I have about sixty regulars in my English classes and they all have led fascinating and frightening lives. Here are snippets of eleven of their stories.
David, 12: David came to Crevena Zvezda at the same time as I did after his mom and siblings were deported from Germany. He didn't know any Serbian nor did I any Romani but he wanted to learn and I wanted to teach so we were a good pair. David is completely benign with a sensitive but very warm heart. He has a dream of going to India to live with his father. The trouble is he has no father, in India or anywhere. His mom has lied to him all his life saying that his father is waiting for him in India but actually his father was killed before David turned 1. I was told there was a fight between skinheads and some Roma men and his father was a poor victim. David is fascinated by astronomy and he's convinced that if given the opportunity he would find friends in outer space. I bet he could.
Casandra, 11: Casandra's namesake is the title character of a Spanish soap opera from the 90s, infamous amongst the Roma. This name is very popular, in fact I teach six Casandras, because the television is their window to the world. This box gives them something to dream about and long for and it helps them escape from their reality. This Casandra is diffident and taciturn and often she goes through entire classes without so much as a whisper. She has a knack for drawing and creative lettering and when I gave her the assignment of writing the English alphabet on a poster she took it very seriously and drew 26 letters each with a unique style. When I hung it on the wall I could tell she was overcome by pride and every time I instructed students to look to it during class for when they got confused between the Cyrillic and Latin characters, Casandra would raise her shoulders coyly and smile to herself. It was precious.
Ekrem, 9: Ekrem is sweet on Andjela and Marija and Gabrijela and Casandra. He confided in me after our third class and asked what he should do about it. He doesn't hang out with the other boys if he doesn't have to and he likes to sing, dance, and draw. His English improvement was commendable and he's a martinet of punctuality and keeping the class focused. Unlike most other boys and girls who hit each other to quiet them or get their attention, Ekrem prefers to sit straight in his chair, put his arms on the table, and look at the offender until they are met with his silencing glare. Sometimes this backfires and the students will all laugh and make fun of him but it has proved useful on more than one occasion and I love how he hasn't adopted up the abusive instincts that the others have learned through the adults in the settlement.
Djelko, 5: Djelko wants to be a rockstar. He really really really wants it. We made a guitar one day out of cardboard and though it's weather-worn he still brings it to every class. Last class he had a bandage around his forehead, apparently his teacher threatened to tear up his guitar and he wouldn't stop crying so she smacked him and her ring pickup some skin on the way back.
Sara, 3: Sara is the youngest in my baby class but she's the first to tell you that she's practically four since her birthday is next month so she doesn't need special attention. I love the Serbian name Sara because it has two long a's and a rolled r so it's more like Sah-r-ah. Lovely, and she is too. Her favorite color is whatever color she's wearing that day and she's meticulous about clean-up. She always sits next to this boy, Marian, who doesn't say a word, in any language. Marian is often bruised because his father hits him for not speaking and Sara puts stickers on these bruises and tells him, "all better."
Leonardo, 14: Leonardo is a jester. His favorite thing to say is "thank you very mačka" (pronounced mahch-ka and it means cat in Serbian). When he doesn't understand something he resorts to turning it into a punch-line and though it can be frustrating working through his outbursts that get the class riled up, he has that ability of making others laugh and helping the classroom feel less formal. I love that he doesn't take himself seriously.
Irena, 16: Irena loves using English phrases that she's heard in music and movies, in and out of class. Ladies and gentlemen, applause applause, and what you talking about willis (but she says villis because there's no double-u in Serbian) are expressions that she pulls out constantly. She has difficulty sitting still and focusing, preferring to be doing something with her hands at all times so she would braid my hair while we reviewed vocab and grammar which this worked like a charm.
Nazira, 13: Nazira is one tough cookie. She is the one girl in her class who wants to be treated by the boys as one of them and she often shows off with her strength and courage hoping to earn their favor. If you're familiar with West Side Story she's quite an Anybodys to the boys' Jets. The nose ring you see was self-inflicted right before one of my classes and seeing her jam a rusted wire into her nose to puncture it brought me close to disgorging. She didn't even flinch.
Stela, 17: Stela was abused more than most as a child. Her father is an angry drunk and for all I know he still strikes her. Stela snaps without warning and her tongue can be as vicious as a virago but she will never let her friends down nor will they ever be picked on in her presence. Her sense of loyalty is laudable.
Jakuta, 16: Jakuta knows English. She understands what I say and she responds with unheard of accuracy having never taken an English class in her life. She spends her days on the computer at the schoolhouse listening to American music, reading trashy tabloids, and surfing youtube. After just two years of having internet access at the schoolhouse she's picked up a second language.
Andjela, 7: Andjela is a dancer, there's no denying it. She learns through movement and has the balance and coordination of a ballerina. She is bashful to the most adorable degree and though she's a little afraid to open her heart, it's a pure and beautiful one. My students all know the Roma variations of Serbian kolo dancing danced at every celebration and Andjela is a natural. There are points in each song where one person steps forward and improvises for a bit, feeling the music and letting it take you where it may, and everyone knows Andjela is a natural so the others call her out during these bridges. Each time she is hesitant to take the floor but once she does her reservations depart and she appears so entranced by the music that nothing phases her.
Crvena Zvezda, their settlement
These are my students. This is their life.