We all had our Officially Stern faces on this morning; on Saturday we had held our first optional weekend classes. 35 kids had come, which was great, but it was a rowdy afternoon, with one boy sent home, and a few others, like Afir, needing severe conversations.
The kids picked up on it, and it was a subdued day. Going through a whole lesson on decimal decomposition for subtraction without a single wisecrack grin from Afir or dirty laugh from Ebubakir was frankly a little bit boring.
So the donation from UNDP arrived at just the right time. It was an hour after the end of school, and I was trying to do some assessment of the children’s decimal decomposition diagrams when the van pulled up. Before I knew it, a bookcase was nosing its way round my door.
This was the shipment of donations in kind from the United Nations Development Programme in Kosovo that had been offered to us ten days ago. We hadn’t expected it to arrive so soon. Suddenly the empty spaces of our classrooms were being filled with furniture – tables to go with those we were loaned a few weeks ago, meaning that now there is enough space for every child to sit down; funky coloured chairs in lime green, orange and cerise; even a fridge so that leftover yoghurts and fruit aren’t left to go off in what are increasingly sunny temperatures.
UNDP had sent a team of guys to help set up and move the furniture. I glimpsed bits of them behind furniture – heads bobbing above the upended desks, a bicep here, a backside there as a fridge inched round a corner. And then I saw a head I recognised; it was Afir coming through the door bearing the top end of a tall shelving unit. After him was Ebubakir, and about four mates rather redundantly holding the other end.
‘Where do you want this, Miss?’ Afir asked. A part of me was still trying to hold onto my Officially Stern Face – after all, they shouldn’t be in classes now, they should be doing what they’re told, they should be following rules about keeping Hands And Feet To Ourselves… oh what the hell.
It turns out that all the excess energy and chippiness that makes teaching subtraction to Afir really difficult, is exactly what you need when you’re assembling 20 chairs, 8 tables, 4 bookcases and a fridge. He was tireless, returning downstairs for more furniture, hefting it carefully up the steps, directing Ebubakir and the others, giving me advice on how to arrange the rooms. Up and down the stairs he went, until the UNDP gang practically left him to it. Each time he returned with more mates who were congregating around the building and the van where the deliveries were coming from. As their number grew, the useful contribution of any individual was reduced, until most of them were doing nothing more than patting the furniture as it passed, like a crowd at the procession of a madonna.
Soon the new furniture was all in place, and the UNDP crew posed for a photo, Afir among them, beaming. He turned to me,
‘Look how nice we’ve made our school.’
I got a lump in my throat. It’s the first time I’ve heard any of the kids say ‘our school’. In fact, we’ve been trying not to use the word, ‘school’ at all – not to claim any permanence or rivalry to the mainstream state-funded system we hope they’ll join in September. But ‘our school’ – I wasn’t going to correct him.
The furniture has given these classes status. One boy who worked with the others shifting furniture was a new face to me. ‘I’m coming to classes tomorrow,’ he assured me. And once he and Afir and the others had gone home again and I had settled back to the assessment, there was a knock at the door. When I went to open it I found a gaggle of other kids who are registered with us.
‘What do you want?’
Word had spread – ‘We want to try out the new tables.’
I had to tell them to come back tomorrow.
It was Gjelane’s mum’s turn on the cleaning rota today and she was in the building when the bewildering parade of new stuff arrived.
‘What do you think?’ I asked her.
‘It’s very good,’ she said, adding one of those neat little Albanian optative phrases that you can barely translate into English, ‘may you use it in good health’.
She makes a good point – however shiny the new tables are, what matters is the work that’s done on them. So back to arithmetic assessments for me.
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