THIRTY ROMANIAN HIGH-SCHOOL STUDENTS, most sitting ramrod straight and looking a bit nervous, stared at me.
I was about to begin a week of practice teaching as part of my training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Though I work in community economic development and never have been a teacher, I will teach as part of my secondary projects.
These teenagers were taking time from their summer vacations to sit in a steamy classroom for a week to hear about American business and culture. And despite their nervous faces, I knew they couldnt wait.
I knew that despite paltry funding, Romanias educational system is excellent and extremely strict to the point where students generally are talked at by teachers and interactive discussion is discouraged. I had to get them engaged. What would do it?
I focused on the Internet and the dot-com boom and subsequent bust and used it to illustrate a free-market economy: Entrepreneurs, start-ups, business plans, investing and shareholders, stock markets, profit-and-loss and fundamental economics. I explained how America impacts the worlds economy every day. I talked about companies they already know, such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL. And elaborated on e-commerce and how money, money and more money flows back and forth via the Internet.
I forced questions on them, and gradually, more spoke up. I wanted to make sure they understood what I was trying to leave with them. Some themes were complex for high-school students who speak English as a second language, but I could tell these kids were very bright, and much of it was sticking. I was pleased.
One boy asked how much money most Americans earn per month Romanians think in monthly salaries where we usually think of annual while another asked a good question about overhead and profits, though he didnt know the terms. The kicker was yet to come.
A girl in the back who had spoken very softly during introductions and hadnt uttered a peep since, raised her hand and asked deliberately: What happened to Enron? All of the other heads turned around. Clearly nobody else had any idea about Enron the collapsed energy firm based thousands of miles away in Houston.
I almost fell over with delight at her knowledge and curiosity. As a former Enron shareholder and employee of a major financial firm, it was easy to tell the sad but true tale of that corporate failure a good lesson indeed.
A few students then gained confidence and questions turned sharper, more specific. I kept thinking, their parents grew up in Communist times and all of this is still so new, so foreign Romania was only liberated in 1989. In fact, many argue it was neo-Communist until the mid-1990s, while some say it still is just with a prettier face. The average income is about $100 per month, yet Romania aspires to join the European Union in 2007.
You have so many opportunities in America, and we dont. What can we do?
We can go to university and then get a job, but the money is terrible.
There is no money in Romania. Most young people like us want to get out and go to Europe (as if they are not part of Europe).
It wasnt the first time Id heard such talk, especially about leaving Romania. I know many people want to, and this country of 23 million has seen its population drop by 1 million in the past ten years, many of them young and bright headed to Western Europe, USA, Canada, Israel and elsewhere.
I said, Wait a minute. All of you are selling yourself short. There is something you have that is very marketable. I know you dont have money and that high-school students arent given the chance for part-time jobs and experience. I understand Romanias poverty and various predicaments.
But guess what? You all speak English and very well, I might add. Do you realize that this is what most people around the world want to do? Do you realize that as Romania transitions to a free-market economy one reason Peace Corps is here more companies will expand here and there will be demand for native Romanians who also speak English?
The stares turned into nods and slight grins. I could see the wheels turning.