Holes by Louis Sachar is the story of Stanley Yelnats sent to a detention camp in the desert where he has to dig a huge hole each day as part of his punishment. On his first day the camp bully tells him, ‘the first day is the hardest’. On the second day, as Stanley returns home exhausted, an older kid explains to him ‘actually the second day is the hardest because you thought the first day was the hardest’.
In Fushe Kosove we’ve got no punishment (though Faton had to be sent out of the circle for one minute as he wouldn’t stop talking yesterday) and we’re running no detention camp. But I did fall into Stanley’s trap of thinking that the first day would be the hardest – or at least the busiest. I was wrong – day 2 felt even busier. We were up from 22 to 29 kids and the room was bursting.
In principle that’s not a problem because the flat we’ve rented has 3 other rooms or spaces we can expand into. But none of them are yet carpeted or furnished, so we would be sitting directly on the concrete floor. Even more problematic is that we have only one teacher (me). Vlora and Rob, our volunteer newly arrived in Kosovo, are working brilliantly to support the school and lead parts of the lessons with me in the room, but being given their own class of 15 wasn’t what they signed up for.
It’s a great problem to have – too many children wanting to learn. But by the end of the day we were all feeling a little overwhelmed by how on earth we could do this.
And then Avdyl arrived. He’d heard about the project from a British friend of mine in Kosovo and came to visit our classroom. He’s an experienced primary school teacher from the Kosovan system. He’d like to help. Even more wonderful, our friend Gail Warrander has offered to pay him a salary to make it possible for him to work with us. There are times when even the most committed atheist can’t help using the word godsend.
When could you start? I asked tentatively. Er, tomorrow?
I think we can do it!
It was a great moment. But my best moment of day two? Today was the letter M. It’s the beginning of the Albanian word ‘merkure’ for Wednesday, so it was written on the board. Some kids knew ‘M’ already and were able to copy ‘merkure’ or even improvise their own words beginning with M. Other kids stared with something like fear at the little white board they each had in front of them. They’d written the letter with their ‘magic finger’ in the air, and on each other’s backs, and watched me write it and now I asked them to have a go with a pen on their little board. Cima continued to stare at her white board and attempted nothing. I went to sit with her and guided her hand through the unfamiliar discipline. Then she had a go on her own, and the pen slipped and wobbled out of control. We tried again together, and then she attempted another time without me. What she produced was recognisably an M. ‘Bravo!’ I said and her normally rather frightened little face suddenly beamed. ‘And that’s the beginning of Wednesday.’ I told her in Albanian. In fact it’s the beginning of a lot more than that.
Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon