We had eight kids who missed school on Monday and I wanted to find out why. So before school started I went out to visit the families of these children. There’s no system for road names or addresses here so the only data we have to locate the children registered with us is by their name and their father’s name.
Accordingly, I step out and ask the first person I see in the road, ‘do you know where Bashkim lives?’ Bashkim is Emran’s dad, according to our notes.
‘Bashkim with a beard or Bashkim who did the haj?’
Um? Bashkim-with-a-beard seems more likely. The guy I’m speaking to points at a girl lingering on the edge of the conversation. ‘Hey, girl. Take her to Bashkim with a beard’s house.’ She puts a sticky hand in mine and we set off.
When we get there the door is opened by an old, brown face with a grey goatee.
‘Bashkim? I’m Elizabeth, your son’s teacher.’ I’m invited inside and I take my shoes off. In these homes that’s not just a nicety – the shoes are covered in mud and shit from my walk here. Shoes in the house means e-coli on the blanket. And I see that the family, whom I have disturbed at breakfast, are eating their bread directly off the blanket that covers the floor. This is a one room house – Emran and his sister and two brothers are eating where they sleep. A wood stove smokes badly in the corner, right next to a new baby in a wooden crib. She looks sick. My chest tightens just thinking about it.
Yes, Emran will come to school today they promise me. I notice his younger brother and I ask, ‘would he be the right age for our project too?’.
‘Yes,’ they confirm, but he can’t come to school – he’s got no shoes. OK, then I’ll get him some from the stache we are keeping in the office; we’ve just received a large donation of shoes from an English primary school and we know they’re going to be in demand. Bashkim calls out as we are leaving,
‘Do you have any in my size? I’ve not been out to go through the bins for scrap metal since the weather got worse, because my shoes have holes in them’. It’s a desperate metric for assessing poverty. We include some men’s shoes in the package we produce back in the office.
Emran’s brother arrives with him shortly afterwards. I’m reading a story to the group. I’m excited because our friend Lesley had given me a generous donation for books for the children, and this weekend I’d spent it. I choose a new book of mythology from the book boxes, and find in the contents the story of Midas and the Golden Touch.
I have history with this story; when I went to meet the first class I would ever teach, we were asked to practise a story to tell them. Mine was Midas and the Golden Touch. It’s become a standby, told by me in classrooms from Cornwall to London. I always think of Carol-Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘Mrs Midas’ when I’m telling it (‘That night, I dreamt I bore/ his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue/ like a precious latch’ and the pear that Midas picked described as sitting ‘in his hand like a lightbulb’).
It’s a great story to tell. ‘Imagine everything turning to gold. You pick up a pen [visual aid] and it turns to gold. Ding! You touch your sandwiches and they turn to gold. Ding! You pick your nose and…’ Uuuuugh. Crowd-pleasing stuff.
And it ends with a good moral lesson – golden Midas lonely in the midst of his precious dead family all turned to gold, and him wishing away his riches in exchange for just the chance to touch them.
Emran and his brother are transfixed as I worked through my schtick. Of course their own dad’s in the metal trade – you can see them admiring Midas’ business sense. ‘You touch your sandwiches and they turn to gold. Ding! You pick your nose and…’ It’s brilliant.
And now the clincher.
‘But eventually Midas realised that gold isn’t the most important thing. He could do without money if only he had the chance to hold his family.’ I scan the faces watching me but I realise I’ve lost them. What a bloody stupid story to choose to read to kids who know exactly how far you can do without money before your sister gets sick.
By the way, if you have a touch of the Midas about you and want to help our school, it’s now a lot easier. Thanks to the expert help of our friend, Lloyd, we now have a Paypal facility to accept donations to keep Emran, his brother, and the 48 others in class. You’ll find more under the ‘donate’ tab.
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