Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Something Special

When I first arrived at my permanent site almost twenty one months ago, I had no idea what to expect in terms of my teaching assignment. Nearly everyone I encountered referred sarcastically to the kids I’d be teaching as “special” and “interesting,” and I knew things wouldn’t be easy. And while it hasn’t been easy, it has been extremely rewarding.

Last Wednesday and Thursday, I was in Golden Sands, Bulgaria’s second largest resort on the Black Sea coast and arguably its finest. As far as I could tell, I was the lone foreigner among scores of Bulgarians who were there for a series of national competitions to determine the best of Bulgaria’s professional school students. Unlike in America, kids here have the option of attending a high school that trains them for a specific profession. Upon graduation, they are theoretically qualified to begin working right away in that field. By way of example, there were competitions to determine the best young bartender, chef, baker, server, stylist, and builder, among other competitions. I was attending because a team of our students qualified for and competed in the competition to determine Bulgaria’s best young mechanic.

The entire competition was rather impressive. There are some extremely talented Bulgarian kids who are learning a lot at the various professional schools. It’s amazing how much kids can learn, how creative they can be, how much fun they can have, and how much their talent shines through when they study things they want to learn instead of things they’re forced to learn.

Most of the kids I teach have lived and continue to live tough lives. A lifetime of disappointment has caused many of them to become apathetic and lethargic. To see three of them genuinely care about something and go through the whirlwind of emotions of competing for a national championship was pretty damn cool. First, there was the pride of simply being one of the teams competing. Then, upon seeing the other competitors, there was the self-doubt. Next, as the time for the practical portion of the competition drew near, there was the nervousness – hands were trembling, mouths dry. Then, after they competed, there was relief, followed once again by tension, nervousness, and self-doubt, as we waited for the results.

Having finished the theoretical portion of the competition in fifth place, our kids faced long odds entering the practical component. In truth, they were the underdogs entering the competition in the first place. The other schools were from far larger cities – Sofia (~1.2 million), Varna (~330,000), Ruse (~150,000), Stara Zagora (~135,000), Lovech (~36,000), and Karlovo (~28,000) – and us competing for the national title was a bit like Hickory competing for the Indiana state championship in Hoosiers.

Once the results had been tallied, all the schools lined up and waited for the officials to announce the final standings. When seventh place was announced, and it wasn’t our school, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Same thing when sixth place was announced. When fifth place was announced, and it again wasn’t our school, relief was replaced by pride. But when another school was announced in fourth place and we knew our kids had placed in the top three, pride morphed into happiness. Then the school from Sofia was announced as the third place team, putting us in the top two and bringing out feelings of unadulterated joy. The team from Varna won, with their kids taking the top three individual spots as well, but that didn’t matter. Our kids and my colleagues were elated being the runner-up, and seeing people I’ve come to care about so happy had me choking back tears.

Think about it. A school of 150 kids (my school) from a small town (my town) finished second in the 2011 competition to determine the best young mechanic in Bulgaria. Those kids surprised a lot of people with their performance, but not me. I’ve known since I got here that the kids I teach are interesting and special.

This was a big deal. The opening events brought out entertainers, politicians, and other dignitaries.

A few shots of the team.

Before the competition started, each of the teams inspected the cars and equipment and was given instructions from the judges.

A little last minute encouragement from the "coach."

The kids each had to perform three tasks. Given my lack of knowledge concerning cars, I could be wrong, but it looked like the tasks involved the following: an engine diagnostic task involving a computer; an issue with headlight realignment; and repairing and replacing a tire. Ivo started on the computer, Ilian on the headlights, and Milen on the tire.

Then it was Milen on the computer, Ivo on the headlights, and Ilian on the tire. 

Finally, it was Ilian on the computer, Milen on the headlights, and Ivo on the tire.

Waiting for the results to be announced.

Accepting the 2nd Place Cup.

A few shots from some of the other competitions.

Golden Sands.

Black Sea sunrise.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian.
    My name is Kostadin Stavrev . I'm from Plovdiv but I lived in Karlovo . I've seen that you've been here in Karlovo . Do you here now and can you contact with me by email ( sunch0@live.com is my e-mail addres ) .
    With greetings Kostadin Stavrev .