Fifty two! That’s how many children came with us to be assessed for school on Friday. Out of the 70 children who’ve been coming to classes with us for the last four months, I’d reckoned that 37 would definitely make it to the assessment – these are the children who’ve come almost every day, who’ve greeted me each morning with ‘and when are we going to the big school?’ Daily attendance at school is now part of their mental model of how you live.
And then there are the other 33 children who come to us less regularly, who have greater demands made on them by family for working or begging. Would they make it to be assessed? Would Mentor come? It meant arriving at our classes an hour early that day. It meant walking a mile out of the mahalla, and into a large echoing state institution; I didn’t know how many of them really had the stomach for it.
Fifty two! The first ones were already waiting when we arrived at the rented flat where we’ve been running classes. Florinda was wearing a startling flowery dress I’d not seen before. The sisters Mirjeta and Arjeta were wearing new matching pink Tshirts with sequin designs (matching clothes for siblings are particularly prized here, I’ve discovered, because it shows that they were bought new – not hand-me-downs or handouts, or lucky finds in a rubbish bin). Everyone had blown their nose (Astrit showed me two packets of tissues in his pocket, and Fidan standing by looked rather crestfallen). I went to Elvira’s house to check she had remembered that today she needed to come early. She was washing her face at the standpipe in her yard. ‘I’m cleaning myself up – I don’t want anyone at that big school to say that the kids from Elizabeth’s school are palidhje‘, she reassured me. Palidhje is one of my favourite Albanian words – it means ‘stupid’ or, literally, ‘unconnected’. It struck me as a good metaphor for today, when the kids from ‘Elizabeth’s school’ were being connected up to the mainstream system for assessment.
And we set off – a straggling, giggling line of fifty odd children strung out across the mahalla. When we reached school we were greeted carefully by not only the school director but also the director of education for the municipality. Later staff from Unicef and from the Ministry came too. It wasn’t just the kids who knew this was a big day.
The children were sat in a classroom (sat in a classroom! Even if the system somehow fails us for their registration next week, they’ve done it now. As I watched them taking their place at the desks I thought how these children come from families who know a thing or two about squatters rights. They’ve each made a part of that school their own now, and I think they’ll be back) and I was introduced to the Commission.
The Commission was made up of three kindly teachers from the school, the deputy director and a community representative. The organisation Terre des Hommes which works with children at risk, including some of ours, had heard about the assessment process to be held and had got permission from the municipality to be in the room, along with me, as a friendly familiar face for the children from their caseload.
In fact the children scarcely seemed to need reassurance of that kind. I was dispatched to collect each child one by one from the waiting room and bring them in. On the way they skipped down the huge corridors, and only the occasional one snuck their hand into mine for a brief moment of reassurance. That’s what struck me most about the day – their self-confidence, in their learning and in the rightfulness of taking their place in this school. As I walked Astrit to the room for the assessment, I said to him, ‘don’t worry – they’ll just ask you what you know of your letters and numbers.’
‘I know up to 100’ he said. ‘Will they want me to count it in fives or tens?’ The children couldn’t wait to show their skills. And over three and a half hours, the commission conscientiously took notes of what each child could do.
So now we’re waiting. Tomorrow we’re due to receive the report from the commission which will identify for each child the class that they will enter school in. And then, according to the action plan agreed by the Ministry and Municipality and Unicef, and submitted to the European Commission, the children will be officially included on the school’s register next week.
By the way, one of the children on that list will be Mentor. He did turn up – late because he’d been working; and no new sequined Tshirt for him. But he made it up to the commission’s blackboard, showed off his mental arithmetic, barked at the print (on Friday I heard 52 children stammer out the sentence, ‘my mother works a lot’) and then asked if he could go because his wheelbarrow was outside. He should be on the register by the end of the week; the next challenge will be keeping him there.
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