26 April 2007

The payoff

25 April 2007
This morning I woke up early, despite the fact that it’s my day off and I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be. On my mind was the “Miss College” pageant that took place last night. Several of my students participated, and I was curious how Ira K (from English club) did. I didn’t want to ask her though, in case she was upset about the results, so I sent text messages to Nataly and Oskana to see if they knew the outcome.
Nataly wrote back that she was in the hospital, because she’s ill, and that she didn’t know the results. I didn’t hear from Oksana for quite a while, so I gave up on the idea, figuring that I’d find out tomorrow at school. I decided to get an early start on my errands, as the post office is less crowded the earlier you get there, and I had a package to pick up.
I was walking across the small park near our house. It’s the one in front of Sabor Yura (St. George’s Cathedral), near the Polytechnic University. I was admiring the fresh green-yellow leaves on the Spring trees and trying not to step in muddy patches along the path, when my phone beeped. It was hanging around my neck, so I reached under my jacket to grab it. I was excited when I saw that it was a message from Oksana, thinking I would finally get to know the results of the Miss College pageant. As I read the first screen of her message, I was disappointed, as she also did not know the results. Then I scrolled down to the rest of the message. It read:

“I don’t know because I didn’t go there. But I /
have other good news. Yesterday they called me /
from IREX. I have won, and it means that I’m /
going to America!!!”

Standing on the muddy dirt path in that park, holding my phone in my hand as its shoelace lanyard dangled around my neck, I began to cry. Short gasping breaths snuck out of me, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I read the message again, sobbing now. I lifted my head from the phone to see if any passersby might be staring at the unusual scene I had created, but it was early yet and the park was mostly empty. I stepped off to the side of the path, onto some new, stubby grass, and began to reply to Oksana’s message. There weren’t words to express what I wanted to tell her at that moment, how her life would change forever, how she would have a different perspective on her world once she returned, and how she was going to have so many new opportunities open to her, so I simply told her I was happy for her and I couldn’t wait to hear all about it.
The program Oksana was referring to is an opportunity for college students from Eurasia to spend one academic year at a college in the U.S. She applied for it many months ago, and has since kept her progress through the various stages of the application process a secret from everyone at our College except me and her roommate. She will leave Ukraine in the summer and begin at her new college in the Fall semester of this year.
I continued on down the path through the park, wiped my face, blew my nose. My legs felt tingly and the tears were slow to dry up. I felt giddy. I wanted to jump up and click my heels together. I wanted to tell everyone I knew. I wanted to make plans to visit Oksana in America. I realized she would be there before I would. I began to wonder what she was thinking, how her parents were reacting to the news, her friends, her teachers.
It is the most perfect reward I could be given for my two years of service. It is better than any applause or party in my honor. Better than my students’ good grades on the assignments I give them or their genuine interest in what I have to tell them. All of that is temporary, and all of that stays in Ukraine when I leave.
When Oksana got called back to Kyiv for the semifinal round of the application process, she confessed to me that she was deathly afraid of escalators. While navigating the metro in Kyiv to get to the study abroad office, she would have to overcome this fear and just hop on. Now in a few short months this same girl will take the first plane ride of her life and touch down in some big American city she’s only seen in movies. She’ll be surrounded by people speaking English, and other languages, with different backgrounds and different life experiences. She will enroll in classes at an American Univeristy, eat lunch in a college cafeteria, live in a dorm with roommates, ride escalators at shopping malls, and ride in cars down American highways. She will have endless questions. She will miss Ukraine. She will begin to understand some of the things I have told her, and she will learn the rest of it for herself.
Oksana deserves all the credit for her successful study abroad application. But she wouldn’t have known about this opportunity had I not printed it out from an email I received and brought it to her. This almost negligible effort on my part will forever change this one girl’s future. And every time I walk through that park near Sabor Yura I am reminded of the moment when I learned that Oksana was going to go to America. At that moment my daily complaints become small, my dedication feels appreciated, and I feel confident that my temporary presence in Ukraine won’t ever fade completely.

(That's Oksana, far right, with other girls from my English Club)

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