School, Part I


This is a story of my college, Zhezkazgan Humanitarian College, where I worked for two years, teaching English to future English teachers. I joined an English department of sixteen other English teachers and spent most of my time there, with them.


You’d think I’d have more than ONE photo of the college!  Alas, I did take one, with two of my teachers — Mira and Gulzhahan — in the foreground.  But sometime in the past seven years since we’ve been back, I cropped the photo, leaving out most of the college to focus instead on Mira and Gulzhahan. And it appears I cannot locate the original.  So, a peek at Zhezkazgan Humanitarian College.  Note the blue trimmed windows.


Two teachers, Mira and Gulzhahan, with our college in the background.
Two teachers, Mira and Gulzhahan, with our college in the background.


It’s the story of how confusing life was for me that first year.  I felt like I was forcing square pegs into round holes.  So much was different, yet I kept using my own experience with colleges to try to understand.  Here’s a semi-deleted scene.


Zhezkazgan Humanitarian College, where I worked, was a Kazakh-language college in a country where most people had grown up speaking Russian.


That meant that the many courses offered — pedagogy, psychology, anatomy and children’s physiology, biology, chemistry, world history, and many others — were taught in Kazakh.  English was spoken only during English classes.  I had assumed (square peg), since this was a college to train future English teachers, that all courses would be taught in English.


What I also hadn’t expected was that there were, as a result, special Russian classes for those students who didn’t speak Kazakh.  They had their non-English classes taught to them in Russian.


Among the many groups I worked with that first year was English 39 Russian (its official name).

Here are three members of this class (also called English 49 Russian during my second year).






They were a delightful group to work with, all twelve to twenty of them. I can’t believe I don’t have a photo of the entire class. I remember most of them well, and fondly.




But just knowing that there was one Russian language class in among the many Kazakh classes took me a year to absorb. A year!  


What I didn’t struggle with, though, was curious.


School had been going on for two weeks before I finally got my classes. But, two days before my first one, I still didn’t know what I’d be teaching, when or in which room, what textbooks I’d use, or even how many students I’d have.


But I felt no frustration because I knew this scene was being played out in schools, colleges, and universities throughout Kazakhstan. That knowledge was all I needed to help me fit the peg into the hole.


“You won’t see a schedule until weeks into the semester,” a volunteer from the Peace Corps group ahead of us had said during our training weeks. We’d heard the same from volunteers from all parts of the country.


Forewarned was indeed forearmed.


Woody met much the same scene at his university, but he at least knew how to find his own name. Each morning, he’d find the schedule for the day inside a two-foot-long glass display case on the wall. Linguaphile that he is, he found his surname (Starkweather) among the Russian script — СТАРКУЭЗЕР — and learned the room in which he’d be teaching that day.


I relied on my counterpart, Gulzhahan, to tell me.



Have you ever been in that “square hole into a round peg” situation, in which nothing is familiar and a cloud of disorientation and confusion seems to settle over you?  I’d love to hear your story. 

5 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Certainly I’ve been a square hold in a round peg in Mennonite garb among my classmates. But because there were a few others like me, I didn’t feel a cloud of confusion, only difference.

    In Ukraine in 2011, we stood out because of our appearance, body language, and fluency in American English. We were invited to come to Kiev and had a guide and host, so there was minimal disorientation. By the way, your reference to Russia takes on special significance these days.

    Don’t worry about not having many photos of the school building. It’s obvious you valued the sweet smiling faces of your students more than concrete and mortar. Thank you for teaching me a new word today: linguaphile. Maybe not, the spellchecker is underlining it in red–ha!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian, forgive my tardiness; I am here in Ohio playing Grandma still. I start home tomorrow.
      I chuckled at your linguaphike-phobic spell-checker. It may be one to add. I’ll check with my personal linguaphile; maybe he’ll take a look.

  2. Lynn Kelley
    | Reply

    Oh, yes, I think I’ve always been a square peg. I don’t know how you managed your entire experience over there. Takes guts to do what you and your husband did. Just reading about what you went through gives me the jitters. That situation would be way beyond my comfort zone. A foreign language so far, far from home, with everything so unplanned, I’ve got to give you props, Janet. I bet your memoirs are awesome. Good luck getting your book published this year. What a treasure!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Lynn. I appreciate your support. I’ve long wondered why some folks prefer to hunker down at home by the hearth, while others prefer to be out and about, exploring. I first noticed it in my two sons, how very different they were from the start. It still intrigues me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. […] the continuation of last week’s Deleted Scene: School, Part I.  I’ve “creatively” titled this one School Part 2.  [I know.  It's been a busy […]

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