More from Macedonia

Posted July 22, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

We just finished doing four plays this morning with the younger kids and two plays this afternoon, including a Vampire Summer Vacation, featuring a trip to the Castle of  Dracula.  Rather than start on my rant about Twilight, the novel, I will tell you that the plays were wonderful, even the Vampire play as we are close enough to Romania and the sources of the Vampire that the students have many original as well as historical ideas about Vlad.  Indeed the student who played Vlad was named Vlad.  (What are the odds,  even  this close to Bulgaria?)   The plays were wonderful.  The children and their parents were justifiably proud of the great work  that they have done, the anthologies are almost ready, and there was general agreement that Creative Writing Camp was a fabulous experience for all.  Now there may be a couple of librarians who have to work this weekend who may need to put their feet up on Sunday morning and even call for breakfast in bed.  I intend to sleep in  tomorrow morning and then walk up the hill is Stip to the 6th century Byzantine Church that I have been looking at every morning from my hotel room and wondering when and if I would be able to rise early enough to beat the heat and take a trek up the hill to see it, water bottle and picnic lunch in hand. But tomorrow  is my day as Sunday morning  early I take off to Skopje and then to Tetova and my friends at the American Corners there.

So I move away from Eastern Macedonia and its Roman and Byzantine ruins to the hills of Tetova where I can see the mountains of Bosnia.  Remember, Balkans is  just a word for “Mountains.”

Merrilee Cunningham,

Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Cleaning Up the American Corner, Skopje

Posted August 12, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

The library is closed. The children have left. Debris is scattered everywhere. Only my two teachers and I remain to clean up the  remains of paper, left magic boxes, tiny tomatoes that somehow were not eaten at the luncheon we had the last day.  One student returns because he forgot something, or maybe because he just doesn’t really want to leave for the last time and is stalling, giving himself a chance to do what he did, wave one last time and say goodbye and that “It was so nice to meet you.”  He had done great work and he knew it.  The other two teachers are busy taking clothes pins off lavender ribbon where we kept the Portfolio Center, and the library will go back to being what it is — a library.

The quiet after the storm is not just a hackneyed phrase: it is what we are experiencing now.  Pencils are rolling one last time across tables.  Scissors are being put into sacks for some occasion as yet unknown, to be brought out as school approaches or next year.  Everyone is tired, but happy with how things went. Everyone can see one thing that should have been done better. Did we select the best play for “Best Play”?  We are not sure about that one. Did we make a mistake or two.  Probably.  Did we do a great deal of truly good work. Undoubtedly. So now we will clean up for the last time.

The next time I write, it will be from Kosovo.

Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer in the Balkans

Skopje Celebrates Young Writers

Posted August 11, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

You are reading the blog of a woman who has been through five small earthquakes and did not feel a thing, yet when the American Corners was full of both the early morning kids and the afternoon kids, doing the plays that they themselves wrote, it seemed chaotic.  The U.S. Embassy sent its best and its brightest to award the children their certificates of completion for the program and to congratulate the winners of “Best Play,” “Best Long Poem,” “Best Lyric Poem.” “Best Short Story.”  The competition was fierce, and I got up early this morning to arrive in front of the library where we had to make tough decisions about who go which awards with my co-teachers and translators.  We had our differences of opinions, but the disputes were friendly, and everyone played by the rules. We had stayed up all night typing the anthology entries, as Bitola and Skopje had full-blown anthologies, complete with videos of the plays and 200 pictures of the camp. Still, there was no tee-shirt, though the embassy promises a tee-shirt if we will just come back and do this again next year.  This is a bribe that will work on my 1960’s soul.

The librarians are very excited about the program and have allowed us to take our dramatic chaos throughout the library, all the while these committed guardians of learning are actively attempting to carry on their regular programs, check out books, check in books, and do all the other things that help allow for people to get the kind of information that they need in order to make wise decisions about their lives, their votes, and their families.

After the plays this morning, we continued the tradition of ending the program with a proclamation of the rights of children. The right to go to the dentist was perhaps the most interesting. One has to wonder about the story behind an eight year old child understanding the importance of dental hygiene.  But the right to clean water, clean air, life with a temperature that was livable (Macedonia has been very hot this summer) were also important. When the children read their table of contents on their journal, they were very happy with themselves and saw how very much they had been able to write.  Then I asked them which works still needed more revisiting, and they slowly were able to tell me which works they would be working on and revising. It was great. Click here to see a 3:30 video of a news story about the project.

Tonight my youngest daughter arrives from Cairo, and we have dinner with a friend from the embassy and then we are off to Kosovo and Bulgaria as my daughter continues on to Istanbul.  So the Macedonian Express will be traveling West away from Skopje and into Kosovo and Bulgaria.  I hope that you will be coming with us, because after that, I need to revisit my syllabi for World Literature I and World Mythologies, and Renaissance Drama and Roman History Independent Study at the University of Houston Downtown so that my university gets its fair share of what talents I possess.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Young Poets of Skopje, Macedonia

Posted August 7, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

The children in the Creative Writing workshop in Skopje were ready to select their images for the Ekphrasis assignment and one of the masks that the teachers put on the board looked, from far away, like the famous Mask of Agamemnon, so, gold mask macedonianever the one to stand back timidly, I said, “Oh, the mask of Agamemnon.”  At that point both my Macedonian teachers (one married to an archeologist), fell upon me and gave me the what-for!  “Oh no. Many golden masks have been found in Macedonia.” One, found in 1934, is in the museum in Belgrade with its fellow. Others have been found recently in 17 graves from the 6th. century B.C.  in a village near Lake Ohrid. There is much excitement about the discovery of the bronze age graves near Ohrid. But there is also much pride about the beautiful mask that is in Belgrade. I was amazed by its beauty, the face surrounded by the ancient image for enigma and questioning.

Which brings me to the constant questions that the kids in the workshop are asking. “Do you go to NASA often?” How many computer languages do you know?”  “Do you know Obama?”  “Have you seen AC/DC?”  “Do you have a hamster?”  What do you do with questions like that asked by students who have learned their English by playing video games or whose goal in the workshop is to write an epic poem?

The answer, of course, is provide them with challenges, and that is exactly what I am best at, so tomorrow they have to perform the play that they are writing today, but only after they create their life clock on a large white paper plate, starting, at 12 o’clock with they day, month, and year that they were born.  Did you want a brother?  Did you want a baby sister? Did you want to learn computer languages?  Did you want a hamster?  Did you want to make good grades?  Did you want to have a bird?  Did you want to fly? Did you want to work with E.A. Blizzard or Krytech?  Did you want to meet Miley Cyrus?   Did you want to be a teacher? Did you want two new cousins?  I know I did. Did you want someone to love you all your life?

I feel like the Art Linklater of Creative Writing Teachers.  Kids say the funniest things.  They also say the wisest.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)