My little boy goes to a new public kindergarten in a working class suburb of the capital city. It’s got an extended programme that keeps him busy until evening. He has his own locker for changing his clothes. He has his own bed for a sleep in the afternoon, with his own pillow and pyjamas. There’s a kitchen which serves two snacks and a hot meal every day. Going to kindergarten has really set him up! He used to be shy, not very social. Now he’s the life and soul of the playground. He’s off to a good start.
Yesterday I played “kindergarten teacher for a day!” What a cool idea!
But not in Bucharest. The destination was a small village, in the foothills of the Carpathians, about 35km northeast of Brasov city, this thanks to the clever initiative of the OvidiuRo foundation with some logistical support from Raiffeisen Bank.
In the car on the way up, I met Eliza, a lawyer, and Mariana, an IT specialist – both employees of Raiffeisen, who had also volunteered to be kindergarten teachers for a day. At some point in their lives they had both dreamed of being teachers – especially Mariana, who even did the entrance exams back in 1978! Finally her wish was coming true!
First we met Oana, from OvidiuRo. They have a programme called FCG: “Fiecare copil in Gradinita!”/ “Every child in kindergarten”. We dropped Mariana at one school and arrived to a second, a small single-storey building – probably pre-War – atop a grassy knoll. A small group of children were playing hopscotch in the drizzle. We said “hello” on our way up the steps to an austere entrance hall, the same temperature inside and out, and immediately into the first classroom. It was warm from a wood-burning stove in the corner, and I saw Simona, their everyday teacher, sitting down, surrounded by children, their smiling curious faces now all turned towards me. Eliza disappeared with a happy wave through a second door into the junior infants’ class. I would’ve been quite happy to watch from the sidelines, but was thrown to the lions without mercy. Simona vacated her little chair and I found myself thrust into the inner circle. I sat down a little nervously, my bent knees almost up to my chin, my back to the wall. Everything went silent!
“Welllll…” I said slowly looking around me.
They’re all looking at me. They expect me to do something! One boy started to cry. I don’t think it was because of me. He seemed to be holding his neck as if he had a sore throat. But, Oh God, what if it’s contagious and they all start crying! Stay calm. No, they were all smiling. Good eye contact. Great eye contact in fact. Super. I looked along the whole line smiling back at me and I took a breath! Names, was the first thing that came into my head. Let’s start with that.
My name is Peter. What’s your name?
My name is Diana! I’m Daria! Dennis!
When Dennis smiled his mouth became wider than his whole head. He had the funniest little face.
Alex! Alin! Gigel!
Ouf Gigel! What happened to you, you poor kid, I said to myself. I’m sure he could read the sympathy on my face. But when he smiled and said his name he revealed all his teeth, top and bottom, only black! Each and every single tooth was black, only a thin white border around the edge. Oh my God, that poor boy needs help!
He’s the best at maths! I heard Simona say from the sidelines.
Maria! Catalin! Elena! Ionut! Adelina!
One after the other, they all said their names, except the one with the sore throat, who was whimpering to himself like a wet puppy. His colleague said his name for him: His name is Mircea! Some said their ages: four and five years. Another little girl, with the prettiest face of them all, had awful teeth too. And a few others were in a bad way. They were all happy, bubbling with energy. A great bunch! Dressed in warm well-worn clothes. One little girl struck me as fragile, but her smile was strong. And the others were all strong. Eric exploded into a wet cough that sent a shudder down my back.
Do you know any songs?!
Yeaaassssss!!!!!!!, came the long-drawn-out reply.
Please! I said.
Dennis nudged Alex and they started to sing. Immediately all the others joined in: a song about two elephants, on a spider’s web, which doesn’t break even if they swing back and forth on it. They are joined by a third one. Each verse another elephant joins and by the end of the song they were a mighty gathering of ten elephants, all swinging on the miraculous spider’s thread.
Another song. And then another.
What about a story? I have a book.
YESSSSSSS!, they chimed, full of thirsty enthusiasm.
During the drive, Leon had fished a few big books from the trunk, especially for reading to groups of children. I’d picked out one, about vegetables, full of colourful drawings and a simple story.
Can I take my boots off?! Come on! Gather around.
We all sat down on the carpet to examine the pictures.
It’s an onion! It’s a shovel! A farmer! A cat! A boy! A girl! Cucumbers! Corn! Potatoes! Ants! A bird. A ladybird! Carrots! Pumpkins!
Page after page, the awesome story of the colourful vegetables unfolded and we all laughed and squealed and pointed.
Then another story, and another song and some photos and all too soon, we were woken out of our dream by Simona saying: Time up! Come on kids, the bus is here!
We all waved goodbye as the minibus pulled away.
