My heart leapt to the top of my head. On the announcement board in the entrance hall, the principal of the school, Blizhneva, had hung a piece of paper. Shynar Sagyman is dismissed from her position as teacher of Kazakh and ethnic literature for violating labor regulations. In the middle of May? The eleventh-grade boys behind me were giggling. Why had she made it so public? I was still staring at the board when the secretary approached me, smiling, and said, “Hello, Shynar! The principal would like to see you.”
Blizhneva, big as ever, was sitting at her desk, stubbing her cigarette on an ashtray.
“Have you seen the order?”
“I suppose I don’t need to explain to you why.”
“Good luck, then. But remember: you will not fit in anywhere with such an attitude.”
“Thank you for the kind wishes.”
“Мaria Alekseevna will calculate the rest of your salary. Good-bye.”
I slammed the door and said to myself, “I will not die without your miserable salary.” But the arrogant voice in my head quickly disappeared. Why hadn’t I apologized? She might have changed her mind.
Recently the eleventh-graders had prevented me from conducting a lesson.
“Who needs Kazakh? We are moving to Russia anyway. Who wants to study Kazakh when we could be learning English?” they asked. When I replied that the subject was part of the curriculum and not up to me, the students made such a fuss that I left the classroom and went to the vice-principal’s office.
“Natalya Nikolayevna, please speak to them. I need decent working conditions to conduct my lessons. How much time can I spend fending off their complaints? Examinations are approaching fast.”
“If you cannot handle fifteen students, why are you even teaching? Pedagogy is about finding the right approach for the children.”
I wondered why she gave me a response that was so patently untrue. We both knew why the Russian students in this school were resisting my lessons. But I held back the wave of angry words rolling toward my tongue and replied as calmly as I could.
“I don’t have enough experience. That is why I came to you to ask for help. If you don’t go with me to the classroom, I will not return there.”
Natalya Nikolayevna glared at me but remained in her place. I too stayed put, sitting upright as if I had swallowed a stick, until the end of the class period. No doubt Natalya Nikolayevna had reported this incident to Blizhneva.
The school’s accountant, Maria Alekseevna, said that I would receive the 6000 tenge they owed me only in the middle of June. This was bad news. I had already used up my teaching salary to pay for English lessons and my graduate-school stipend to pay for my daily living expenses. My stipend had run out in April. I had to find a new job immediately. Not wanting to spend money on minibuses, I went around the city on foot. “I can teach Kazakh and Russian. I’ve just finished a graduate program on literature. I can give lessons. I also speak a little English.” My advertising did not impress anyone. My pair of leather shoes, which had turned from festive shoes into everyday walking shoes, were hurting my feet. I bought sandals for 2000 tenge. Made of braided leather straps, with open toes and middle-height heels, they were lovely.
At home I put them on with my blue skirt and scampered over the mirror in the hallway. I had forgotten my troubles for a moment when the owner of the apartment, Bayan, came in and looked at my shoes.
“Could you not find anything cheaper? You have not paid for your room yet.”
“Bayan, can you please wait a little longer? The school said that they will pay me by the middle of June.”
We worked together at Blizhneva’s school. It was Bayan herself who had offered me to a room to rent in her apartment, for a good price, so I would keep her company. She was thirty-eight, unmarried, and lonely. We chatted once in a while, but she spent most of her free time watching Brazilian soap operas.
When I entered my room, my eyes fell on my books and dictionaries piled up on the table and I tried to calm myself down. It is all right, I told myself. I would find a job. Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, in an acclaimed Russian translation, was lying on the table. I had spent six months trying to obtain it from the library, but now I had no desire left for reading.
The middle of June came. I called the school.
“Мaria Alekseevna, I would like to stop by.”
“Unfortunately, we have no money at the moment.”
I took the golden earrings and the necklace that were a graduation gift from my mother to a pawn shop, where they were assessed at a total of 3500 tenge. I knew this was too little, but I left them there, hoping to buy them back later. I had not paid rent for two months. I would have to borrow money from someone. I did not dare to ask Dina or Karla. Maybe Bolat? When I told him that I sold my gold jewelry, he did not say a word. So I gathered all my courage and went to Kulimkhan.
After graduating from art school, Kulimkhan had rented two rooms in the building of the former Institute of Economics and had started her own clothing business. Now she had her own office, plus an accountant and a secretary. Kulimkhan came from a simple family. When she was a student, she had to work as a cleaning woman. She was the only one of nine siblings who had improved her lot in life. Now she was paying for the education of two younger sisters and all her relatives depended on her. When I entered her office, she and I hugged. She addressed me, as always, in Russian, even though she didn’t pronounce Russian words correctly. Her secretary brought in a teapot and two cups. We sat down and chatted about this and that. I complained about my situation. She listened silently, while drawing on the paper in front of her.
