I don’t know which story to tell you today. The story about 8-year-old Emine, who bounced into school yesterday and reminded me that on Tuesday we’d be going to register at school; who bounced even higher into school this morning and told me that today we’d be going to register at school. Who more or less bounced her solid and slightly reluctant father down the road to get to the school, with me and the local ‘mediators’ straggling behind. About when we reached the school, and the deputy headteacher sat us in her office and wrote Emine’s name in a big bound book and asked Emine whether she knew her letters. And despite the deputy head’s obvious scepticism, how Emine called out ‘M, N, E, A’ as the woman pointed to something like an eye test. How my chest was bursting and my throat was tightening as she did so; how Emine was asked to write her name, and picked up the pencil and dashed it off, as if it was easy now, and I thought ‘I mustn’t cry in the deputy headteacher’s office’, and how the deputy headteacher then closed the ledger and said ‘that’s done now. We’ll see you on 1 September.’
It’s a true story.
So is this. That Emine’s father was the only one of the six we invited who came to register their children at school, though we picked up a neighbour’s family on the way, with a six year old and seven year old to be registered. That before Emine’s father would set off with us he demanded a promise that Emine would get books given to her (we promised; it’s been policy in Kosovo for two years now that schoolbooks are provided free of charge). That when we arrived in the deputy headteacher’s office the father said that he had brought Emine to school before but because she hadn’t received any books he had prevented her from continuing to attend. That the woman in the office was clearly angered by this and started raising her voice, and so did Emine’s father. That while Emine sat with her pencil in her hand and I whispered ‘bravo’ at her beautiful writing, the deputy headteacher was paging furiously through the ledger to prove that Emine had never been registered before, that the father was wrong, wrong, and claiming that anyway, what happened was that people got the schoolbooks for free and then went and sold them at the market. And Emine’s father shouted back ‘what father would sell his child’s education?’. And the 6 year old boy and the 7 year old who had never been to a school before (and their very tired, very pregnant mother who had brought them to the school because she had been persuaded that although she had never been to school herself, and although it had been a long hot walk to get them here, it was somehow a good thing) sat watching as if they were at Wimbledon as the voices bellowed back and forth in the small warm office.
The six year old was called over to register. ‘Which hand do you write with?’ asked the deputy head. Vebi didn’t know. ‘Write something,’ she said, and he obediently picked up the pencil (does it matter with which hand?) and painstakingly formed letters. The deputy head turned back to her ledger and noted his right-handedness, and went on to the columns for the neighbourhood he lives in, his ethnicity, date of birth. Vebi continued writing the careful letters in firm graphite across the page but the deputy head never spoke to him again. ‘Bravo,’ I whispered to him too. In determining Vebi’s future this was probably the most significant day of his life. And it was horrid.
But perhaps what was most astonishing about the visit to the school was how happy Vebi and his brother and Emine all seemed. Maybe they are more used than I am to people shouting. Maybe they have resilience and self-confidence to see them through the arguments of adults who are missing the point. What I learned today was that for getting and keeping our kids in school in September, growing that resilience and self-confidence is going to be at least as important as teaching them M, N, E, A.
And tomorrow? Back to those other families – the ones who came to us today with excuses, or didn’t come at all – to persuade them to come with me to the big school, to the room where children are written down in the heavy black book.
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