I had an unexpectedly good time last weekend, volunteering at the NESC regional competition. I can’t remember what NESC stands for, but it is a spelling bee for Georgian students. In English. With really hard words!
OK, I’ll back up. NESC was started by a PCV back in 2010, I think. It has turned into an annual competition that, unlike some of the many, many competitions held here in Georgia for students, has a lot of prestige but not a giant prize at the end of it. For instance, some of the competitions that my host sister Salome enters boast trips to the U.S. or London for the winners. I think the winner of NESC gets an iPod or an iPad or an iSomething. The point is that the kids who enter really want to compete for the sake of the prestige of excelling at spelling, and pretty much that alone, not a big prize.
NESC starts at the local school level. PCV’s volunteer to be regional coordinators. I refrained, but my sitemate Russell and a phenomenal PC13 (my group is PC14 – the 14th group to serve here in Georgia) named Melissa who lives in Khashuri, where we trained, went for it, and with gusto. They reached out to schools in the region, and engaged the help of other PCV teachers. Meetings were held, teachers were recruited, and a record sign-up resulted.
Once a school signs up, students in the 8 through 12 grade receive word lists they can study. They take a written test at their school, and those above a certain level move on to the next stage. That was where I, and numerous other PCV’s, came into the picture. The competition was held at Gori University, and we helped with registration, test administration, hall monitoring, and pretty much anywhere else we were needed.
Registration went smoothly, though about 50% of the kids didn’t show up. That was surprising, but apparently was the case across-the-board in every region. It’s hard to say for sure why kids who had qualified at their schools didn’t chose to participate. Perhaps it was intimidating. Perhaps they didn’t study hard enough. Perhaps they weren’t motivated enough, or self-confident enough, or … we don’t really know. The team plans to send out a thorough and comprehensive survey to teachers, parents, kids, volunteers – everyone – to try and get a better grasp on this challenge. That was a little disappointing, but there were nearly 100 kids who did show up, and boy were they raring to go!
Maka, Russell’s counterpart/colleague at Society Biliki here in Gori, was my co-test-administrator for a group of 8th/9th graders, and we had some fun. I said the word in English, and then she would rap off 5 seconds on the edge of the desk – then she would say it in Georgian, 5 more raps, then me in English again, 5 more, English once again, and onward to the next word. There were 30 words, with 5 more “tie-breakers.” And wow, some of those words! “Foreigner” and “catalogue,” for instance. When it was all over, the PCV’s graded the tests. There was a huge range of scores, ranging from 2 or 3 (out of 35) all the way up to perfect. And there were enough perfects that even one mistake pushed a kid out of the finals, that’s how competitive it was.
On to part 2, which was what we more typically think of when we think of spelling bees – an oral competition, words of escalating difficulty. These kids were allowed to get 2 wrong before being eliminated. Given how good they were, it was a LONG afternoon. I was a hall monitor, which meant I stood outside the door letting kids in and out, stopped them from cheating (I had to take away all of their papers to remove the temptation of studying just for one more minute!), and witness some slightly heartbreaking crying when kids got eliminated. I tried to have a little conversation with them other than saying “modi” (come) and making the backward beckoning sign used here – instead of palm up and all four fingers curling and uncurling, just reverse it, palm down), but they didn’t understand me, sadly. The problem was, their English was no better than my Georgian. They would say, very formally, “please speak English,” and I would try, but they didn’t understand that either! It’s the typical problem of learning a language purely in class – they can read and write very well, but their ability to converse is very limited. On a somewhat tangential note, Georgia and the U.S. have a great program called FLEX which sends really accomplished English-speaking students overseas to stay with families in the U.S. for about a year to attend school. Many of the employees at Peace Corps in Georgia are alumni of this program, as are numerous young people working in government and NGO’s. Here’s a link for anyone who is interested: http://www.afsusa.org/about-afs/public-diplomacy-initiatives/flex/.
So, it was a long day. Finally, some kids won and we all were able to go home at around 6:00 pm. In the 8th/9th grade group, a boy was one of the winners – Sandro – which is kind of unusual. Here they are:
Exhausted but happy. I don’t spend much time with kids, so it was especially interesting for me. I hope to volunteer again at the national competition in Tbilisi in the spring.
Other goings on … well, we had Thanksgiving. That was really a lot of fun. Good company, good food, bunch of people stayed in my apartment, which was great fun, and overall a huge success. I know a lot of PCV’s are especially homesick this time of year, but for whatever reason, I was not. I was quite happy to be right where I was. That’s not always the case – I do get homesick sometimes – but it’s at the oddest moments, and for no apparent reason. Sometimes I kind of forget where I am, and I just live here. But anyway, due to an epic cellphone meltdown necessitating a factory reset, my collection of Thanksgiving photos is a bit limited, but here are a few:
And my favorite photo – here, as at home, it’s the after-Thanksgiving meal that is often the best. This one included avocados, purchased at Carrefour in Tbilisi in anticipation of this very event. Russell is almost crying with joy.
In 9 days I am off to London, a trip I am very much looking forward to, and will be the first vacation I’ve taken in nearly a year and a half. Because life here is a lot of things, but it ain’t a vacation! It’s not an “adventure” either. It’s challenging, and hard, and fun, and sometimes exciting, and sometimes depressing … it’s just, well, life.