In the front row sits the Mayor with Tatyanna, the Director, and other officials. I sit several rows back with my friend, Irina, who heads the Department of Families and Children Services. The long auditorium is filled with smiles. Oversized windows that line one entire wall emit a defused autumnal glow. It’s a warm festive occasion.
A month ago, I was invited to attend. And then last week, I was asked to say a few words. So here I am on stage. I start by speaking a little in Russian to the delight of the crowd. I think my Peace Corps’ language instructor would be proud.
Of course, a translator is next to me to carry-on with the speech. It’s Annya, my friend, who has helped me in so many ways before. She tells me she is a little nervous, but very honored to be a part of this program.
Built in 1974, the main building on the Polytechnical School's campus.
The year is 1890. Railroads are the new technology of the day. Steel rails are connecting cities and villages. Change is happening. Now you can go to Kiev in less than a day…Amazing.
But who will develop this technology? Who will manage and engineer the system? The answer is the Polytechnical School. From Czarist times through Bolshevik revolution, World Wars and Soviet rule to a new Constitution, Orange Revolution, elections and democracy, the Polytechnical School has adapted and survived.
The year is 1941. The Nazi war machine is on the march east. Instructors and students flee Konotop for the interior of Russia, but they keep on teaching. The School buildings are bombed and burned. Konotop becomes a charred skeleton of itself.
Yet when the students and instructors return in 1943, buildings are reconstructed from the rubble. Students build tables and chairs and book cases from salvaged wood and learn a valuable craft in the process.
The School becomes the pride of Konotop – a symbol of hope and normalcy in the post-war era.
Today the Polytechnical School has joined with the Konotop branch of the Sumy University forming a broader academic and technical Institute. Railroading is still offered but so are electronics, computer technology, social work, management and building trades.
As I finish my remarks, I realized that I am the only American here. It happens a lot being the only American at a gathering, but not in front of 300 people. I think what a privilege and honor.
I realize I’m here not because of me, but rather by what the Peace Corps does best. In 77 countries worldwide since 1961, the Peace Corps connects and integrates volunteers, like me, into their communities. I get to be my Country’s ambassador to Konotop.
The program goes on for 3 ½ hours. It’s long even by Ukrainian standards. Students perform dance and song routines telling the history of the School through the arts. And then more speeches and awards are given.
Some people leave early. But I stay even though I only understand every fifth word or so. I want to soak in this experience because something like this may never happen again for this American.