You’ve seen those kids working on the streets – pesky children with squeegees and cheek at the traffic lights, children with dirty faces and no smile sitting outside the mosque, children with half-healed scratches scrambling into dumpsters. You wonder at where they’ve come from, where they’re going to. Now imagine that one of them walked unannounced into your classroom (all primary colours and perky posters, careful lettering and star reward charts) and you had just 30 minutes with them one-to-one. What would you teach them?
It’s not a hypothetical situation – today Mentor turned up at our school. It was the afternoon sessions when Avdyl takes his classes consecutively and I and other volunteers take children 1:1 (I haven’t committed to daily class teaching in the afternoons like Avdyl because I want to have the flexibility to have meetings to do the lobbying work we need to get the policy changed on the registration of these children’s, but today I was free to stay at school). Mentor hasn’t been to our classes for 5 weeks, and he’s only attended 8 times in total; I officially took him off the register some weeks ago. He’s fourteen and he works hard – I’ve bumped into him on the streets a couple of times, and he’s been bent double under a vast sack of scrap metal, stooped like a child out of Dickens. I have no idea what trigger in Mentor’s chaotic life of rusted edges leads him suddenly to turn up to school this afternoon. But the numbers are low this afternoon, and there are two of us volunteers available to work 1:1 with children so I suggest that Mentor can spend the full half hour with me. Mentor has a lopsided smile which he beams on me at that suggestion. Excellent. So where shall we start?
The enormity of the range of options available to us for this half hour dazzles me momentarily. It’s like going into a supermarket when you’re hungry.
A bit of writing, I decide, and then some maths (simple, practical things like counting in hundreds through 1000, counting in 10s from numbers that aren’t multiples of ten) and then a book. Mentor’s maths isn’t bad (I shouldn’t be surprised – he spends his days working for real euros and cents, not the little cardboard cut-outs I’ve made for the children here) and his writing is painstaking. We have less than 10 minutes left to do some reading. I take him to the boxes of books we have – information texts, mythology, picture books… ‘What would you like to read?’ I ask.
Mentor’s a hulking big guy, with a voice just breaking. He spends most days hunched under a sack of sharp metal shards from the bins of Pristina. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when he picks out the translated version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?
We read it through together to the end. Mentor sounds out the words conscientiously, and starts to get the repeating pattern. He has a small intake of breath as each page turns to reveal the extravagant bright poster-painted images; red bird, blue horse, goldfish. I’m wary of drawing attention to this, breaking the spell, reminding Mentor that he’s 14 and might as well be a working man.
At the end I ask him ‘Will you come to school tomorrow?’, and he barks back gruffly ‘yes.’ But I’m not sure he will, and I think I’ve understood why he chose this kindergarten text to read with me. Today’s learning with me has been a little scrap that Mentor can melt down and piece together with the others he’s salvaged over the months; one brief, delayed rare instalment of a childhood.
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