Teacher Tuesday

I must apologize for the technical glitches with getting today’s Teacher Tuesday post up and running. The only thing I can figure out is that the post was too long. So, with Vida’s okay, I will be dividing her wonderful interview into three parts, to run today, tomorrow and Thursday. Check back in on Saturday for a celebration of her students’ poetry!

Though we’ve never met, I feel a connection with Vida Zuljevic, a librarian in Pasco, Washington, who serves Pre-K through fifth grade at Virgie Robinson Elementary. The town that Hattie Brooks homesteaded near, in real life and in my novel Hattie Big Sky, was named also named Vida (for the postmaster’s daughter). Vida explained that, in her language, Vida is the female form of the word vid, meaning vision, sight.  Catholics in Slavic countries in Europe celebrate St. Vid, believing that he sees everything, and he is worshiped (among other reasons) as the protector of people’s vision.I think her parents must have known what they were doing in giving this future librarian that beautiful and meaningful name! I think mint tea might be a lovely accompaniment while you read today’s interview. 

First, Vida, we’d like to take a peek at your past. The photos she has shared are especially poignant as they are the only ones her family saved, as they escaped the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: It’s believed that memories supported by our sense of smell last longest in humans. My memory of sandwiches made by my beloved grandma and the smell of her freshly baked bread are still very much alive and always bring warm feelings to my heart. 
  • Best friend in grade school: Edina Vejzovic-Puzic (she also lives in the United States now). I found her after about forty years of no contact via some common friends and thanks to the Internet.
  • Times you were the new kid in school: I went to three different elementary schools (in my country, elementary school includes grades 1-8). I remember moving in third grade from an old school, in which I started my education, to a new, experimental school where everything was modern and felt “cold” with so much glass and iron and no friend. There was a boy who’d pick on me, teasing me because I was the tiniest girl in class, kind of shy and quiet. One day at recess, he and another boy approached me, gave me a tiny box,  and said,  “gift for you” with a mischievous smile on his face. I don’t know why, but I took it. And when he said, “Open it,” I did. Sure enough, a little lizard popped out, and the boys screeched trying to scare me. To their surprise I got down on my knees and managed to catch the little lizard, and then held it, I petted its back. The lizard calmed down, feeling my gentle touch. The boys were in awe. They said that they’d never seen a girl so brave to even hold a lizard, let alone pet it. From then on, they never teased me again, and what’s more, we became very good friends.
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: My first grade teacher, Mr. Alikalfich.  In those days, coal for heating would be delivered to the school and teachers would be asked to help unload the trucks and store the coal in the school storage. It was on a November day that the truck came, and Mr. Alikalfich called my name and said to me in front of the whole class: “Vida, you’ll be the teacher until I come back. I need to help unload the coal from the coal truck. Come sit at my desk and read this part to the class (he showed me a paragraph from the text book), and then let them talk about it to each other until I come back.” He did not ask me if I could read it; he did not show even a sliver of doubt about it or about my “teaching abilities.” It really gave me confidence, and I remember truly wanting to read that passage perfectly without mistakes and with lots of expression, which I of course did not have mastered by then, but my teacher’s trust in my abilities made me stretch to my highest potential, and I made it sound really good and my classmates respected that… This incident also ignited a spark of wanting to be a teacher, a plan I realized by going to a high school for teachers first and then to teachers’ college and then university. One day, as I was walking down the hall at the teachers’ college I was attending at the time, I spotted a tiny figure waking toward me, and I recognized my first grade teacher. I approached him with “Hello, do you recognize me Mr. Alikalfich?” He squinted at first, then smiled: “I knew it…I knew it from the first day of first grade that you were born to be a teacher, Vida.” My heart jumped for joy. He remembered not only my name but also his faith in me. He went on to share that he too was there to take classes because new regulations for elementary teachers required upgrading their degrees with endorsements in specific areas of teaching.
  •  The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: I really wanted to be on the school’s Math Team and participate in math competitions. I liked math very much, especially in seventh and eighth grade. I was among the best mathematicians in my class, but the only girl. My math teacher was a pretty biased man who believed that girls are simply not born to be good at math–period.  He would even say it out loud in front of the class. He would never call on me to answer his questions (ignoring my raised hand signaling my readiness) until one or some of the boys figured out the problem and raised their hands. Each year that the team was formed for the annual math competition, my teacher would not even consider me as an alternative team member because “girls are not smart enough to understand math.” Back then, students and parents were not supposed to or even allowed to argue with or complain to the teachers.  So although I was good at math throughout my schooling, my love for it remained only on a personal level. I did not excel in math the way I wanted and had abilities to because of the bias my teacher had about girls and math.  
Vida, a mutual friend suggested I contact you because of your passion for teaching and writing poetry. Talk about the seed that planted such a passion. Have you always loved poetry?
Poetry was an essential part of the elementary school curriculum in former Yugoslavia. I liked to read, and I liked to play with words.  My first poem was published in a children’s magazine when I was in third grade. As a teen, I was in the school’s poetry club. I published poems regularly in magazines for children throughout my schooling. The roots don’t come only from my education, but also the fact that I am from a city where poetry is part of the city’s culture, cherishing a tradition of great poets from this region such as Aleksa Santic, Osman Dikic, Branko Simic, Mak Dizdar, Pero Zubac and others. I lived my teenage years developing a love for reading and reciting poems by these and other great poets such as  Yesenin, Prevert, Lorca, Neruda, and Lord Byron.
When I became a kindergarten teacher, I used poetry on an daily basis, whether chanting nursery rhymes, reading poems of popular children’s poets, writing poems with the students in my class, or singing  children’s songs. Poetry was a part of me from my early childhood; I feel it was born with me in my heart and mind, and it waited for a couple of years to let me grow and learn to talk, read and write in order to start flowing out of there and let wonderful poetry in as well.
Why do you feel it’s so important for students to read poetry? To write poetry?
Because it’s beautiful! Yes, in my opinion this is the most important role of poetry in students’ and adults’ lives alike–to bring beauty of language to their attention. The other forms of writing can have such an impact too, but because of its format and language richness, poetry seems to be the most accessible well from which we can take quick or longer sips of beauty and keep coming back to it for additional sips of beauty over and over. 
(I think this is the perfect place to take a break — check in tomorrow for additional sips of Vida’s thinking about poetry!)

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