In spite of my abysmal performance on the Tatar exam, Kadriya Khanym continues to be unbelievably supportive of my research. A few weeks ago, when I first approached her to interview her about my research, the fears that had caused me to procrastinate for so long were confirmed: She just didn’t have time. She allowed me to come by 25 minutes before class started, giving me just 20 minutes to talk.

 

But then she started inviting me to things. Even though I’m one of the worst students in the class (priorities), she offered me and no one else in my class the opportunity to go to a conference on language teaching methodology yesterday and (as I found out only upon arriving) be part of the opening plenary discussion (HAHAHAHAHawkward).

The conference was in Arsk (Tatar: Archa), a village of about 20,000 and the hometown of Tukay and several other greats of Tatar literature and music. The night before, Kadriya Khanym wrote to say that she wasn’t going to be able to make it, but that a car would meet me, another student (a Japanese student who’s getting his Master’s in Tatar linguistics), and another professor to take us to the college. Two professors ended up coming, so it was a cozy ride. While we had been waiting for the last member of our party (an English professor who, of course, has now arranged for me to visit her students), the windows of the car got fogged up. The driver didn’t seem to think that this was a problem–what was there to see, anyway? He was only the driver, after all.

This was the first time I’d left Kazan since arriving, and I spent the entire hour-long trip glued to the windows like a little fly, much to the confusion and annoyance of my neighbors. Everything was so white. And the sun was shining, and the sky blue, and the cottages so colorful… And our driver so careless about our lives…

 

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The gate to the pedagogical college displays an American Santa Claus next to Russian New Year’s figure Snegurochka (Father Frost’s granddaughter), images of the Chinese zodiac, and a holiday message in the language of a people that traditionally doesn’t celebrate this holiday. 

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This is the cherry orchard of the college, along with a monument to the alphabet. I asked who the little girl was and was told she was no one–just made up for the monument. 

After many illegal passings on snow-laden roads, we arrived at the Arsk Pedagogical College, where, after a whirlwind of Tatar and tea, we eventually got around to the speeches that were the whole point of coming out here. The director of the college said a few words, and the woman who had met me that morning talked about the benefits of bilingual education. The Japanese student, Yuto, talked about… I don’t know. Something. And then it was my turn to wow everyone with my riveting comments (in Tatar–that’s the whole point) into the life of a student of Tatar at KFU:

“My name is Katherine. I am from Atlanta, America, but I study linguistic in Berlin, Germany. In Kazan I doing Russian and Tatar. I like  my classes. Tatar is a language beautiful. Thank you.”

 

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The presentations after me were all in Tatar, so I don’t know what happened there. When the plenary let out, we went to take a look at the college’s museum of alphabets, which they proudly declared to be the only such museum in the world. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about the one in Berlin.

 

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Buchstabenmuseum Berlin

After the museum was lunchtime, which took place at a table that, in Russian fashion, was loaded down with food when we arrived, none of which was actually part of the meal that was served. On the table there were dried fruits, fresh fruits, sliced peppers/cucumbers/tomatoes, sausages, tvorog pies, different tvorog pies, other kinds of pies, tea, and milk. The actual lunch consisted of herring salad, borscht, plov, and rice pies, brought in by waiters who are probably actually students or teachers.

Then, since conferences are for squares, we left without attending a single talk. We did, however, have time for the director to show us the apple orchard, cherry orchard, and greenhouse where the students grow the food cooked in the cafeteria.

 

This morning, I met Kadriya Khanym to go help widen the gap between upper class and everyone else by visiting the best school in town–Gimnaziya #7. Kadriya Khanym informed me that a gimnaziya differs from a regular school in that it focuses on the humanities: foreign languages, sports, literature, biology, chemistry, physics (I didn’t ask how all these things came to be considered “humanities”).  At any rate, every year Kadriya Khanym brings two of her foreign students to talk with the 10th-graders about languages.

The place is a palace. From the outside, it just looks like a normal school. But the place is full of glassed-in nature scenes with real taxidermy animals, the “Einstein’s laboratory” offers state-of-the-art (ish) science equipment, where the students can go and perform experiments of their own creation outside of class (presumably under supervision–it is Russia, after all). There are two museums, both of which are curated and designed by the students: one of WWII (a basement reconstruction of an underground… I don’t know, something, war-related), and one of folk art, with all the items (shoes woven out of birchwood, various kinds of embroidery, weaving) made by the students themselves. In addition, all the students are required to study English, Tatar, and Russian, and a good number of them study a fourth language in addition. My task was to answer their questions in the languages that I spoke. If I had known that the board of directors of the school was going to be attending, I probably would have practiced beforehand (all the questions were thought of beforehand, so I don’t know why they didn’t think to give me a copy of the script).

I was instructed to ask the students what countries they had visited, a question that I usually avoid, because a lot of Russians never go abroad. I have friends in Kazan and in Cherepovets who have never even been to Moscow, and that’s just a one-night train ride away. But these students’ answers reminded me that this was no ordinary school: almost all of them had been to another country, and not just Turkey or Tunisia (common destinations for Russians). They had gone to Austria, England, Canada, Germany, France…One girl had spent two years in England studying. Remember, these are 16-year-olds. At that point, I wanted to ask what the point of this whole little get-together was. If you grow up in a world where travel abroad is a given, of course you’re going to see the value of foreign languages. I thought that parading a bunch of foreigners around like polyglot monkeys would have been much more appropriate in a school where the kids otherwise might not ever meet a foreigner or have a chance to see that there’s more to learning German than adjective endings and genders.

 

Anyway, that’s not what happened, because why would you reward underperforming students?

 

When the event was over (by the end of it I had been called up twice for questions, two Tatars who live abroad had been Skyped in, and a ten-year-old had sung two Tatar songs with a surprising amount of breath control), Kadriya Khanym, the class teacher, and I went to the cafeteria (which looked like an oversized Ikea kitchen) for lunch, and then we had to hurry back to school so that Kadriya Khanym could meet with some “debters”–students who didn’t go to class all semester and now wanted make-up work. Some things never change.

 

 

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