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Hummingbirds or Fairies?

Megan Mentrek
Kyrgyz Republic

It was the first of September and word had gotten out. The American was going to be giving English lessons at the community center to the public school kids. For pure entertainment reasons or out of a slim hope that learning some English might be a ticket out of the village, what seemed like the entire population under the age of 18 had turned up at my first lesson at my village’s community center.

My Peace Corps assignment was to teach at a boarding school, but after months of being begged on the streets by students of the nearby public school, I decided to offer them a few limited courses in my spare lunch hour. I had not foreseen walking into a room overflowing with students eager to become fluent in English in a few short lessons.

A few days of brutally difficult lessons meant to weed out those hoping for an easy ride whittled the class down to a more manageable size—about 30 students. As I entered the classroom no longer facing the prospect of having to keep more than a hundred students in order, I breathed a sigh of relief.

As my eyes swept the room, my mind finally registered the presence of someone unusual: a middle-aged Russian woman with a shock of bright orange hair. She was with her young daughter. The woman’s presence was out-of-the-ordinary because, up to that point, I had had only Kyrgyz students as I had learned their language to teach at the Kyrgyz boarding school. My Russian was limited to giving directions to taxi drivers and purchasing vegetables at the market. I had planned to use at least a little Kyrgyz in my English instruction to start with my beginner students. How was this Russian student going to learn?

Her name was Natasha, a jack-of-all-trades instructor working as the chemistry, biology, and physics teacher, as well as a stand-in gym instructor when the school headmistress demanded it. Her daughter was Vica, a third-grade student. In time, I would learn that Natasha was once a brilliant student of chemistry and shining star of the Soviet science world, a winner of the honored Gold Medal in Chemistry given to the best student of that subject.

At the time, however, Natasha was more a reminder of my frustrations. After six months in Peace Corps service, I felt no closer to unraveling the mystery of the art of teaching. I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to teach to a multi-language class or actively engage Natasha as she slipped more behind, solely because of my inability to talk to her.

In her plucky spirit, Natasha and her daughter stuck it out in the class for a month or so, but then quietly stopped coming because they really could not have been getting much out of the lessons. This failing of my teaching weighed heavily on my mind. However, all I could do at the time was to mentally make note to try to right my shortcoming at a later date, when I was less bogged down by work.

The school year flew by, and I still had not come back to Natasha. The opportunity to make it up to her finally came when I had to go to the public high school on an errand during the final exam period. She was there monitoring the door to keep students from loitering and disturbing the test takers. As I walked by and greeted her, I asked her if she and her daughter would like private lessons during the summer vacation. Her face beamed, and she agreed readily so we set up our first lesson for the next week.

When the day arrived, Natasha and her daughter came promptly at the stated time with a bucket full of strawberries. I thought this was a first-time thank-you gift and took it happily as my own garden was under the constant wrath of my host family’s chickens and my next-door neighbor’s turkeys. Little did I know that I would be kept well-fed until I finished service. Every lesson was accompanied by a gift of food. They could not accept that I would give lessons for free, despite my protests that I could not accept money from them. But I could not say no to regular bowls of raspberries and other delicious produce.

Because my Russian was still so limited, I attempted to get Natasha and her daughter quickly up to a level of English upon which I could base my instruction. This posed an unexpected challenge because I managed to strike about every fragile cord in Natasha’s history with typical introductory questions such as: “What’s your mother’s name?” Many a lesson ended in tears and me trying to console her in my wretched Russian.

Everyone in Kyrgyzstan led an understandably difficult life. The country was not faring well after separation from the Soviet Union in 1991. I had not, however, seen this hard life from the view of Russians themselves. Cut off from Russia, often from their relatives who hadn’t stayed behind after independence, and from the lives and usually advanced professions they had once known, theirs was a sorrow I had not yet been exposed to. Natasha was a window into that world.

As the summer progressed and Natasha and Vica picked up more and more, conversations became more meaningful and personalities started to shine through. Because of Natasha’s inherent interest in everything scientific, I spent lots of lessons assigning English names to pages and pages of pictures of vegetables, animals, and insects. This was how Vica discovered my phobia of all things remotely resembling grasshoppers. They could send me into panicked flailing that would put most children into hysterics.

