Emily Zdyrko was the Grinnell Corps Greece fellow for 2005-2006.
Emily Zdyrko's Reports
Report 1Emily Zdyrko
My position here at Anatolia is a little bit complicated to describe. Officially, I spend my time working as a dorm advisor, and I also substitute teach and help with extracurricular activities. I put kids to bed at night, wake them up in the morning, make sure the school bus doesn't leave without them, occasionally teach their classes, frequently help them with homework and sometimes just hang out with them. I am not quite a teacher, not quite a friend, not a parent, sometimes a tutor, a babysitter or a sort of big sister, sometimes an alarm clock, a set of ears, a human English language dictionary, laundry room attendant and keeper of the keys. I'm also a student myself sometimes. My biggest complaint is that I am frequently exhausted.
Most of my work hours are devoted to the dorm students. However, my concept of what a dorm is has changed considerably as of late. I spent three years in the Grinnell dormitories, where it's not unusual to find people coming and going at 4am, playing baseball in the hallways or rushing around in drag before a Harris party. The Anatolia dorms couldn't be more different. This is a friendly place, but also a strict one. The students are woken every morning at 7am and put to bed at 11:30. There are daily mandatory study halls, weekend curfews before midnight and a sign out sheet. Whereas male and female Grinnellians often share bathrooms, Anatolians are prohibited from entering the rooms or even the hallways of the opposite sex. Doors are locked at midnight, and any student who tries to leave after hours will set off the security alarm. Students who have been living in the dorms for several years seem used to the busy schedule and list of rules, but some of the newer ones are struggling to adapt.
It doesn't quite make sense to compare Anatolia to Grinnell; this is a high school, not a college. Many of these students are only twelve or thirteen; quite young to be away from home. Unlike most college freshmen, they are not necessarily enthusiastic about being away from their parents and sometimes need a lot of help with daily responsibilities. I find myself trying to console homesick students on almost a daily basis, and I've coached a number of students through their first experience doing their own laundry. (I live in fear of dying some kid's underwear pink by mistake.)
The dorm does have a wide range of ages living in close proximity, a fact that makes my job more interesting as well as more complicated. While the younger students eagerly anticipate weekends at home, toil through basic algebra and sleep under pink Mickey Mouse sheets, the older students discuss colleges and possible career paths; some of them have already attended several different boarding schools in several foreign countries. Over dinner, I might struggle to convey a simple concept to a thirteen year old who barely speaks English, hear knock-knock jokes from an eighth grader, or have an eighteen year old update me on the latest news from the United Nations.
Spending time with teenagers occasionally makes me feel old (I had a moment of shock when one fifteen year old asked me "Are you married?") However, more frequently I find myself aware of the fact that I am only a few years older than most of the students. I sympathize with their academic struggles and frustrations with high school life, and I have to remind myself to be firm as well as friendly. Of course, I often have to struggle to be seen as an authority figure in the first place; I've been mistaken for a high school student countless times lately, both by Anatolia faculty and students. During my first week, I had some difficulty explaining my position to one of the dorm cleaning ladies, who got rather upset when she saw me entering the boys corridor. On my first day as the leader of the Second-Form Forensics club, a teacher entered the room and in Greek, admonished me for using a classroom without permission. Luckily, my thirteen-year-old students were able to explain the situation and get me out of trouble, but the whole incident didn't do much to give me a grown-up image.
Looking like a student makes my hours as a substitute teacher rather interesting; sometimes the kids regard me with some suspicion, and I think they wonder if I'm really just a high school student who showed up to play a trick on them. However, I've found subbing to be one of the most enjoyable, though unpredictable, parts of the job. Teaching the story of the first Thanksgiving to a seventh grade class turned out to be great fun; after fielding questions like "Miss, what is Mass-a-Shoo-Setts?" and "What is pilgrim?" I handed out samples of maple syrup and sent them on their way, thoroughly sugared up. More recently I managed to induce mayhem among a group of chatty ninth graders by telling them that I am from New York City; they immediately jumped to attention and bombarded me with questions like "Have you met Nicole Kidman? Have you met Brad Pitt? Why not?" Trying not to laugh, I explained that, for some reason, Brad Pitt just doesn't usually hang out with me.
I'm happy to report that my English major skills are being put to good use here; I've been editing papers for dorm students regularly, and I spent several passionate hours trying to inspire interest in Shakespeare among some 16 year olds. ("It's all about sex and death", grumbled one senior from the IB program.) However, most study hours are devoted to several younger students from Pinewood, the English-language International school. Some of these kids are wrestling through a full courseload in a language that they barely understand, and they need someone to walk them through their work. On several memorable occasions I have found myself attempting to explain Chemistry to a thirteen year old who mainly speaks Turkish and Bulgarian. I've always been wretched at Science in English, but now I appreciate the fact that I never had to learn it in a foreign language.
One of my biggest fears about this position was that I would have trouble with the language barrier. It would be difficult enough, I thought, to live with a group of teenagers, but living with a group of teenagers who spoke a language that I did not understand could be seriously frustrating. However, most of the students are capable of speaking very good English, and I've adjusted to the fact that I don't always understand the Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian and Turkish conversations that are happening around me. Actually, I'm surprised at how much it is possible to ascertain, just from paying attention to facial expressions and tone of voice. Also, my Greek skills are progressing, slowly but surely. Several weeks ago I shocked a group of fifteen-year-old girls by repeating their Greek conversation back to them in English. At this point, I can understand much more than I can say, and I can always fall back on the ever-useful phrase "Dhen Catalaveno", or "I don't understand."
Meanwhile, there is a whole nation to be explored outside of Anatolia, and it's very inviting. I think Brad and I have both experienced a sort of shock common to Americans in Europe; specifically, I find myself gaping at the ancient relics still standing amongst the modern homes, and wondering at how Thessaloniki was already thriving thousands of years before my home was founded. Downtown is a colorful mix of fashionable shops, crumbling ruins, open air tavernas crowded with diners munching on octopus, marketplace vendors and their customers haggling over anything from sweaters to pig feet, Oceanfront cafes where people linger for hours over coffee, and ancient churches sunk ten feet below street level. Oh, and there are those two Applebees that mysteriously draw huge crowds of Greeks.
However, for the most part, Thessaloniki is a thoroughly new experience for me. It's a city, and yet so very different than the bustling streets on New York or London. People know how to relax here, and though I may find that frustrating when I'm in a hurry or trying to find someone to fix my internet connection, I find the Greek way of life to be a nice change, especially after four frenetic years at Grinnell. However, it did take some time for me to adjust; I had some exasperating moments during my first few weeks, wishing that things would happen faster and just trying to figure out when all the stores are actually open.
Finally, I don't think I can submit this report without this one little bit of bragging: I climbed Mount Olympus! In early October Brad and I acted as escorts for a group of high school seniors who were taking part in the yearly Anatolia senior trip. The trip up was a little tough as we reached the top; we were thoroughly enveloped in snow and fog and almost turned back. However, the skies cleared almost as soon as we reached the summit, and I found myself staring out over a view more spectacular than almost anything I have seen in my life; icy peaks soaring into the clouds above a lovely evergreen forest clinging to the steep cliffs. If I were immortal, perhaps I would decide to live there too.
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