Corinna Sandu teaches at school #136, sector 5. The building is as nondescript as the name, a masterpiece of communist architecture; graffiti art by the entrance adds color to the four stories of white wash. A low iron gate with an empty guardhouse protects the school and the aesthetic. The second line of defense is a 7th grader sitting at the entrance with a log book, who looked absolutely confused as to what I was doing there.
Stepping over the student guard, I had the impression of meeting Corina in a zoo. I had to lean in so that speech could be heard above the cries of the middle schoolers. This wasn’t the normal jostling and playing of tweens. They were yelling at each other from opposite sides of the hallway, sometimes in Romanian with their hands cupped around their mouths, sometimes in strange sounds that seemed an odd mixture of battle cry and mating call.
She led me up to her classroom through the rancor, looking over the children with detached calm. As we came out of a stairway, one of them howled—and it really was just a howl, with nothing communicated—right into the back of her head. She spun on her heels. Gazing for a second at the unlucky boy, she delivered four words as sharp as knives. He fell quiet and respectfully looked down at his shoe laces. Corinna’s face returned to the calm, and smiled at me as we walked over to the classroom.
It was, unfortunately, the wrong room. The class schedule seemed to operate a little bit like the stairways at Hogwarts, with both students and teachers constantly moving around. Corinna was constantly checking the schedule to see when and where her next class was. On this occasion, it took three tries for her to find the right set of students.
I had to contain a smile as we crossed the threshold. Perhaps the best indication I found of the school’s troubles under the surface were how guarded they were- it had taken me three days of work to be allowed to enter the classroom. It was a journey that had taken me twice to the district administration’s office, and to a lengthy talk with its director of media relations, all of which resulted in a letter of approval that had all the wrong names. I was allowed to pass by a begrudging director, and only because of Corinna’s patience and support.
The 22 year old college grad, who is Romani, has reason to watch her six and follow procedure. She teaches the most controversial subject at the school: the Roma language. Not Romanian, to those readers that might be confused by the similarity of terms. The language of the gypsies. She is a beacon for Romani rights and culture on the campus, along with her colleague Mrs. Elena Radu. In a school filled with Roma children, it’s a critical position.
“[The Romani children] fear being associated as a Roma,” she explained. “There is a lot of discrimination.” To combat this, Corinna actively recruits both Romani and ethnic Romanians to her class. Most of her students know very little about the tongue, even if they are Romani. She sees the language as a critical avenue to developing pride and self-esteem among the Romani children, and tolerance among the Romanians.
Corina is a proud Roma, with evident passion for her work as a teacher. She started at #136 in 2010, at the age of 20, and is steadfastedly committed to her work despite the teacher’s salary of about 200 euros a month. Nevertheless, her declaration of identity comes after a childhood very different from those she teaches. Corina grew up in a small town just outside Bucharest. Her parents owned some sort of small business, which she did not want to describe in any detail. Whatever it was, it was successful enough to push them into the middle class. She lived outside of the Roma communities, and her parents have enough surplus wealth to augment her teacher’s salary.
The passion comes instead from her own discovery of the Roma language at the University of Bucharest, where the teacher double majored in Roma and French. “Studying the Roma language really helped me connect with who I was,” she remembers, explaining her enthusiasm. She’s applied that passion to her students, trying to channel the same pride I saw in her face through the basics of the language.
Her greatest contributions, however, may come outside of the classroom, where she stays involved with her students. “I talk to my students all the time about their lives. We meet after class, during breaks, or they approach me on the bus after school.” Many of Corinna’s students come from broken homes. Some of their parents are in jail, drug addicted, or simply absent. Her and Mrs. Radu are the contact points for students that have nowhere else to turn.
Often she deals with small things, like an incident that had occurred the Friday before the interview. A Romani girl had been asked by her Romanian teacher to pull her hair back into a pony tail. The girl couldn’t understand why only she was being asked to do so, and not her classmates, and approached Ms. Sandu about being discriminated against. “I have to solve those problems in a way that hears all sides of the story.” Corinna spoke with her colleague about it, and decided that it wasn’t discrimination. She then spent time talking with the girl about how much neater and prettier she looked with her hair back.
Problem solved, but that was an easy one. She and Mrs. Radu are forced to stay impartial to stay respected, listening to the children and the teachers, often dealing with forms of discrimination that are mostly subconscious. Other times, they must take radical action, as in the case of a drug addicted boy who had been kicked out of his uncle’s home after losing his parents. The mediators were able to take action to put the boy in a foster home.
Whatever problems she faces, the young teacher seems to be a critical point of contact for the comfort and pride of the Romani population in the school. It is a balancing act that I do not envy. As I walked around the school with her, the importance of her position quickly became evident. I was at the school for less than three hours, and she visited the directors office three times to consult on various issues. It is difficult to comment on how good her relationships with other teachers actually is. I was not allowed the leeway to interview other teachers, but she did say that her other colleagues often questioned why learning the language was important.
The 22 year old is quickly developing a sense of politics. The referee in an unspoken conflict of discrimination, her goals were best shown when I asked how she dealt with cases of ethnic Romanian teasing the roma. “I just try and tell them that we are also human.”