So, in one of my most memorable lessons, we sat outside going through an assignment on daily habits when Vica screamed out, “Grasshopper! Grasshopper!” She rarely paid much attention to English and mostly came to visit Dunkin, my puppy. After my story of my fear, though, she was sure to remember that word. I, of course, whipped around, ready to run unabashedly in fear. Then I realized that Vica was pointing at something zipping around the flower box by my window. A hummingbird! I decided to use it as a test of animal names. I replied “No, it’s not a grasshopper. It’s a…” and I started flapping my arms vigorously. She looked at me, perplexed and wagered a guess, “A bird?” I was thrilled that she had remembered and gleefully yelled, “Yes!” punching the air.

Her mother, however, shook her head, and said “No, Megan, there are not birds very small.” It was true that it was amazingly small. After working in the Republic of Georgia and in Kyrgyzstan, I found that the hummingbirds of Eurasia are much tinier than their American counter-parts and much less colorful. They almost resemble large, brown bees. But this was most decidedly a hummingbird based on its flight pattern and obsession with my petunias.

However, Natasha wouldn’t buy it even after I looked up hummingbird in the dictionary. She claimed, “There are not hum-meeeng-birds in Kyrgyzstan” or anywhere in all of Asia. I did not want to ques-tion her in front of her daughter or demean her, as she was the village biology teacher. However, I thought this would be a good lesson for Vica to learn about the amazing flying feats of hummingbirds.

I tried to explain that it was a bird that moved its wings very fast. Vica marveled at this, but her mother persisted. No, it was not and could not be a hummingbird. Vica’s eyes got big. If it wasn’t a grasshopper or a hummingbird, then she knew the answer. “A fairy! A fairy!” (She had shown me a fairy tale book earlier and quizzed me on all of the words for princesses, princes, evil witches, and magical fairies.) How could I break her heart and tell her that my flowerbox was not, in fact, inhabited by a congregation of fairies? I left it at that and moved on to try to explain the magic of lightning bugs. Natasha, however, was posed with a challenge. Neither of us would back down on the hummingbird theory.

The next day she returned with a stack of biology books. I thought I was in for another round of what I believed to be unproductive naming of all things vegetable.

I was incorrect. They were books on birds. There, she showed me triumphantly—not one hummingbird listed for Kyrgyzstan. It could not possibly have been a hummingbird. I stood by my story, though. I just knew it was one.

The next day she returned, a little chagrined. “You win,” she sighed. I don’t know how many hours she had spent the previous evening poring through her old Soviet university textbooks, but she had finally found an answer: hummingbirds flew from Pakistan to Kyrgyzstan to avoid the extreme heat of Pakistani summers. They were not native to Kyrgyzstan, but they did pay us an annual visit.

I felt bad that I had been proven right, until I looked up at her face. She was completely joyful! Then I understood. This was a woman who once had been one of the premier scientists of the Soviet Union, but now was reduced to teaching chemistry and biology in freezing classrooms, with no equipment or textbooks, to students who rarely paid attention. This brief moment had posed a research challenge to her, and she was thrilled! She had learned something and had gotten to argue, and in English to boot!

Vica, on the other hand, was crushed to learn that fairies did not play amongst my petunias. As she had yet to see any solid proof that these so-called “lightning bugs” are truly insects, she was convinced that fairies with glowing rear ends at least frolicked in my backyard in the United States, and that was enough to satisfy her.

The summer continued in a string of lessons brightened by learning on both sides. I would never be able to cure the deepest sorrows of Natasha’s and Vica’s hearts, but I think I was able to provide a spark of something different. Lessons were a break from the monotony and dif-ficulties of village life as evidenced by Natasha’s words in a recent letter to me, “Your English—it is small light ray in my life.” I could not hope to have changed the lives of every village member or to have greatly enhanced their livelihoods in just two years. But I can hope that I was maybe able to sand down some of the rough edges in the difficult lives that they lead.

Megan Mentrek (Kyrgyz Republic)

Megan Mentrek served as a secondary education Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic from 2002-2004. She joined the Peace Corps after studying international development and international relations at Johns Hopkins University.

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