Well, we’re already a month into the school year. I’m not sure where the time has gone. It took a while for it to really sink in that I have a big girl job now. Maybe it was because for the first two and a half months in Mongolia we were training. But now there’s no doubting it.
In Mongolia the new school year always starts on September 1st. We kicked it off with an opening ceremony in front of the school with MCs and everything. One student performed a dance, another a song. I stood in front of everyone and delivered a short, adrenaline fueled speech in Mongolian. To think that the first impression most of my students have of me is shaking hands and stumbling over the words of a simple greeting! At least I looked good in my new deel courtesy of my landlords.
That first weekend the school organized a one night retreat for the teachers. We drove out to a nearby soum where, a little ways away from the town, there was a karaoke pub and ger camp. Boy it was an eventful 24 hours. We arrived late Friday night and immediately began socializing. It wouldn’t be a Mongolian gathering without vodka, so of course it wasn’t long until the bottles were brought out and shots were passed out one by one. At the bar we sang karaoke and danced the Mongolian waltz and when the bar closed down at 2:30 in the morning we simply continued in the gers. For being the youngest person there I made a rather poor showing when I was exhausted by 3:00 and went to bed while everyone else continued partying on. The next morning I found out that many of the teachers stayed up until 8:00 am or so.
The next day the teachers bought, slaughtered, and butchered two goats for lunch and dinner and I helped! I’ll spare you the (literally) bloody details, but let’s just say you appreciate a liver and onion sausage much more when you’re the one who held open the intestines for the stuffing. Talk about farm to table. For lunch we had gedes (the innards boiled over a fire) and for dinner we had khorkhog (real Mongolian barbeque cooked with stones). In between meals we played volleyball, soccer, and cards. We returned to the aimag center on Saturday evening and everyone spent the rest of the weekend recuperating.
The first week I was a bit lost. As anyone who has worked in a Mongolian school will know, the school schedule changes at least five times in the first month. My schedule depends on those of my counterparts so it changed along with the rest of them and I had to simply get used to not knowing where I was supposed to be sometimes. Even today they are still making adjustments, but thankfully I have a better idea of what’s happening.
Another adjustment I have had to make is accepting the teachers’ priorities. Teachers’ Day occurs at the beginning of October every year and is celebrated with all sorts of competitions which the teachers take very seriously. Since I work in an aimag center and there are multiple primary and secondary schools and two colleges the competitions are between teachers from different schools. There’s a lot on the line and practice for these competitions begins weeks in advance. I was recruited for the volleyball team before anyone realized that volleyball is hardly my forte. The practices take place during the school day, often times when I have meetings or class. After being pulled out of a meeting that I was leading one day to go home and grab clothes so that I could practice, I started bringing my exercise clothes to school every day since ‘I have to teach class’ isn’t a good enough excuse to miss practice apparently. A week or so into practice, in a meeting that I think was more awkward for her than it was for me, the director of my school had to tell me that I wouldn’t be competing after all since I still need quite a bit of improvement. When it comes to competition here there’s no ‘it’s not about winning, it’s about having fun’ attitude. They are in it to win it and so help you if you stand in their way! Thankfully teachers’ day is coming up soon and focus will return to classes.
I hoped I would be doing better at memorizing the teachers’ names by now. I do have my department down, but there are over 70 teachers at this school and it’s pretty difficult to remember their names when you were introduced to them all at once the first time. Thanks to participating in things like volleyball practice I am slowly getting to know them, but unfortunately most of my greetings are still rather impersonal. I’ve taken to keeping a list in the back of one of my notebooks of their names and jobs and I make sure to talk to the teachers as best I can when I see them in the halls, at meetings, and in the teacher’s lounge and it helps a bit when I have more personal information about them to put with their face and name.
As if I wasn’t already thinking that the time is passing too quickly here, it snowed for the first time last Sunday, IN SEPTEMBER! As I am writing this it is hailing outside. I’m sure it’s still a little ways before the snow starts sticking here (although many of my fellow volunteers in other parts of the country did wake up to a world of white this morning) it makes me sad that fall is really as short as they say it is. It was just last week that the leaves on the trees started to turn yellow. Some of the buildings in town still don’t have heating, but the ger district has started their fires. When I walked out of my house today there was already a layer of haze coating the town from the fires of dung and coal. I don’t know if I’m ready for the full force of a Mongolian winter to hit me yet, but there’s not much I can do to stop it. I’m sure I’ll have some reflections on being a human popsicle for my next post.