After a leisurely tea complete with various cakes and delectable edibles (Russian’s love their sweets), the morning began with a presentation from our hosts. The woman delivering, Alexandra, had a nickname, “The Encyclopedia”. She was rad. And she wasn’t even a teacher, she was a retired volunteer (what would we do without retired volunteers). Alexandra told us about the school’s 3 big projects that she had spearheaded and seen to fruition: the arboretum; the ecology trail; and the natural history museum.
First the arboretum: through much petitioning and hoop jumping, the school had convinced the city of Kavalerava to let them take the abandoned, ruble-filled lot that was their back yard and do with it what they wanted. They turned it into a contest and put out a call for designs. An 8th grader won, and with some help from a local professional, a mini-arboretum was born. Featuring over 80 species of mostly native trees & shrubs and several concept gardens gardens (medicinal herbs; plants of North America, etc.), it was an incredible example of teamwork and determination to behold. The ecology trail is about a mile long, features a variety of ecosystem types and winds up at the towns most prominent feature – a granite monolith defying the forces of erosion and jutting chin-ward to the sky. The natural history museum had 3 exhibits: Minerals; the Sea of Japan; and Geologic Excursions (which is what they call fieldtrips). The benefits Alexandra pointed out that had resulted from these combined projects were, increased scientific knowledge, community engagement and biological preservation. Brilliant! I want to steal that and make it our new tagline. What did we have to teach these people?
But teach we did and Tony and Sally both played their parts masterfully. I think Tony may have been channeling some Mic Jagger from our morning inspiration. The students demonstrated ecological comprehension beyond their years as the ring of teachers, some visiting from nearby schools, and adults nodded and leaned into eachother’s ears. I loved simply observing. Kids, no matter where they’re from, will always express their kid-selves with their antics and mannerisms. Russian kids have a very distinct way of raising their hands – the one arm shoots forward and up like a sword blade and the other immediately goes to supporting the now raised elbow, as if they’d been trained to wait with their hands up indefinitely.
After the “Ecosystem Challenge”, a program that Mts. to Sound does in the classroom with 4th/5th graders, we headed outside for some games. There were about 40 kids, ages ranging from 8 – 14 so Tony and I divided and conquered. He took the younger group first and then we flip-flopped after 15 minutes. I had Nastia and tall Katia doing their best to translate for me as I got the kids to play forest succession game we like to call “the forest succession game”. It was awesome for me because I got to learn how Russians play “rock, paper, scissor”. The game is the same, but the lead up before you throw is 5 times as long, it’s like a sonnet. The kids eventually got what was going on, and more importantly, so did Nastia and I could see her wheels turning as she thought of how to tweak it for native Russian trees (I had used PACNW natives). With the younger kids I just wanted to play, so split them into teams and had them part-take in an “amazing animal form relay race”. The message about finding your niche in life and adapting to change was completely lost, but we found ourselves burying the smallest race contestant in grass, so we got the enjoyment part.
We headed back inside for a brainstorming session on how to partner with Vlad BG, ate more cakes, drank more tea, and then it was back on the road. Destination, Ternei, a little village 5 hours north along the coast. As I walked to the parking lot I was still buzzing from all the kid attention (and special Russian tea), and somehow got ushered into a van other than ours. Helaina, “the English teacher at the school”, was heading the same direction with 5 of her young students, a couple older ladies and a bear of a man behind the wheel to stay the night at a wildlife preserve. She figured it would be a great chance for her students to practice English and I went along with it. They turned out to be really great kids, and really nice people (with matching camo) and we bonded. At one point we stopped for lunch at what resembled a school cafeteria and I was “rung up” with an abacus for the first time in my life. My grand total was about $2.50. I found out later that Sally had also ridden solo, but in another jeep, and Tony had ridden with our hosts from Vlad BG and Ivan or driver, a former military pilot. It was comical, but this is what I had come to expect in Russia – relax, go with it.