Gazmend has become a bit of a mascot for me for the project we’re running in Fushe Kosove. He was one of the 22 kids who arrived on our very first day, nearly two months ago. And he hasn’t missed a single day of school since then.
He’s a good kid with a huge smile (his name even means something like ‘happy mind’). One day his huge smile was a little too huge – when he didn’t sit down after I’d asked him to get on with his work, and I told him off, he just grinned at me. ‘Gazmend, I don’t want you to smile at me. I want you to apologise.’ He grinned some more. The encounter escalated and it seemed Gazmend couldn’t stop smiling. ‘Do you want me to come and speak to your parents about you being disrespectful?’ More foolish grinning, turning into half a nervous giggle, and no apology.
I decided I would follow up on this and I really would make a home visit to Gazmend’s family. I told him to wait behind after school and then we set off together to his house. I was feeling cross – disrespected, irritated, somehow that I hadn’t come out of this well. Gazmend was no doubt a bit cross too (despite the smirk he still had on his face). We walked in silence away from the school.
As we walked further from school, nearer to home, something changed between us. Into the silence of our footsteps in the dirt Gazmend said, ‘Actually teacher, I don’t have any parents’.
Bloody stupid teacher. It’s home-school liaison 101 – never assume. Gazmend explained that his parents had both died. He lives with his brothers.
‘What do your brothers do?’ I asked.
‘They go through the bins in Pristina every day. I used to go with them until I started coming to school.’ Neither of us were grinning now. I just wanted to give Gazmend a hug.
We went to his home and I met his brothers and said my teacherly piece about respect. His brothers were supportive, Gazmend apologised, and he’s been a model pupil ever since that day. And I’ve been a better teacher too.
Since that day, Gazmend’s been something of a hero to me. He (and his brothers) made that choice, that he would stop going through the bins, and start coming to school. And he’s made a brilliant job of it. He’s 11 and when he arrived with us on the first day he didn’t know how to write his name. I wrote it out for him on a name badge and asked him to copy it. When I came back to him I found he’d written it upside down. Kids do that sometimes when they’re new to letters so I didn’t panic, but I noted it. The next day I watched him and realised how it had happened – he was lifting his name badge up to copy it, while it was still pinned to his chest – like a nurse with a watch brooch, so, like a nurse’s watch brooch, the letters came out upside down. He really seemed to have no idea which way up a G should go.
Gazmend’s had 37 literacy lessons since then and now he has no trouble with his name. He can have a pretty good go at many other words too. He has a basic idea of sound-letter correspondence. And today we decided he should move up from the green (bottom, like on a traffic light) group and join the amber group. It’s progress that’s important to note, not just for him, but for all of us. Typically, when he left school today he was smiling.
The story of Gjelane and her friends 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