My name is Anya Emmons and for the last two months I have been volunteering with St Gregory’s Foundation in St Petersburg, teaching one-to-one English conversation classes to three wonderful girls – Sonya, Ksyusha and Dasha. My experience at Dinamika School can only be described as unique. The lack of expectation had been jarring at first – I had no idea what to expect from the children, the school, or even from myself. Would it be emotionally difficult to interact with children with disabilities? How would they react to my presence? How much could we hope to achieve? It soon became apparent that these questions are entirely the wrong ones to ask.
All three girls are completely unique in their capabilities, their characters, challenges and strengths, but what unites them is their openness and eagerness to learn, traits all too often lacking in the modern classroom. I was consistently amazed by their enthusiasm and the variety of interests they pursued – Sonya is an accomplished actress and speaks three languages, Ksyusha is on the school dancing formation team and writes poetry, and Dasha’s love of singing meant we spent some our time together translating her favourite songs. It was their normalcy, and not their otherness, which was more striking. It’s hard not to be in awe of their parents, who could give them such a childhood. Of course, their development is greatly aided by their school, where the individual attention of the staff, opportunity to participate in a variety of activities and focus on physical therapy creates an environment that is at once social and nurturing. The school itself is impressively well-equipped, with gym equipment on every floor, an indoor swimming pool, a dance hall, a huge spiral ramp that acts as the central staircase, wheelchair accessible school buses, and even its own mini-museum where students can take on the role of tour guide. With the addition of the vocational and life skills training centre, the opening of which I attended as a translator, I sincerely hope that the children will be able to lead independent lives after school, improving upon the sad situation that many people with disabilities find themselves in in Russia today.
And so it turns out that the only question worth asking when approaching this kind of work is not “what can they achieve?”, but rather “what can I give them?”. Of course, teaching is never an activity that goes entirely smoothly. From the physical challenges of not being able to write, to the extra work required for the retention of information, the teaching methods are different to those I was accustomed to as a tutor in London. But it has been an eye-opening experience, one I value highly and one that will stay with me for years to come. I can only thank St Gregory’s Foundation for giving me the opportunity.