A little under two years ago, I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. No one I knew had ever been to the place I was about to set off for. I didn’t know the language. I had no idea what the culture was like, either. I only knew that I wanted to get out of the country as fast as I could after I graduated. There was a whole world out there for me to see, and I wanted to know how far I could go.
My destination: Bursa, Turkey – a bustling city in Anatolia – the fourth-largest in the Republic – home to big-name factories and an educated, comfortable middle class. Only a few hours by road from Istanbul, a city that needs no introduction, it seemed the ideal location for me to put myself to the test. Could I survive in the real world by applying what I had learned in four years of college? Could I succeed in making friends in an unknown land? Would I be able to walk away from the experience an enlightened person, or a dejected recent grad with not a penny to his name?
As I boarded my trans-Atlantic flight, only two things were certain:
11 hours later, on the ground at Atatürk International Airport, I made my way through immigration and baggage claim without fuss. I found the shuttle and got on board to reach Otogar Station – the nexus of bus routes spanning two continents and all throughout the Anatolian hinterland. I was at Turkey’s very own Port Authority – and I had no idea what to do.
A Good Samaritan mistook me for a Bulgarian (how?) and helped me with my luggage. I had foolishly packed two giant suitcases and had a murse hanging over my shoulder. I must have looked pitiful. I handed him a 20 Lira note as he helped me onto the bus that would take me to Bursa. I think I crashed immediately afterwards, but not before I got a chance to taste the on-board ice cream and refreshing spring water.
A few hours later I arrived at Bursa’s bus terminal, where my soon-to-be-brother-from-another-mother was waiting for me. Sercan (pronounced “ser-jan”) would be my local liaison for the duration of my first two weeks in Bursa. Let me put it another way: I would have been completely lost without him.
I was taken to a smoky cafe/teahouse near the historic district in the heart of the city. There I met up with an array of international interns who would become my colleagues for the next six weeks.
Over the course of the days that followed, I became acclimated to Bursa and its environs. Lots of people helped me gain a footing in my new surroundings those days – too many to name here. The local AIESEC committee then assigned us our development projects. I would be teaching elementary English at a local school for special-needs children – Nilüfer Iş Okulu, literally meaning “Nilüfer Working School.” I guess the closest appropriate translation in English would be something along the lines of “vocational” school.
Here are some pictures:
From Day 1, I was treated like a celebrity. Sercan introduced me to the principal – Mr. Kemal (Kemal Bey) and the vice-principal – Mr. Güven (Güven Bey). Of the two, only Güven Bey could speak English well enough to get his thoughts across – and that’s all I needed. A teacher at the school, Fariba Aksoy, would become my mother-away-from-home in due course. I’ll devote at least another post to her and her family sometime.
Kemal Bey’s energy was unparalleled. My command of Turkish had improved considerably by now, which only increased his excitement to accelerate his learning. That is, of the English language. “I realize you’re here for the children, but I want you to teach me English too,” he chuckled one morning.
A number of other administrators would pop their heads in now and then as I sat in Kemal Bey’s office, deciphering sub-par Google Translate responses to the best of my ability. He had it on his Favorites bar – always at the ready in case he stumbled on a phrase and needed to quickly find the English equivalent. And I had at my disposal a fantastic little Turkish phrasebook published by Lonely Planet. It was my go-to-resource that I carried everywhere I went.
The children – the reason I was there to begin with – were truly a remarkable bunch. There were no girls, which eliminated distractions of a certain kind, but left others firmly in place. Although I never asked them, I did come to know that there was a spectrum in age – the oldest students under my care were easily 17 and the youngest were likely in their early teens – 14 would be my best guess. Not a few times there were bouts of teasing and harassment – the “bullies” particularly liked to pick on one boy whose name I’ve forgotten but whose face I can instantly recognize from the photos I have from the time.
Their childishness aside, I was blown away by the respect they had for me – not due to my age, mind you, but solely because I had been designated their teacher by those with authority. They would rise from their seats when I entered the room, refusing to heed my repeated calls to sit down “Otur çocuklar, otur lütfen.” Whenever they spoke to me, they would always be sure to end with the honorific expression “hocam” (pronounced hojam). Even at mealtimes they would make sure I always had a full glass of water and plenty of bread on my tray.
I don’t know when it struck me – but it was this respect for teachers, and for learning in general, that stayed with me during my time at Nilüfer Iş Okulu. What was incredible for me was that the children did not choose to be my in class – they were in “summer school” – passing their days by doing menial tasks like creating hand-made galoshes out of saran wrap and rubber bands. My “Introduction to English” class was a reprieve for them, but not as great a treat as their coveted 10 minute “mola” (break) halfway through my lecture. I can still remember how anxiously they waited to hear me say, “Şimdi ders bitti çocuklar, mola sadece 10 dakika, tamam mı?” (Class over for now, you guys got 10 minutes, okay?). It seemed to me like 10 minutes was all they needed- it would give them all the energy to come back to another hour of class, which I would announce in the playground with the words, “Çocuklar, mola bitti!” (Break’s over, kids!).
What did I teach them? I designed lesson plans for each class, but realized quickly that repetition would be the key to helping them learn the subject matter. Some of the children had mental disabilities that made it difficult for them to concentrate, so I focused on helping them gain confidence by mastering the most basic English phrases.
Here’s an example of a given week’s material:
A number of students advanced very quickly. For example, they were able to learn the days of the week or months of the year the very first time I presented the lessons, even though some of their peers required extra attention. Part of the struggle for me as their hocam was to keep all the students on the same page. One successful approach was to have the kids who had mastered the material tutor the ones who needed additional help. I saw that they were teaching the material to each other better than I could do so from the front of the classroom.
We had fun too – it wasn’t all about hitting the books. After a few weeks I grew very close to not only Kemal and Güven Bey but also the children. Here’s a snapshot from one of my last days at the school:
And then, there was the final assessment. Yes, I did administer a test – a 20-question multiple choice open-notes exam. Had my hours in the classroom resulted in any measurable impact? Did the students retain some of the information I presented in repeated lessons over the six-week time period?
I was pleasantly surprised to see that all but a handful of students passed – and two tied for the top score of 95%. Kemal Bey gave them both small prizes for their efforts. And I walked out with a very real feeling of accomplishment.
On a final note, my memories of that wonderful school must include some photos of the on-site cafe – Niş Cafe – where I spent many hours talking to Kemal and Güven Bey. Looking back on those conversations, I reminisce how alike our thoughts and sentiments were about life and the road ahead. The language barrier did not prevent us from connecting and sharing our beliefs, cultures, backgrounds, and aspirations for the future. I learned more through conversation over glasses of çay (Turkish tea) than I did in multiple undergraduate seminars. And that’s what I took away not only from my time in Bursa, but from many other journeys I wish to write about in the future.