Deeper relationships at the orphange

Three weeks ago I resumed my English tutoring at the orphanage down the street. Last school year’s experience held some beautiful moments with these teens, but there were as many difficult times managing the dynamics in the group as well. Even though my Russian is much improved, I knew that if I were to be effective and really get to know these kids, I needed to divide and conquer.

The director allowed me to teach “one-on-one” in smaller blocks of time per my suggestion. It just wasn’t as effective in a group setting, I said. The one-on-one quickly became two-on-one, and then when I arrived the first day, they snuck three-on-one with the boys, but who’s counting. The smaller groups have worked extremely well, and in just three weeks, I have learned more about these kids and experienced some breakthroughs in our relationships. Lydia continues to join me, and with the smaller groups, can participate more.
Here are three snapshots.
Masha: You might remember Masha from a previous blog of mine. She’s 13 with a dark affect and sour attitude towards any authority or academic subject. Masha is still dark, but she and I came to an understanding and parted in May as “friends”. We picked up right where we left off, and now she has even decided to try speaking a little English. She cracks a smile every now and then and seemed to appreciate my offer to find her the lyrics to the English rock songs she listens to on her MP3 player. Masha hangs around after her lesson and sometimes returns later. She and Lydia are becoming well acquainted too.
Andrei: I secretly hoped the director had other boys in mind for this year. But no, Andrei, 14, was the first face I saw. He was lewd and rude when I first met him last winter, but removing girls from the situation has allowed him to focus on his English homework and give him the freedom to ask me questions about myself and Lydia. Andrei is a tough nut. He reeks of cigarette smoke, talks about drugs and beer, and handles himself like he’s ready to fight. But, as I approached the orphanage on week 2, Andrei ran up to me and waved with a shy smile. Progress.
Natasha: I was wrong. Natasha, 14, is reachable! Up until today, I thought Natasha and I would make little, if any, progress in English and in our relationship. Her body language screams apathy and “bug off!”. When her lesson partner Anya did not show up today, I had 30 minutes alone with Natasha, and those 30 minutes started out like all others:
Me: How are you today, Natasha? (English)
N: gives quizzical look
Me: How are you today? (English)
N: flops down in a chair and buries head in arms
Me: How are you, Natasha? (now in Russian)
N: terrible!
Ready for the miracle? Today Natasha and I parted with hugs and smiles! How did this happen?
We started the English homework (safety tips for parents, of all things) and after slogging through phrases that she can only parrot and does not understand (“Put the knives away after use”), we started really talking. Okay, it was in Russian, but after “Cover all electrical sockets”, can you blame us?
We learned that we are both only children, and that we both always wanted an older brother. Natasha started to lighten up. I ventured to ask about her mom and dad, since most of these kids are social orphans and usually maintain some kind of visitation. As crusty as Natasha can be, she opened up about her family revealing that her mother was killed (with N there) and her father is a drunk. She only sees him sometimes, but she is fond of her grandmother. I queried her about who she looks like, and Natasha offered to show me her mother’s picture next week. I was touched to say the very least.
When I ended our session, Natasha seemed — softer. I gave her a quick one-armed hug, but she leaned into me and hugged me back with both her arms around my waist. She waved me a sweet “little girl” wave before heading down the hall. I shut the door to the room and cried.

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