The Life of the Party
Miss Anca treats all her twenty-four charges with equal affection. For two years in a row she stayed behind lessons for an extra two hours, four days a week, to make sure that each and every one of her pupils knew how to read and write. The children are now in the third grade and no longer require the additional help. Their teacher succeeded, single-handed and without receiving any financial reward or recognition from her superiors. Not that she expected any. This is what she does.
One of the beneficiaries of her efforts is Cosmin Gabriel. Like any of us, he makes spelling mistakes, but his handwriting is the neatest I have seen. Today’s lesson is about the life of tree leaves. The care with which he copies the information into his exercise book is a tribute to the love of learning that his teacher has instilled in him. Her biggest reward is the children’s recognition of what she does for them. In his stained salopettes, a hand-me-down, Cosmin gives her a spontaneous hug. A paycheque could not have given Miss Anca a fraction of the satisfaction. Dad grins: “The boy is her child, her child!”
Cosmin at school, Gabriel at home, he sits at the front desk by the window. Always close to his teacher, he looks on her as another parent capable of providing what his mother cannot: structure, warmth, attention and intellectual stimulation. With five younger siblings at home, it falls on Cosmin to help dad with the chores in their squat house on the edge of the village. Doing school work at home is out of the question. There are no conditions to concentrate and the young ones destroy Cosmin’s books and pens the moment they set their eyes on them. Mum has just had a new baby, is not very mobile and suffering from a mental disability, she is unable to engage with the children beyond meeting their basic needs.
Even that is not always possible. Dad does odd jobs around the village and does not manage to put food on the table every day. The children fight over every little treat. Sometimes a slice of bread is their most prized possession. The benefit money the family receives is not enough to cover their monthly electricity bill. Despite their material deprivation, Cosmin’s parents are house-proud and receive visitors with dignity, clamour and curiosity. The living space is built of brick. There are two beds shared between the eight family members. The kitchen annex constructed of mud is at the back. Cosmin fetches water and wood to help with the cooking. This is what many of the kids in Cemetery Road, leading out towards the local dumpsite, do. Some are so busy helping at home that they have no time for school. Cosmin’s neighbour, Alexandru, attended first grade for a couple of weeks and has not been anywhere near the school for the last two years.
A large pale building, the school has a commanding position up on the hill in Vurpar. It is clean, bright and inviting. Every child should want to go there. But for the large Roma community huddled in basic accommodation either side of Cemetery Road there are issues, social, economic and cultural. The local government is working in partnership with the school, police, UNICEF and Roma Civic Alliance to improve school attendance in the community. A year-long pilot project has seen Maria, a respected resident in Cemetery Road, appointed a school mediator. The head teacher calls on her if there are long-term absences up and down the school although the official remit is grade one and the nursery only.
All new Roma pupils received a UNICEF school bag complete with stationery during the summer holidays. Most of them were quick to remove the Roma Civic Alliance tag, one of UNICEF’s partners in the field, because neither the children nor their parents like being labelled ‘Roma’. They declare themselves ethnic Romanians, loath to be stereotyped as dirty, lazy, thievish and deceitful gypsies. Although prejudice against Roma is common in Romania as in the rest of Europe, the school in Vurpar has dedicated staff whose ethos of inclusion should be an example to all.
In Miss Anca’s class every child matters. She has encouraged Cosmin to take part in all group activities and created numerous opportunities for him to shine as a performer. He moved to her class just over a year ago but is now one of the most popular kids. On school trips, he sings manele, popular Roma songs, and entertains busloads of pupils and teachers. He is the life of the party, a great one for jokes and an incredibly articulate nine-year-old boy.
But there are days when Cosmin has to go to school on an empty stomach and struggle to learn until a bun and a carton of milk are served during the mid-morning break. He gets anxious and refuses to leave home. But dad is on hand. With unfinished eighth grade from the special needs school in Medias, dad is determined that his children will do better in life. He trusts the school and, above all, Miss Anca. There she is, welcoming her pupils into the classroom, her eyes smiling. If Cosmin needs to stay behind after lunch to do his homework, she will be there for him.
He wants to become a professional soldier. The Romanian Ministry of Defence expects its recruits to have twelve grades of school and a good baccalaureate. From grade five Cosmin will be taught discrete subjects by specialist teachers. Has Miss Anca given him enough confidence so he will be able to stick at his studies when she is no longer his teacher? How will he fund his trips to high school in Sibiu? The comprehensive in Vurpar only goes up to grade nine. These are problems that remain unresolved for many children from a poor rural background in Romania to which UNICEF and its partners are trying to find a solution. As for Cosmin, he has to invest another nine years of hard work in school in order to reach his goal.