Monday, May 16, 2011


There are always a few moments in any school year, no matter how difficult, that make all the work and the headaches worthwhile. This past weekend, Tea and I experienced an event that encapsulated this joint-worthwhile year.

Back during Christmas break, Tea and I helped one of our students, a tenth-grader named Tamari write an essay for a nation-wide academic competition. Tamari is one of our best English students, and she entered the English-language category. (Tea actually did most of the writing with my corrections and edits -- something that I would never do in the U.S. But in an educational system that doesn't yet grasp the meaning of students doing actual work -- 100%, original, un-plagarized -- that Tea and Tamari had the initiative and motivation to attempt writing something original is a step in the right direction at least. One change at a time....)

In February (I think), Tamari read her essay to a panel of judges in Zugdidi, and two weeks ago, our school was informed that she had earned a spot in the final competition in Tbilisi. For a village school to be selected to compete with the city schools is a great honor. The village schools are often sub-par in every respect, but Shamgona is by no means ordinary nor sub-par.

The last two weeks have been filled with after-school- and weekend-hours of pronunciation practice, intonation practice, and calming Tamari's nerves. Every day, Tamari came to our house to spend time with Tea and I as we worked with her to prepare for reading her essay to the judges at the National Youth Palace in Tbilisi.

At 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, Tea, Koba, and I picked up Tamari at her house and drove to the train station in Zugdidi. (Koba had some business to take care of in the city, so he decided to join us girls for the trip.) We reserved a compartment on the overnight train to the capital. The train was not nearly as nice as the overnight train I took in Egypt with Katherine and James, but it was clean enough and had four bunks so we could all sleep. Well, "could" is the operative word here -- Tamari and Tea were too nervous to sleep. Koba can sleep anytime, anywhere. I put in earplugs and took a sleeping pill. So, two of the four of us slept..... As I felt myself succumbing to the sleep aid, my last thought was, "There's no rail.... it's a long way to the floor...." Thankfully, I didn't fall out.

Tea woke me up when we were about fifteen minutes away from the Tbilisi station. It was just after 6 a.m. We didn't have to be at the Youth Palace until after 9, so we took the metro to Koba's cousin's apartment to hang out and have breakfast. We knocked on the door. A couple of minutes went by before a bleary-eyed, familiar face opened the door -- we were not expected, and everyone was still asleep. But true to Georgian-character, Mari and Maia (Koba's cousins-in-law) ushered us in with warm welcomes, kisses, and embraces. The ladies seated us in the kitchen and immediately set the table with as much food as they could find and turned on the tea-kettle. I am constantly taking lessons in hospitality.....

After breakfast, Tea, a very nervous Tamari, and I cleaned up, changed our clothes, and headed back to the metro. It felt a little funny to be the one in the group who knew the metro system and stops -- in six months, I think I have spent more time in Tbilisi than Tea or Tamari have -- at least in the downtown area.

We came up out of the subway at Freedom Square and followed the crowd of students, parents, and teachers to the front door of the National Youth Palace -- an organization that the government runs to offer academic-extras for students at no cost. We worked our way to the registration table, signed in, and then stood around wondering where to go and what to do next. Georgians are not very good at organization nor communication, large-scale or small-scale -- we were not given any time/place information. After standing around for a few minutes, I suggested that Tea ask at the registration table -- it was then that I spotted a sheet of paper tacked in the middle of a huge bulletin board -- it was in Georgian, but the organizational-layout of the text made me think that maybe it was a list of meeting rooms and times for each category of the competition. Bingo. Room 202.

We found the stairs and wandered around the entire second floor, but there was no room with the number "202." There weren't even any that started with a "2--." No matter -- we walked back through the hallways, threading our way through the mob, and eventually found room 122 that had a sign on the door, "ინგლისური ენა" -- English language. Tamari went to the front and took her seat among the other students who were there to participate. Tea and I sat in the back with the other teachers and parents.

There were around 35 students there. I wondered how long this day was going to be -- I knew that Tamari's essay was five pages long -- if everyone's work was that lengthy.... But when the judges started the competition, Tea and I looked at each other with pained expressions, thinking that we had not properly prepared Tamari. The judges did not want the students to read their work. They wanted only a brief summary of what the students had written. After two solid weeks of working on proper pronunciation, intonation, and fluency, Tamari was on her own -- she had to win the judges over with impromptu speaking.

A few of the students who shared their work did pretty well -- the rest were average. One of the judges shushed each student after only one minute -- she interrupted the student, mid-sentence with a harsh (typical, old-school), "Enough. Sit down." Then she and the other judges made a remark or two or asked a bland question about the student's work. The judges sounded completely disinterested in most of the students' writing. There was one girl who wrote some original poetry in English that was pretty nice. Most of the others sounded like they had translated a Wikipedia entry on the topic of their choice.

Tamari was supposed to be number 27 in the order, but when she was to be next, a girl who was after Tamari spoke up and said that she needed to leave, and could she please share her work next? The judges said yes, and when she was finished, the order picked up on the other side of Tamari. She looked back at Tea and me with a desperate, pleading look to just get it over with, but we returned reassuring smiles that she would be just fine. When the last student on the list had finished, the judges asked if anyone had not yet shared -- Tamari and two other students raised their hands. Tamari was next.

She stood up and introduced her topic, "Georiga's Lost Territories." That got the judges attention. She started summarizing what her essay was all about, and one of the judges asked her to please read some of it for them. Tamari started reading. The judges immediately connected with her -- they listened intently, passionately. When Tamari finished reading the first page of her essay, she paused and looked at the judges -- the one who shushed all the other students asked Tamari to continue reading. Tea and I grabbed onto each other in absolute glee. Success!! Tamari ended up reading almost all of her essay to the riveted panel. They applauded when she finished -- they had not clapped for even one other student. They wanted to know who her teacher was -- Tamari pointed out Tea and I, and the judges talked with us for a couple of minutes about the topic and congratulated us all on a job well done -- and for tackling an issue that is not only personal and original, but relevant to all of Georgian society. Tea and Tamari were both ecstatic!!

Tamari received a first-place certificate for her work, and Tea received a congratulatory certificate as well. The rest of the day, they were both on cloud nine! I was so proud of both of them.

Later on in the day, Tamari told Tea that she wants to enter the competition again next year, and this time, she wants to do the writing herself. I promised to help again with editing and proofreading. (Gotta love technology that will make that possible!) It makes me so happy to be a part of such radical changes with these motivated students and teachers. Days like this certainly do make it all feel worthwhile.


  1. Oh Stef, thank you so much for sharing this amazing story! I got goosebumps reading it, then I cried.

    I haven't been so verklempt since I watched James' friend Masha perform at National History Day.

    Please send my sincere congratulations to Tamari, a most brave and accomplished young lady, and to Tea, a most dedicated teacher. And to you, well, you're amazing -- thank you for giving so much of yourself to these lucky Georgian students!

    -- James' Mom

  2. Stef! I loved this post!!! What an awesome experience! I'm so glad you were part of this....but not at all surprised! congratulations to you, Tea, and Tamari!!