“Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday Miss Catherine! Happy Birthday to you!” I was sitting at the table, made of desks pushed together, honey cake in front of me with two other teachers and our students sitting around and singing to me. Next came the toasts, well wishes for my future life: many children, a local husband, friends and good luck in my future year in Petropavlovsk. I had only been in Petropavlovsk for two months, but the teachers and students there had made the 2nd Gymnasium school a new and loving home.
The only trouble was, it was not my birthday. I knew this, and my co-teacher knew this, but we were the only two holding that secret. It was Friday and my birthday was actually to be next Thursday, Thanksgiving day. But I wasn’t going to be there for that, nor was I going to be there to make the friends I was being wished, or meet that future local husband. On Wednesday I had gotten the same call as every PCV in Kazakhstan: the program in Kazakhstan is being suspended, you will be evacuated next week, don’t tell anyone, we’ll contact your counter-part tomorrow.
After the call, I sat on a bench in the snow on old Lenin Street and watched the thick flakes fall down and people going past. My Peace Corps service hadn’t always been easy or without plenty of times I’d wished myself home, but now, in my second year, really all the locals I’d met had done it for me, Petropavlovsk felt like a place that was becoming home, warm with people who cared. Now I watched men and women walking to and fro in their long winter coats—I had attached the fur to my hood yesterday—and the small children trailing behind, pulled by mom on miniature sleighs. The flakes kept falling and I got up to walk around. The bag of clothing in my hand—old sweaters given me by Olga Ivanovna to tide me through the winter—would never be worn. The new schedule I had been working on would never be enacted. The Children’s Club at the library I had had in mind to start wouldn’t ever take place. This was it. We were leaving next week.
* * *
The following days brought a variety of ways and events to note our leaving. First, the three of us PCVs in Petro met for discussion and support. Next everyone at the library decided to make the last club also a good-bye party. Each of us had to begin the packing process and tell our host families or landlords. I had to make a trip to Schuchinsk to say good-bye. And on the final day of our weekend, an English student took Susana and I around Petropavlovsk to see all the historical sites we had missed in our short stay and purchase souvenirs for home.
Susana’s school had a concert for her, Anneliese’s university told her to stop teaching early, my school decided not to tell the students. Each school handled our leaving in their own way and mine didn’t want the rumor mill started any earlier than it needed, so my co-teacher decided to announce my birthday early. That way I could have my birthday celebration, and in our secret knowledge it would be a good-bye party. Every class gave me chocolates, the teachers gave me hugs, and all the thanks and well wishes I could want.
* * *
Our train left Petropavlovsk on Monday and that day Susana came to my school to say good-bye to my counter-part and see my lessons. For my last lesson I had chosen to do a song and teach about American history, two things I enjoyed.
“That was a good lesson Catherine, but, aren’t you going to tell your students? Some of them must have heard it on the news and you’ll regret it if you don’t.” Susana told me. I didn’t know how to break the news. It was when Ivan Petrovich told me in the hallway that he had heard on the news and told his students that I realized the secrecy was over, and Susana was right, I would regret leaving without everything being out on the table. I went back into the room after my lesson.
“Who knows my news?” blank stares. “Okay, who knows I’m leaving? I’m leaving tonight. This was my last lesson, and I really don’t know what else to say. And if I keep talking I will cry.” I stopped. Students got up to wish me the best. Some of the girls gave me hugs, and by the end of the day, everyone knew. The rest of the school day was full of good-byes as I made preparations for my leaving: organizing the books and supplies I would leave and downloading my materials onto the computer.
* * *
At 10 pm on Monday the 21st all the volunteers from Petropavlovsk and the surrounding villages met at the train station for our final train ride. On Wednesday all 110 volunteers in the country met in Almaty for an early COS conference. And on the 28th all the volunteers in the country were officially released from contract, and we began to head our separate ways.
There’s a lot I could write about my last days there, there’s a lot I could say about the reasons for leaving. Hopefully I’ll talk to many of you when I get back to the states. Right now I’ll leave you with a link to a news article on the topic, and the knowledge that,to have a little time to think about Kazakhstan and plan for my future, I am visiting my friend’s Peace Corps site in Africa for a couple months and then I’ll be home in early February. See you then.
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