Beginnings are exciting, thrilling really, particularly when you know that they are filled with fun, energy, learning, reading, writing, and happy children.  This is my third year of WITS in Macedonia and the beginning of the third year on the Macedonian Express, and that express has more stops than it used to.  When we started, there were only three American Corner (AC) Libraries in Macedonian and now there are four. Next year there will be five. That’s pretty good for a country with only 4 million people in it, but what those Macedonians don’t have in quantity, they make up in quality.

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This is a nation of readers, poets, writers, artists, and their enthusiasm for the Creative Writing Workshops is so great that we have more students this year than ever before.  In Skopje this year we have two completely filled workshops and have only new students in the workshops.  That means that tomorrow morning there will be 20 kids in the morning and 20 kids in the afternoon in the AC. The younger kids come in the morning with all their energy, delight and excitement.  If it is like last year, they come with their parents, the youngest not really sure that we can be trusted to take care of them until the middle of the first day.  Then the second day they are so excited, so thrilled to see their new friends, to get started on their work from yesterday, and to do the warm-ups, probably starting with two truths and a “fiction” where they tell their new friends two things that are true about them and one fiction that they made up.  You would be surprised how often that fiction or even “lie” get used in one of their stories.  It also lets you know about their vivid imaginations.  Trust the bright lights to tell you their favorite color is blue, place their blue folder on top of their desk so that you believe them, all the while knowing perfectly well that their favorite color is green.  I know this is true because Emma tricked me with this at the WITS Creative Writing Camp “two truths and a lie” warm-up at Bellaire High School last month. She got me over and over again, and I fancy myself an excellent judge in this department!

I had a wonderful flight here.  I had just finished a Common Ground Seminar for the University of Houston’s Honor’s College when I boarded a United Airlines plane for Washington Dulles and then Austrian Airlines to Vienna and Skopje (pronounced Skop-e-ah).  I never seem to get over my love of flying.  When I was a teenager my friend Russ Heil and I used to go to the airport just to watch the planes that would have liked to be on and I haven’t changed.  I still am thrilled just to see a plane take off, and if I am on it is just where I want to be. I never had any desire to pilot a plane, but I do want a window seat, and a window seat to life is just what I got…all the way to Macedonia. Watching movies all night long, the second night without sleep, I was ready to sleep when I got to the hotel and that is just what I did.

By the time that I got to the American Corner library this morning I was ready to get rid of the 120 pounds of luggage that had the supplies that I had been buying for the past year…and they are wonderful.  I have inherited from my father the importance that I place on having the best supplies for a Writing Workshop.  When I got here the AC staff showed me t he great tee-shirts that they produced.  The design is fabulous. I will send you a copy of it asap.

This afternoon we are interviewing the kids that will be camp counselors and then meeting with representatives from all the American Corners so that they can pick up a copy of the master plan, modify that plan to their liking and be ready for the camps when I get there. That means creating a word wall, an bulletin board with local historical buildings and ruins, and other uses of walls and blackboards as we prepare for the arrival of the workshop campers.  But today it also means dividing the loot, the pencil sharpeners, the pens, the notebooks, the stick-on letters, the colorful wooden blocks on which they will hang their haiku, the satin ribbons that they will wrap around the box with their secret writings in it, the plain white paper plates that they will put their life clock on, the little brown bags that they will place something that they would love to “drown in the deep blue sea.”

I am so glad that I have the information that I got from participating in the SCWW camp adventures with Jennifer Aguirre and Pat Green.  Those two amazing teachers taught me new stuff that I am not going to drop in “the deep blue sea” but that I have carried with me across that sea to implement here.  Even the “two truths and a lie” warm-up was something that I had never done before until I did it in June with Jennifer and Pat.

A teacher must constantly be trained and WITS is the best there is about training.  There is on-going training for teachers before and during the Workshops…and I believe in training. Training makes us different from what we would be without it.  Training offers us  more choices.  Training makes us good at what we do.  As Malcolm Gladwell says in his wonderful book Outliers, training makes us extreme variables of folks who do something, because we have worked those thousands of hours to become the statistical outliers on a graph of how well we can do something if we get training and practice, work intensely on getting better at something. And that is just what these young people in Macedonia are going to do…they are going to write brilliantly in a language that was not their first, but a language that they are going to become very good writers in like Joseph Conrad and others who learned a language in which they became great writers.

Tomorrow is a new beginning and I will tell you all about it just after it happens. Welcome to the first day of the third year of the Macedonian Express. Come with us to Macedonia and the Creative Writing Camps as the centers are filled with young, talented children from the land of Phillip and Alexander.

Merilee Cunningham

WITS Writer to the Balkans

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