A quick tour of the silent school. Seven rooms. Seven wood burning stoves. Seven wonderful teachers. Seven classes: two for kindergarten; five for grades zero to four. Mariana arrives, thrilled and energised from her own experience. A nice free discussion in the staff room. The FCG programme is like a catalyst, to get the children of the poorest of the poor into the educational system as early as possible. It gets the local authorities involved. They bring the minibus. And they have to approve a budget to give each kid a set of rubber boots and an anorak in the autumn and a spring jacket and runners in the spring. That seems like a really good idea. The county schools directorate brings the school and the teachers into the partnership. Teachers can apply to OvidiuRo for a small grant to run a summer workshop with parents and children, encouraging them to enrol for the autumn. OvidiuRo knocks on the doors to talk to the parents, meet the children, to encourage and check participation. If you have a two year old, come with him to the kindergarten on the minibus and spend the day to see what it’s like. Super idea! For every child, the family gets a 50 lei food voucher per month, but only if attendance is maximum. Parents undertake to spend one day a month at the kindergarten to help the teacher and to attend the monthly parent-teacher meeting. All the kids in this kindergarten are enrolled in the programme. But after the kindergarten years? What then? Well, one of the big issues is the minibus. In Grade Zero – six year olds – there’s no more minibus. They have to walk to school. Ouff! How far? Two, three kilometres. In winter, it gets down to minus forty degrees here. It’s the coldest place in Romania. Ouff! I thought about my child doing that at six years old. And do they give up? No! They’re here and they keep going!
So in what kind of conditions do most of these kids live? Can we go to see?
We left the cars at the bottom of the muddy slope and started walking up the hill in the rain. The track was narrow. A tiny hut was the standard housing unit. Small log cabins, each about 4 metres square, built on a foundation of concrete or river stones. A front door and a window. Hut after hut, on both sides of the track. Sometimes a fence, or not. Two or three huts deep, probably each one another generation. The walls of some were covered in wattle. A few had once been painted a now faded blue. Tiny islands in a river of mud flowing gradually down the hill from the forest. A lady passed us carrying two plastic buckets filled with mushrooms. Behind her, two small boys, each with a similar bucket. I wonder if they had been to school today.
As we climbed up, the children came out to greet us. Faces I recognised from my class, still ruddy and happy, now barely recognisable under woolly hats and scarves, came up and we hugged. Some of them in shoes more suited to a beach than for plugging through this sticky red mud. We became a little crowd inching up towards the forest. Two girls passed me each with a saucepan of water in each hand. This is where they get water, said Oana, pointing to a tiny pipe sticking out of the ground at ground level. All of them? Yep! You couldn’t fit a bucket under it!
We came to one hut, perhaps the best kept, and I recognised tiny Adelina, waving from the door. Eliza recognised little Mihai from the junior class. Their mum was standing in front beckoning us to come up. This woman lives at the end of the trail, with the forest rising up steeply behind her. The track has become a footpath and if you had a car it probably couldn’t get much further.
We listened to her story, answering our questions. A well-spoken happy woman. One of the best mums in the community. She regularly spends a day at the school helping the teachers and never misses a monthly meeting. A clean garden without a scrap of rubbish. A small vegetable patch. We stepped inside. A clean wooden floor. A single closed wardrobe. A small sofa-bed on the left and another on the right. A television. And where do you cook? On the stove! Behind the door, a cast iron wood burning stove for cooking and heating. This lady was good and positive and she’s strong. She wants her children to get an education. She’s very happy with the support from OvidiuRo.
All this time our small crowd was on the laneway outside and kids spilled over into the garden. There are a few mothers of various ages. As we started to descend, one of them, a middle-aged lady in a blue bathrobe, started to speak, maybe not aggressively but nonetheless somehow protesting. Mariana and myself were the last going down and out of politeness we stopped to hear what she had to say. “My children have no shoes. I’d send them to school but they have no shoes.” From her doorway, from the dark interior of a shack more dilapidated than the others, emerged a little boy, barefoot and almost completely naked, wearing just a dirty t-shirt that didn’t reach much below his belly-button. He came out in the open. His mother ordered him back inside. “Give me shoes and I’ll send him to school!” she called again after us, as we retreated down the hill.
As we walked, an adolescent girl overtook us. I had noticed her earlier. She was broad-shouldered, had an athletic build, long fair hair tied behind her head and a slightly boyish look. She was dressed in a tracksuit, clean and pale blue. She had been with us for most of the ascent, keeping a distance all the time, and was now also walking down. She stopped and we passed close to her. I sensed she had something to say. How old are you? 16. And are you going to school? Yes. And how is it? It’s good. And your life here? It’s hard? It’s alright for some. We’re not all like that, she said, indicating back up the hill, I think to the complaining lady.
We talked about this in the car on the way back to Bucharest. What did you think of that girl? Mariana asked. She wasn’t after anything from us. Nothing in her body language suggested anything like a request. She walked with us, never intruding, just observing. She waited to be addressed and then offered her opinion, somehow as an apology for that lady’s behaviour. It was as if she was telling us: this community has progressive members, like the lady whose children you visited at the top of the hill, and regressive members, like this lady in the blue bathrobe and the naked boy. We need to encourage the progressive characters, give them support to be examples which lift other likeminded people, who are maybe younger or weaker. That’s how real change can take place. From within, day by day, child by child.
Through this visit, we reached out and saw life as we rarely get to see it. The teachers, the team at OvidiuRo, and the mums working together in difficult conditions, they all won our respect. I called Simona this evening and thanked her for looking after us. She said the children were in great form today! They loved our visit and were radiant!
Field visits are a “soft action” with such a strong impact: acknowledgement, encouragement, showing respect for the efforts of these heroes! Even through the simple action of walking, not driving, up through the community, we were paying our respect to the mums who are making it happen, and encouraging all those who could be involved but aren’t yet. It’s like an energy charge for everyone!
We can all get involved and there is a lot that we can do from the sidelines. OvidiuRo is active in 43 communities, supporting 2.400 children, which they estimate is about 2% of those at risk nationally.