the side, and few had the interest to hear from all the people that were speaking unless they knew them personally. Still, the speech-giving had to go on, and those in high places must give their respect to one another. I could probably just sum it up by saying it was a very Azeri event. It seemed like everyone was ready to move on, which was the order of the day.
After the speeches the final bell rang and the graduating students (they finish in 11th grade here) danced to traditional Azerbaijani music while everyone celebrated. Graduated students wrote on each others’ shirts instead of yearbooks, and everyone got their pictures in on their last day as students.
I don’t know many of the students from the 11th grade because I decided I wasn’t going to teach students that old (they had learned English, or they hadn’t, but the younger kids could still be influenced). But there were a couple of them I’d spent some time with over the past two years (including Aganur, who attended ABLE Camp last summer) and it was great to see them so happy.
There were a couple harder moments that really made me realize that as strange as it sounds, Ujar, Azerbaijan is my community and I feel at home here. I saw two of my girls from my 8th grade class for probably the last time. As we got our picture taken together, they told me, “Thank you for everything. We can speak English now.” I got a little choked up and told them that it was an honor to be able to know them. As much of a headache that teaching can be, and even though there are times when I really can’t stand being here, having students like these girls has made it all worth it.
The assistant principal at my school had a few tears, too. When I told her I didn’t think I would see her again, she started to cry and told me “You’re a good boy. I’ll miss you.” This is the same woman that when I introduced her to my mom, she gave her a big hug as if they were old friends that hadn’t seen each other in years. It’s these kind of memories that I’ll take home with me.
Teaching at my school over the past few years has been an incredible experience. I don’t want to over sell it, because there were plenty of frustrating times. The other programs in PC Azerbaijan, Youth Development and Community Economic Development, seem to have much more interesting projects under their belts and there have been more than a few times that I wish I had held out for something other than TEFL. But the advice that was given to me by a former Volunteer has held true throughout my time here: “When it gets tough, think of the kids.”
When I think about how random it is that I ended up in Ujar, my head spins. Of all the countries to go to, why Azerbaijan? Of all the cities, how did I end up in Ujar? It seems like someone spun a globe and threw a dart at it do decide where I’d spend my last two years. And in all that randomness, I feel content, and in a word, blessed.
Now that school is out, I’m really just counting down the days until I return to America. I’ll be helping out with other PCVs projects along the way, in addition to preparing for ABLE Camp in August. In reality, though, that’s about a 5-10 hour work week. It’s going to be a long, hot summer where I get to see the far corners of this place before I pack up and go home.
It’s been an unbelievable two years.
Here are a few more photos from Son Zang: