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Bulgaria's Forgotten Schools: Kovachevtsi and Popovyane

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

In the early hours of the snowless Christmas day, we take to a place, where the soft hills of Vitosha, Plana, and Verila meet. Leaving the capital, we pass through the pretty Bistritsa, the huddled Zheleznitsa, and the suburb of Yarema and we reach the villages of Kovachevtsi and Popovyane. Here, the vista suddenly changes, and even though the beauty of the mountain is still seen, there are no more colorful fences, brimming gardens, and sowed fields and smoke from every chimney. People in the streets are gone as well and I wonder if it is because they are celebrating Christmas or because of the lockdown, or just because this is how it is. Only 40 km from Sofia and 25 km from Samokov, these two villages seem forgotten and bereft between the three mountains, dominating the horizon, as if they are keeping them safe from visitors.

In Popovyane, there were no signs of life and we met nobody. Only a few village mutts were circling us, because of the smell of the Christmas bread we had brought with us. We easily spot the school building - atop a hill, above the roofs of many small houses, a reminder of the distant past. Its royalty was stunning - this work of architectural art was something you would expect to see on the streets of Vienna, not on a hillside in Plana Mountain. The lack of people around made me seek information online - I couldn’t believe for a moment, that such a beautiful building was fully abandoned. I stumbled upon a text from Plamen Ivanov, from Popovyane, who as it seemed had been gathering pieces of history and memories, to resurrect the past.

The first most basic type of school - a monastic-like “cell” school, opens its doors some 190 years ago, followed a mere century later by this wonderful building in front of me. Here, I also find the reason for the existence of a building like this in a Bulgarian village - it was made by a former resident of Popovyane, who had studied architecture in Vienna and was constructed with donations and free labour of his fellow villagers. It carried the name Primary School “Tsaritsa Joanna”. Even more so - this building showed the dedication of those people to the school - it was at the top, on the most beautiful hill, in the most beautiful building, a product of common effort and faith. The mission of education - to connect, to elevate, and develop - had existed here, but until when?

After 1944 the name changed to the leader of the socialist movement Dimitar Blagoev and it functioned until 1956, after which it took the path of most small village schools and became a home for the elderly, right up until the 1990s. What and how do we make changes, do we have a vision for those changes, and is that vision connected to our most important priorities - all questions I am posing, as I stand in front of another ruined educational building.

Going back to the desolate village square, I faintly hear a melodic rendition of “Stani nine gospodine” (a traditional song for right after Christmas). Excitedly, I try to orient myself where it’s coming from since it’s the first voice I’m hearing. And it’s not only a voice, it’s a child's voice. Not long after a band of koledari (singers in traditional outfits) come out from behind a corner and head towards us - the foreigners. They offer us their small repertoire and look at us with expectant eyes and receive some of the banitsa and bread we have. Then the questions start. They ask us what we’re doing here “right on Christmas” and we tell them we are teachers searching for lost schools. “There isn’t one here, we go to Yarlovo. Well… not right now I mean”. For sure I know they ought to be at school after the holidays, but they tell me they lack electronic devices. What might online classes look like for these kids? “They said we’ll be going back in the spring”. So then we’ll be bearing the fruits of social isolation, emotional distance, high anxiety, and a lack of motivation. Or maybe we’ll just pretend like nothing happened, as we vainly chase our standards and curriculums.

We take the road north to Kovachevci and stop in front of the municipality, which has more broken windows than intact. Teenagers, who have come here to visit, light up firecrackers, on the square, in an old Christmas tradition. Two early-birds masked customers line up on the door of the village grocery store. Compared to Popovyane, life here is busy. I talk to one of the people in line, hoping to find the trail of the local school. My hope rises, as he says that his father Branko was principal for many years, but falls labor again after he can’t seem to remember the school's name. “Peoples Primary School Hristo Botev, that was it...”. A firecracker blast marks the moment I hear the name.

He talks slowly, with a lump on his throat, remembering the past: “There were people, children, they studied here until grade eight. Did you get inside to see it? Your head is going to spin. Everything is totaled, smashed, but that's what happens when there is no one here. It could have been fixed and used for something, but there are no people, no authorities. Nothing, unlike back then...”. As the principal's son gets lost in his mantra, I decided to see the school for myself. His friend has finished grocery shopping and hands him a small bottle of vodka, so I leave them to this most important Christmas morning task.

Entering the fourth forgotten school in a row, I feel like I’ve become numb to the scene. The bitterness has now given way to curiosity and a dose of expectation. I feel like an explorer and somewhat in place - It’s not even strange that I prefer to spend my Christmas morning in this dead space, rather than at home. The truth is that I just miss the school, the classroom, the children, and their smiles, I miss looking out the window, repeating the instructions again and again, and hearing the teenage stories during the breaks. We’ve been having classes online for two months now and whether it is working or not, I can’t say for sure. I know that I feel the school’s spirit here, in this tomb than when I sit in front of my laptop and I see my students constrained in their small video boxes.

As I walk amongst the empty rooms, I study the old photographs and books left around 50-60 years ago. I try to follow up on the school’s changes, as our society’s progress inevitably shows itself in books, pictures, on the walls, and in the textbooks. Nevrokop and Gorna Djumaya become Gotse Delchev and Blagoevgrad; Tolbuhin becomes Dobrich; reading and writing have become Bulgarian and Literature; The USSR spreads around the world map. Sadly, the school hadn’t lived long enough to witness the fall of Yugoslavia. In essence, many things have changed, but have stayed the same - I don’t see much difference in the textbooks from back then and those which are suggested to my students now. Of course, I wonder if there is any difference in the methodology of teaching and interactions in the classroom. Other than being modern and virtual, perhaps not.

My colleague energetically shows me a texture map of Pirin - there were no longer maps like this and what would he not give for a few maps like these to use in class. Then he remembers that it would be hard to show the map in front of the laptop camera and leaves in a little disappointed. It’s been so long since we were in our classrooms with no fear that they would close us for a week or even a day, that we accept this as the new reality. We’re even fearful of expressing hope for coming back or to imagine the educational, emotional, and social deficits, with which we’ll be forced to deal in the coming years.

We leave the school and see an old man at the bus stop in front of us. He’s probably waiting for a bus, which isn’t coming. Maybe he’s waiting for Godot. I approach and meet grandpa Boyan. He asks me what I’m doing in school and I tell him of my profession and my interest in the forgotten stories of my old colleagues. He is happy to hear of it and readily tells me a story: “All is open, destroyed and forgotten… and not only here - factories, building sites. Once upon a time, there was husbandry - 28 000 sheep and cows, and now nothing - no animals, no trade, no craft, no people. There is a man over there with 5 sheep, that's it. If you aren’t a pensioner, but a young person you have to starve or escape to a city. No children, no people to raise them. If you pass 10 houses, one might have a person. Sometimes one in twenty.” This is easily the story of all schools and villages we’ve visited up to now. Not just a story, but a shared plight.

“That’s where I studied 1st to 4th grade, but it was a young school back then. After that, we moved to another building, where the library is now. I was born in 1932, so I was there in 1942. There was a war then. Now I’m 99.. no I’m 89, but I’m always saying 99, maybe that’s how long I’m going to live.” I tell him I wholeheartedly wish to meet him again here in 10 years. “Look, every day I walk a few kilometers - 2 - 3. I leave home, come here, rest a bit and head back. People pass me and say - rest a little, sit down. I tell them that I’ll rest when my legs give out. But as long as I can, I’m going to walk.”

The simple words of grandfather Boyan and the strength of his spirit remind me again how steadfast a human is in the face of fateful adversity. They remind of the importance of their small, unexpected trips and meetings. There is often more meaning and worth in their momentousness than in most of the planned ones. When you and the person in front of you both know of the randomness of your encounter, of your paths and stories, there is nothing left to hide, you become honest, real, and human. I feel gratitude to grandfather Boyan because of the wave of strength and hope he has poured at the end of the most abstract and ever-changing year. I feel ready to stand back up and go about my way. Until I reach what I am meant to.

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