“Everything will be fine. You will find a job.”
“How? I have no connections. My parents are far away. And anyway, I would not dare to bother them with my troubles.”
“You are spoiled. You hired a private English teacher. That is a luxury I could never afford.”
“I think it’s a necessity. As we say, if time is a fox, become a hunter.”
I hesitated, then launched my question.
“Why don’t you hire me? Why don’t you help me?”
She dropped her pencil and sat back.
“Are you asking me to hire you? You have arms and legs, you have an education, and yet you are asking me, a stranger, to help you? Go and find your own place. Or are you one of those parasites that cannot survive without family connections? I thought you were stronger than that!”
I had not expected this answer. When we used to get together as students to recite verses, Kulimkhan was always among the more sentimental members of the group. But having grown up in scarcity, she had no patience for whining and self-pity. Her eyes were full of disdain when I mumbled good-bye and left.
English was my life jacket right now. I had prepaid twenty-five dollars, enough for five more English lessons. With no money left, I thought I had better not waste a second of my next lesson. I hurried into an old, almost abandoned building next to St. Nicolas church. Every time I entered the building, the smell of mold provoked a feeling of sadness in me. I had no idea what function the building had served before, but the green carpet on the floor indicated that it must have been an institution of some importance in the Soviet era. A ministry, perhaps? My teacher’s name was James. I had found him through a newspaper advertisement. James had told me that he was from Canada, but I suspected he was actually from Nigeria or South Africa. To me it made no difference. I just needed someone to speak English with. Right now it seemed crucial that I pass the IELTS exam and obtain an English teaching certificate. English teachers received better treatment and a higher salary.
When I entered the room, James was explaining something to a young girl. I greeted them and sat down in my usual place. I took out my notebook of new words and started reviewing. Almost ten minutes passed before James came to me and gave me an assignment, after which he returned to the girl immediately. Soon I understood that James had decided to feed me silent exercises.
“James, why are you teaching this girl during my lesson? Did we not agree that I would pay you five dollars for an individual lesson?”
“She has nothing to do with your lesson. Keep working on your assignment.”
“I didn’t pay you five dollars for silent exercises, I paid you to speak with me.”
The girl shook her head: “Are you not ashamed? How can you be so rude?”
Weeks of anger poured out of me.
“You don’t care if I put my entire salary into your pocket. Do you realize that I could have given it to my parents, whose pension is miserable? That I could have spent that money on myself? Why don’t you give me what I paid for?”
James was stunned. I put my papers in my bag and stood up.
“James, you owe me twenty-five dollars.”
Kulimkhan called. She was preparing for an exhibition of national costumes that she had designed herself and that would soon travel to Poland. She said she would pay me fifty dollars if I translated the costume descriptions into English. I used all my dictionaries and translated the ten short texts word by word. Kulimkhan was very precise at describing her designs. This exhibition must be very important for her. She could have hired a professional translator, but she trusted me. The quality would have to be excellent. I would need to have it edited. How about James? When I walked into his office, James was alone.
“Hello! Why didn’t you call first? If you want to continue, we need to reschedule your lessons.”
“I came here because I need you to edit these texts.”
“Don’t you remember that you owe me money?”
I put the papers in front of him and sat down. James remained silent for a while. Then he shook his head.
“All right. You can pick them up tomorrow morning.”
While I was leaving the room, he said to me in Russian: “You will go far!” His comment made me smile, but I had no idea what “going far” could possibly mean in my case.
Little Dina’s birthday party would begin at three o’clock. I had put on my long skirt with small green and red flowers, a greenish top, and my new sandals. I had looked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Big Dina always tells us to be late. She says that coming on time makes you look less important. She must have picked up this wisdom from a women’s magazine. I’ve never been able to test her advice, because I’m never late. At five to three I arrived at the corner of Abay and Altynsarin streets. Fifteen minutes later I saw Bolat get out of a taxi. He lifted his glasses and smiled.
“Have you been waiting for long?”
Bolat had bought flowers for Dina. At the party I tried to hide my state of mind. I could not tell my friends that I had been fired. Their careless, laughing faces irritated me. I walked out with Bolat.
“They kicked me out of my job. I could have stayed, but I did not want to apologize.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m looking for work.”
“Hmm. . . Who does things in that order? You should have found a new job first.”
He hadn’t told me what I wanted to hear. I had expected a different reaction, something like, “Why look for a job? Let’s get married!” Suddenly I understood that I had been waiting for this moment, thinking that my problems would be resolved at once. How could I have been so superficial? I was in big trouble.
© Zaure Batayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.