The First Blow is Half the Battle

The theme for this week’s meeting of the Elabuga English Club was “English Proverbs,” and the proverb I was asked to explain sums up these first few weeks. “The first blow is half the battle,” accurately describes the front-loaded nature of adapting to a new culture, job, and social group simultaneously. These first few weeks have had ups and downs intensified by the newness and disorientation of a new way of life, but I have finally started to settle into something resembling a routine, and I can confidently say that I really think I’m going to like it here!

The biggest concern for me while preparing for my time here was teaching; after all, I wasn’t an education major and I had had little experience. You can imagine then how overwhelmed I felt when I found out that I would be teaching 4 classes on the college level. Five months ago, I was taking 14 credit hours, now I was expected to teach them! There was little time to reflect on my role change, however, as I was given a textbook and thrown right into the classroom. I am happy to say that it was not as scary as I had imagined it to be. My students (who are only a year younger than me!) are a joy to teach, and I already see the seeds of positive relationships being built, the development of which was one of the main reasons I wanted to teach.

A little about what I am teaching: I teach two sections of conversational and written English for fourth year students. My first group is from the English department, and they are definitely at an advanced level of English; we have already had many interesting conversations about the government shutdown, Syria, politics, and cultural differences. I also teach a current events/news class for them once a week, which they seem to be very interested in. My second group is from the Tatar Department. Basically, there is a separate department for those who want to study Tatar Language and Literature (usually ethnic Tatars), but there is also an English track within the department. Their level of English is lower than my other group, but I have found that the textbook they are expected to use doesn’t help. It is way above their level, and if I were in their position, I would feel overwhelmed and discouraged. In addition, the teachers seem to have given up on them. I have heard quite a few times, “they really can’t speak English. You just have to do drills and vocab with them.” It is true that they really don’t have the ability to speak conversationally, yet! It is going to be a challenge to learn how to teach them effectively, but I already had a small success yesterday when I modified an assignment on reported speech. By the end of the lesson, I felt like they all understood the concept, and they had fun doing it. I even got to teach them “hangman,” which they were really good at!

Finally, I am teaching a creative writing class once a week, which I am creating completely from scratch! Well, not completely from scratch. I had the privilege of taking a Creative Writing nonfiction class last semester with an excellent professor at Gordon College, and I am modeling the format of the course after this class. In short, each student will write a poem, short story, and personal story in English, and there will be lots of peer review and workshopping. I started the class by writing a cinquain as a class (an easy form of poetry), and the students chose to write about how terrible school was, which was actually really funny. I told them I understood, since I had been in their shoes just a few short months ago. Then I asked them to write their own cinquains, and I was very impressed! I believe every one of them has a poetic bone in their body. I read them “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I don’t know if they understood all of it, but I sure felt like Anne of Green Gables reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” We will also be starting a wordpress blog to showcase student writing, so be on the lookout for that!

Oh, a side note: students at the university had never even heard of a syllabus before! I think this speaks alot to the differences between American and Russian culture. As a person who loves syllabuses/syllabi (take your pick), I very nerdily and enthusiastically explained about how wonderful it was to know what was coming in the future and what was expected of you (two things which don’t seem to exist here).One of my students put it best in her essay comparing Russian and American higher education: in America, students get a syllabus, but “in Russia, it’s always a mystery.” I have made a syllabus for two of my classes so far, and the students seem to like it.

Socially, things have gotten much better too! Two of the teachers from my department, Lenara and Albina(such beautiful names!) took me out to lunch and a movie, and I really enjoyed their company. I also visited the local English club, and people have been eager to befriend me there. I went out to pizza last night with two high school girls from the club, one of whom wants to be a translator. The head of the English club has also asked me to give a presentation on my state next week, so it seems that I may have to start saying “no” to invitations if I am to have any time to myself to recharge.

Finally, I am taking Russian lessons with the head of the Russian Department, who is an excellent teacher. At the beginning of our first lesson, she looked at me and said, “all the other teachers have been praising your Russian and said you spoke so well, but I’m not so sure.” Needless to say, this was an intimidating way to start a lesson, but by the end she had become convinced that I could say more than “Da” and “Nyet.” My Russian is at a point now where I understand probably 70-80% of what is being said, but my speech hasn’t caught up with my head. But unlike other times in Russia, I finally have enough time for my speech to do the catching up! I have no doubt that if I work hard, I will make great strides linguistically during my stay here.

The Russian version of the first blow is half the battle” (хорошее начало, полдело откачало) is translated loosely as “a good beginning is half the work.” It has been an overwhelming, tiring beginning, but overall, it has definitely been a good one, and I now that I have thrown the first blow, I am excited to see how the rest of the year will unfold.

