Some experiences words can't capture

An American visitor's diary gives a glimpse of the struggle for progress in Kosovo

There are teachers who can't bear to hear about their students' lives, lest they be distracted from the task at hand. Other teachers, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, are unabashedly fascinated by their students.

Paula Huntley, a marketer from San Francisco, joined the ranks of the hearts on their sleeves when she began teaching English as a second language in Kosovo. She accompanied her husband in the fall of 2000 when he traveled there to help set up a modern legal system.

She worked in Pristina at a ramshackle school, her students a mix of college-bound teenagers and adult professionals. Most of them were ethnic Albanians who had been persecuted by Serbsfor a decade, until NATO intervened the year before Ms. Huntley arrived.

She was so taken by her students' enthusiasm for learning English that she photocopied Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" and invited them to her rented home for a weekly discussion.

They read other works as well, but Papa Hemingway's spare novella is what focused them. "I see light coming into their eyes as they begin to understand that the old man's struggle, his endurance, describe their own lives, the recent history of their country," Huntley writes. "Will they come to see that they are the heroes of their own stories?"

We Americans might want to see the Albanian Kosovars as individualistic heroes, but they see themselves as part of an ethnic and national story - partly heroic, mostly tragic. Everyone, from her husband's associates to her students, seems "to consider it almost a duty to testify to the brutalities suffered by [their] people."

Huntley's "accidental book" (as she introduces it) is a diary, portions of which she e-mailed back home.

"I am driven to write everything down as soon as possible. I don't want to forget anything or anyone.... But mostly I write because by writing I experience it all again, and begin to try to make some sense of it all."

She didn't find out until later that the e-mails circulated among friends of friends of friends.

Her account of the class's textbook unit on "National Stereotypes" is striking. When she finds herself shocked by her students' prejudices about Albanians from Albania, she bravely goes on and asks them about Serbs. One says: "'Teacher, we know you cannot say everyone is the same. Not all Americans. Not all British. But Serbs ... the Serbs are all the same. They all want to kill us.'"

Huntley doesn't argue; she realizes, as any honorable teacher would, that she is in over her head. "Who am I to try to teach tolerance to these who have suffered so much, so recently?"

The first month of her diary is newsy and informative, yet not compelling. Then she gets her class, and she and the diary are transformed, immediately vibrant.

As her students compose essays and talk of their experiences in Kosova, as they call it, she is awed by their insights:

"A graduate mechanical engineer Luan writes: 'The war don't like nobody. It comes always without wishes of people who feel it the most dreadful. Nobody can't know better than Albanian people of Kosova what is violence, what is killing people and nobody can't hate it more than they. They are afraid of repetition massacres.'"

Huntley later reflects: "I think the power of their language is that it speaks to the very incomprehensibility of the experiences they are trying to describe. Their sparse language, and even their misuse of words, draws the reader's attention to the fact that there are some things no skill with vocabulary - and no perfectly chosen combination of words - can come close to capturing."

She responds to the students as a human being, not as a representative of academia or America, and they love her for that, though they do see her as a representative of both.

When she prepares to leave after six months in Kosovo, one of her students, a physics professor, explains to the class what makes teaching so fulfilling and heartbreaking:

" 'I am telling them, Mrs. Paula,' he says, 'that they have just seen one of the good and one of the sad things about being a teacher. We love our students, and then we must leave them, or they must leave us.'"

"The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo" succeeds not only as an introduction to the recent devastation there, but as an inspiration to teachers as well.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English in New York and edited "Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy's Writings on Education."

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