Friday, October 28, 2011

What is your contribution?

We walked into the Sala de festivă, the all purpose room of the school. Its recently rehabbed interior buzzing with tens of different conversations between the hundreds of townspeople seated on the cold, metal and fake-wood benches which were positioned in rows facing the stage. Women of all ages, most of them wearing basme, head scarves, each folded in half to form a triangle and encircling its owner’s face and covering their hair, the other two ends tied loosely under their chins with the knots struggling to hold onto themselves against the constant motion of the women’s chins as they talked. Almost immediately we realized the people had segregated themselves by gender. The women sitting toward the front, the men either sitting in the couple of last rows or standing in the back in pairs, hands in their pockets as they discussed whatever it was that Moldovans seem to be able to talk about for hours on end non-stop.

We had come to the general parents’ meeting of the school (serving 1st grade through 12th) out of interest, to see what would be discussed, and what a mass meeting in Moldova was like. We sat down, still bundled in our jackets against the chill of the room, on an empty bench two-thirds of the way back on the right side of the auditorium behind our host mom Tania. As we looked around, it seemed most of the teachers were already present and seated in a loose group in the front right, furthest from entry door.

The meeting actually started almost right on time (highly unusual), even though stragglers kept streaming in every few minutes until the room was filled to standing room only. Doamna Maria, the school director (principal as we would think of it) called the meeting to order by thanking the parents for being there and inviting the mayor, Domnul Petru, and the vice-mayor, Doamna Nina, to sit down at the table at the front of the meeting, facing the crowd. She also asked for a volunteer to be secretary of the meeting, and asked for another community member to volunteer for something else that Ash and I didn’t catch.

Though the format of the meeting was brutally boring (Doamna Maria or another woman simply standing at the front and speaking into the microphone for what turned out to be two and a quarter hours), trying to understand their Romanian and being curious about what they talked about kept Ash and I focused for most of it. Soon, the speaker was asking for input from the parents on different needs/issues/ideas for their school. In the ensuing yelling match, two parents in particular offered complaints which drew heated sounds and responses from other parents and from the speakers. One main issue which Doamna Maria had raised was about the veceu (bathroom) situation. The current ‘bathroom’ for over six hundred students plus teachers, is an outhouse with two holes, no lighting, and no heating, situated about a hundred yards from the main school building. With help from the parent’s association – parents can voluntarily give money which goes into a pool for clubs and small projects for their kids – a small indoor bathroom (one stall for girls and one for boys) was recently installed on the first floor, but the sewage system can’t handle much usage, so its only open for the 1st grade to use.

So in response, a man in his late thirties sitting against the back wall, stood up and said that the school director should simply apply to a fund somewhere to get the money to rehab the sewage system and install more bathrooms on the other floors of the school. Simple enough, right?

Thankfully, that’s when Doamna Elena, our next door neighbor and Romanian tutor, stood up from the front of the room and turned to face the hundreds of eyes now trained on her. She said something pretty close to the following (English paraphrase of Romanian…):

“I’ve been teaching here since 1976. How many years is that? A little math practice… 30 something right? 34 or 35 years. Every year, I have taught here, I have walked out to that outhouse to use it. Every year I’ve taught here, I’ve sat in a cold classroom [another note of the meeting was how the school hasn’t turned on the heat yet because gas prices are going up and they won’t be able to afford it in the middle of winter. Which means that its downright cold in the school all day.] and watched the kids bundle themselves up and still try to learn. Do you know, if every family gave 10 lei each month, 10 lei!, that is nothing, we can all afford that, that we could probably install bathrooms on the second and third floors? It helps no one to offer criticisms without solutions. What have you personally contributed sir [speaking to the man who suggested simply writing a grant]? Do not offer suggestions if you are not willing to invest with your own money and time.”

 As Doamna Elena sat down, applause swept through the room. She had made a powerful, often over-looked point, summed up with one question: what is your contribution? The more I learn about the problems of the world, the easier it is to point out more problems. The more often half-assed solutions touted by short-sighted politicians or businessmen fail, the easier it is to simply say no to whatever is proposed. Yet the Romanian teacher with 35 years of teaching in the same school in the same town in Moldova challenges that paradigm. What is my contribution? Have I offered anything of my own or have I simply shot down what exists? Have I put forward empty solutions (i.e. “just write a grant to some funder”), or have I invested my own time and money in the work of bettering this Earth and the people who live on it?

What is your contribution? 

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