I Am (Not) My Writing

I am my writing. I have been told this is a lie, yet every tap on the keyboard feels like a needle invading my finger veins, draining drops of blood. I am my writing.It is not hard to understand why this statement seems so much more like truth than a lie. Since childhood, I have felt closest to God with a pen in my hand, outpouring my reflections and prayers in a cozy journal that never made me feel unsafe or misunderstood. When I pray out loud, my sloppy words waddle around in distracted circles, but when I write to God, it feels like he takes over my pen and guides my hand to record the truth that gets lost in the wind when I try to speak. For a glorious stretch of time between my first journal entry and the end of high school, I was not my writing. Writing was a joy, an escape to exotic locales and vivid characters. Writing was a gift, a bowl into which I could pour all my messy emotions and observe them to get a proper perspective. But when college began, something changed.

          As I was thrust into the world of discussion-based classes alongside students who seemed to know what they wanted to say and how to say it, I began to feel painfully incompetent. When I tried to contribute in class, my sentences seemed awkward and broken, filled with stops and starts and misused verbs. I would chastise myself for answering a question with “yeah, it’s pretty cool,” when the guy sitting across from me threw around words like “Aristotelian” with a yawn. I had thoughts, I had ideas, but when I opened my mouth, I was as articulate as a caveman, and as I compared myself to my classmates I wondered if I was somehow mentally deficient. Outside the classroom, I felt caricatured by those around me, carelessly squished into a box labeled “quiet, responsible, and a little boring.”  In this new school where I desperately wanted to find friends, I didn’t feel perceived as who I really was, the goofy girl who loved people and adventures and traveling to foreign countries.
          It was with a pen that I found the power to fight back against the one-dimensional identity that I thought was being forced upon me. When my TGC class was assigned a “This I Believe Essay,” I lit up when I realized that the assignment offered me the opportunity to share about my experiences in Russia, which were adventurous and daring and anything but quiet and responsible. I felt immense satisfaction as I passed in the finished product, knowing that whoever read it, even if it was only my professor, would see who I really was.
          But to my delight, it wasn’t only my professor who saw it; I was assigned to have a conference on the paper with my TGC fellow. It was an understatement to say that I had a crush on this senior T.A. I was convinced that he was everything I wanted in a man; with his intense gaze and depth of insights into suffering, love, and the good life*, it wasn’t just three flights of stairs that made my heart race on my way to class. But alas, I was cursed with the freshman-ness and inarticulateness that made me invisible to this intellectual demigod. I trembled in nervousness as I hiked my way up to the third floor of the chapel to meet him, and four years later, his words to me still resonate: “it was one of the most polished essays. It had an enthralling tone! And I know I shouldn’t say this…. But, it was my favorite.” I’m sure my eighteen year old face was glowing as if he had just asked for my hand in marriage.  I am my writing, I thought.
            My sophomore year, I stood before my creative writing class and read a poem that was my masterpiece: it perfectly articulated all that God had been teaching me, and the form and structure reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. I will never forget the bewildered, confused look on my professor’s face after I finished reading. His wide eyes and open mouth seemed to betray that he absolutely hated it but was trying not to let it show. An awkward silence lingered for a few seconds and I took my seat, defeated. I am my writing. This summer, a friend read the same poem and he loved it, expressing amazement and appreciation for my thoughts and the way I had worded them. He “got” my writing, therefore, he “got” me.
My experiences in college have shown me that the belief that I equal my writing is a dangerous equation, a mode of measurement as capricious as New England weather.  Sometimes the words flow effortlessly, but most of the time, I feel like I can’t string together sentences worthy of a third grader. Nonetheless, writing has become a defense weapon, a shield against my fears that I do not measure up. It has become an advertisement for myself, trying to convince others that I am worth their time. And after four years of striving to prove myself through two dimensional black and white pages, I have begun to realize that my idolization of writing has squished me into a smaller box than the one I was trying to escape.
            Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship, a word that comes from the Greek “poiema,” where we get the term “poem.” We are God’s poems, masterfully sculpted works of art whose stories cannot be constrained to something as paltry as a page. To try to wrest the pen from my Creator in a small-minded attempt to make a name for myself blinds me to the breathtaking story he wants to write my life into. So as I graduate, I want to transform this pen, to use it not as a weapon, not as a billboard promoting Hope Johnson, but as a gift, remembering that though writing is a tool God has given me to process this life, it is not life itself. Taking my eyes off myself and fixing them on the author of a much greater story than could fit on a page frees me with truth that I am not my writing. No, I am His writing. 

*love, suffering and the good life are three things Gordon College’s first year seminar really likes to talk about. Alot.