When they told me I was invited to make a presentation about my country to schoolchildren my response was lukewarm – this probably isn’t for me, let’s just ignore it and it will happen without me. When it appeared on my weekly schedule as a definite event, I realised I would have to step up to the plate. The concept of freedom of choice works a little differently in Russia. You can choose whatever you want, as long as it’s option A.
The children’s school was holding a festival to celebrate International Peace Day and asked our school to provide some international teachers to give a short 7-minute presentation on their countries. I was representing the UK, my former flatmate Jorge was for Spain, and Alessandro for Italy. I’d been getting emails and messages all week bugging me to come up with ideas, I’d scribbled down some things the UK is famous for – a list of inventions, famous people and fictional characters. But I put off making some coherent presentation until the night before the festival.
In the end I went with 10 reasons why the UK is cool. I tried to cut out anything I thought a Russian schoolkid might not have heard of, and I was left with fish and chips, Harry Potter, Shakespeare and the Beatles. Conscious of the fact I am now an educator, not simply an entertainer, I threw in something about the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and all the things we have invented, including (in a category of its own) football. I opened with “our flag looks good on T-shirts” which was a bit of cultural commentary – I have seen so many people wearing it! And with my PR-hat on (after all we were shilling for future students here), I finished with The English Language and an invitation to come and learn it with us.
I put it on Powerpoint, having been assured the school had the appropriate presentation facilities, but bearing in mind previous experience of the fallthroughability of assurances, I scribbled my list on a bit of paper too. Just in case. I had no idea what the others were doing.
I arranged to meet Ale at the tram stop in Lenin Square. I’d briefly passed through this before, and took the opportunity to grab a few pictures of the Lenin statue and other monuments. We took the tram to the correct stop, and realised it was in the middle of nowhere. There was barely a platform, if it wasn’t for a small sign you wouldn’t know it was even there. We both thought Jorge would be with the other – he was the only one who knew where the school was. I gave him a call and he was still in the centre getting on a trolley bus. We were very early. We wandered a little way up the road, as far as the previous tram stop, and found a MacDonalds. So of course we stopped for coffee and a milkshake.
Jorge rang to say he had arrived, and we wandered back down. We then waited for Nina and one of the managers from Tractorniy, who were organising this outreach exercise. They walked us up to the school – just like schools everywhere, kids playing outside, kids piling out the door, kids going in different directions in the corridor. The younger ones were wearing blue and white uniforms that made them look like sailors.
We were led into the assembly hall, where about 60 children were already in their seats, or children being children, at least somewhere near their seats. They were probably from 7 to 10 years old. A few teachers wandered over to greet us – one friendly plump teacher was carrying a guitar (I later learned she was the French teacher). Jorge and I handed over our flash drives with our presentations on, and we all sat down together in the front row.
There was an introduction by a senior teacher, then a presentation by a couple of much older looking girls – they looked like college or university students. The video seemed to be about peace – Mira. And then Jorge was invited to stand up (I had very deliberately placed myself in-between Jorge and Alessandro to minimize any risk of being up first!).
He was given a microphone and his presentation appeared on the projector screen. He had put some work into it – full screen graphics, tables of information, maps, pictures of food and sports stars – it looked pretty professional. One of the girls from the first presentation stepped forward to translate his English presentation into Russian for the kids. When the stars of the Spanish football Liga appeared there was an excited gasp from the kids, no doubt many of whom recognised their sporting heroes (Messi and Ronaldo – for some reason I reflected my choice of Bobby Charlton for England in my own presentation may have been less inspired).
He got a good round of applause at the end and was then encouraged to ring a decorated bell, in a little “ceremony” that all the speakers were being asked to perform. He had commitments elsewhere and headed off straight away after he was finished. And then it was my turn!
I took the mic, and I got the other girl acting as my translator. The senior teacher was prompting me to start, though my presentation had not yet appeared, so I introduced myself and explained what the United Kingdom was. My frontpage then appeared on the screen, so I explained about the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, with the map.
I then started going through my list. There were a couple of older school-age kids in charge of the page changing, and they did an excellent job considering they did not know how many clicks I had set up on each page (for the Inventions page it was 14 and they stopped at exactly the right time!). Judging from audience reaction I can say that the most popular things about Britain are: 1) Harry Potter, 2) The Beatles, and 3) Inventing Things. Fish and chips were also popular!
They were completely unimpressed by the Industrial Revolution, or the fact we used to own America.
Still, it was a pretty good reaction, the kids were engaged all the way through, the teachers loved it, Nina showered me with praise afterwards. And I got to ring the bell! I sat down again to watch Ale, who did not have Powerpoint but had something better – his hands. He did a demonstration of Italian gestures. The kids loved it, they were all copying the gestures, and kept doing their favourite ones so you had a hall full of kids all making different gestures!
Ale too got to ring the bell, but then he too had to leave to get to a lesson. My only lesson of the day was not until late so I was able to enjoy the rest of the show, so far as one can enjoy a show in a number of foreign languages. The next presentations were a couple of schoolgirls speaking in German, there were a couple more girls doing reports of their holidays, one to Malta and one to a beach (I’m not sure where), someone had a picture of some gorgeous fountains in Dubai (I think). Then a line of students, including the older students who did the German presentation, did a dance routine that appeared to mimic the movements of a horse. Then the French teacher came up and played Alouette. All of them rang the bell.
And at the end they asked me to ring the bell again to close the festival, which I was happy to do!