Ever since arriving in Ukraine, I have taught beginner’s English. Most Peace Corps Volunteers have at least one class. Many have several. During our Peace Corps training they told us that while being new in a community, English could be used as a kind of social currency. It gives us something useful that Ukrainians want and it occupies us as we try to figure out what’s going on.
So whether it’s been with children or adults, mothers at the Center or governmental leaders, I have taught English. It’s been fun to introduce participatory classes and get my students talking in English. We progress from simple verb tenses to pronoun charts to prepositional phrases and more. We make-up simple sentences and dialogues about family, friends and weather. Progress is slow and it’s been at an elementary level.
That's why I am pleased to receive an invitation to teach at the Technical School.
"Can you come and be with our advanced English students? They do not have many chances to talk with native speakers. Your presence will be a great pleasure for them,” says Tatyanna, one of the English teachers.
I agree to teach and we begin to discuss particulars - What kind of class; how many students; and so forth? Tatyanna tells me that there will be about 25 students, maybe a few more. "Like I said, it will be a pleasure for them,” she says. And I think it will be very interesting for Tatyanna and the other teachers as well.
We decide to read portions of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry. He is a renowned Ukrainian poet (and painter) who captures the long suffering of his people and the ever present hope for rebirth. His influence on Ukrainian culture is immense.
During Soviet times, his strong patriotism was downplayed in favor of his anti-czarist sentiments. However Shevchenko was always a Ukrainian patriot. He was a serf and stood up for the plight of the poor. Today he is an iconic figure even appearing on Ukrainian 100 grievnah bill. (adapted from Wikipedia)
Also we decide to read portions of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. His dream of America living up to the ideals of our Founding Fathers echoes Shevchenko's dream for a just and free Ukraine. I hope this class will add to our cross-cultural understanding. We all struggle for a better life.
I arrive early for the class. I can tell that the teachers are nervous - a little for me, but more for their students who they hope will do well and that I will have patience with them. Tatyanna confides, "They have never had such a class."
Students arrive. It is a full house. Extra chairs are brought in from across the hall. Unlike most of the classes I have taught, young men outnumber the women here.
I ask, "Do you speak English?" And I am pleased to hear a loud response, "Yes, we speak English." The class proceeds with readings from Shevchenko’s poignant poem. Some have read it before in Ukrainian, but now we read an English translation.
…Break then your chains, in love unite,
Nor seek in foreign lands the sight
Of things not even found above,
Still less in lands that strangers love...
Then in your own house you will see
True justice, strength, and liberty…
…Then all the shame of days of old,
Forgotten, shall no more be told;
Then shall our day of hope arrive,
Ukrainian glory shall revive,
No twilight but the dawn shall render
And break forth into novel splendour....
Brother, embrace! Your hopes possess,
I beg you in all eagerness!
Taras Shevchenko, Viunishcha, December 14, 1845
We continue with King's speech and note the similarities of these two patriots from countries half a world apart. We discuss a little about justice and freedom and how liberty is justice with freedom. We are having a substantive class and discussion in English. It’s great.
As we wind down the class, I have a surprise. I show the words of a 1960s song. It's a song I sang often with other volunteers when I first tried the Peace Corps in 1967. Now more than 40 years later, I am teaching If I had a Hammer to Ukrainians. Who would have thought it possible?
...it's the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom, it's a song about love between my brothers and sisters all over this land....