John Kelly: Bulgaria as Serendipity

December 21, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97

As I was wrapping up work on the summer issue of the alumni magazine, long-time ACS ESL teacher Roumy Ivanova called me all excited to tell me that John Kelly was coming to town, for the first time since he left back in 1999. I instantly agreed with her that we absolutely needed to interview him for our magazine. John taught English to ACS preps between 1995 and 1999. To those he didn’t teach, he was known as the cool smiling American teacher who made a special appearance on the school musical Grease (1997) and played the blues on national TV, too. We managed to steal a good two hours of his busy schedule in Bulgaria on a beautiful day in early June – well, technically two hours minus the many interruptions each time someone who knew John entered the office and started hugging and chatting with their old friend.

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John, tell us how you ended up at ACS back in 1995?

After finishing graduate school at the University of Kentucky, I found a copy-editing job in Washington D.C.  After a few months in a cubicle I started looking for a teaching job. I was living in a house with four guys from college and one of them had gotten involved in a Georgetown University volunteer program called Students for Central and Eastern Europe that sent teachers to Czechoslovakia and Poland. So, one day, I was sitting at the table, eating dinner, and one of my housemates was on the phone, and I overheard him say, “No, no, I am not interested in Bulgaria, I’ve already started taking Czech lessons.” He hung up, and I asked, “What was that?” and he told me a little bit about the program, and said they had just received a contract and they were looking for teachers to go to Bulgaria. “Really?” I said.  I got the phone number, interviewed over the phone, and sent off a cover letter and resume.

I also called my parents, and I thought that if they were against it, I wouldn’t do it. But they were like: “Oh, you have to do it!” There was no doubt in their minds that this was a wonderful opportunity, and literally three weeks after overhearing my housemate’s phone conversation, I was on an Air France flight to Sofia knowing very little about this country that would become my home for the next six years.

Originally I was going to be in Bulgaria for one school year, but I ended up staying two years teaching English at the language school, Bertolt Brecht, in Pazardzhik.

So, one winter day in my second year, I was on a train coming from Sofia back to Pazardzhik, and there was a group of students, reading some books in English. I recall that one of the books was Camus’ The Stranger. Even though I was tired, I decided to strike up a conversation, “Oh, do you speak English?” and we started talking.  The students were so enthusiastic about practicing their English, which was excellent, and also quite proud of their school, the American College of Sofia, that I caught myself thinking, “What is this ACS place that turns out such good conversationalists?” The students I taught in Pazardzhik were often nervous or reticent when it came to speaking in English. Well, it turned out that one of the student travelers, Katya Kormusheva ’97, was from Pazardzhik, and her father met us at the station, and gave me a ride back to my flat and even invited me over for dinner later on.

Fast forward a few months and I was in Sofia literally to buy my plane ticket, one-way, back to the States. I was staying at a friend’s apartment near the Pliska Hotel, and as I got on a bus to head to the center to find a travel agency, who do you think got off the bus? Katya! I let the bus go without me, and we started talking. At one point she said, “Oh, you should definitely call Dr. Charles, the College President.” So I decided to hold off buying my plane ticket, and later that day I took the 76 bus to the College. I arrived, and of course, there was that moment when I was like “Where am I?” There was nothing but some unwelcoming communist-style blocs and a closed gate. I almost turned around, but for some reason, I walked up to the gate, talked to the guard and wandered on the ACS campus. I couldn’t believe the campus and again asked myself, “Where am I?” This hidden corner of Sofia looked like an American boarding school that had landed like a spaceship in Mladost. A little bit discombobulated, I asked directions from some students playing basketball, and found my way to Sanders Hall to meet with Dr. Charles. After a good conversation about the College and its history and the ups and downs of living in Bulgaria, he invited me to come back and teach a lesson.

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John on the train to Koprivshtitsa with students

I returned to Sofia and the magical ACS campus a week later to teach one of Jill Snedden’s prep classes. I don’t remember which students I taught, but do remember it was a lesson about eggs and also that I was very nervous despite having been a teacher for five years. After the lesson I talked with Dr. Charles and he said, “Okay, we’re going to call you.” After a few days of waiting and wondering if my phone in Pazardzhik might be broken I thought, “Okay, well it wasn’t meant to be. Time to buy a plane ticket home.” And then the day before I was going to travel to Sofia to buy a ticket, he called me. I returned to ACS one more time for another interview, and was offered a contract. I remember signing the contract and thinking, “It’s a 2-year contract. I am going to be 30 years old when this contract is up; I never thought I would be that old and living in such an exotic and foreign place.”

I stayed four years at ACS. It was literally Katya (and the 76 bus!) I have to thank. When she graduated, even though I had never taught her, I gave her a graduation present because without her it would have been a very different world for me. I hope she knows that I often think about our initial meeting on the train and then at the bus stop. Such serendipity!

What have you been up to since you left Bulgaria in 1999?

I didn’t really have a plan when I left ACS other than a hazy idea of maybe a return to graduate school. So my first job after I came back from Bulgaria was helping a friend build a straw-bale house in Colorado. That meant lots of manual labor: carrying boards, shoveling rock, and pounding nails. The two of us had met at Cornell, and his brother, who was also helping, had gone to Penn, so we joked a lot about how we were truly putting our Ivy League degrees to work. But it was great.

The other thing keeping me busy was studying for the GRE, which I did while on the job. I would be hammering nails and my friend and his brother would be yelling vocabulary words at me. I ended up applying to Harvard for a Master’s in Education, and, of course, my essay was all about Bulgaria and teaching and living here. One of the themes I talked about was how the words uchenik vs. uchitel have the same root in Bulgarian and how learning and teaching really are two sides of the same coin.

One of my favorite courses was History of the Balkans taught at the Kennedy School of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations. The teacher and several other people were from Greece, and we also had a person who had lived in Romania, so I became Bulgaria’s representative/ambassador in the class. It was a small class, twelve of us, so we would sometimes get together for dinner and share dishes and stories from the Balkans. As you can see, Bulgaria has been a major theme in my life since the early 1990s.

I finished graduate school and got a job at a public school outside of Boston, teaching 6th grade History and English. Quickly I realized I was not cut out for teaching middle schoolers and joked that the school was too big and the kids were too small, so I started to look for a job teaching older kids, and found one at a boarding school in Maine. After a cold but fun winter of skiing, living in a tiny dorm apartment, and teaching 8th graders, I decided to move some place warmer and less remote.

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John with students on the annual Prep 5 and 6 hike up on Vitosha

Eventually, I found a job in New Orleans at an independent day school and had been there a year when hurricane Katrina showed up and devastated the city. My house and my classroom survived the storm, but the school suffered some damage. The main problem, however, was that half of the students were not coming back because they had lost their homes. So for the first time in my life I was laid off from a job.  Luckily, after only a month or so of unemployment I received a phone call, “Hello, I am headmaster at a private school in Oklahoma City, and we heard you might be looking for a job teaching History.” I think I surprised him when I asked, “Oh, is it Casady?” which it was.

I knew about the school because there had been a Biology teacher at ACS, Leslie Surbek, who had graduated from Casady and whose parents had been teachers there, as well. I recall that we used to tease her a bit about being from Oklahoma City. I think with our East Coast bias that we were also surprised that there was actually a private school in Oklahoma City. (Always be careful what you joke about!) So, once again Bulgaria and my Bulgarian connections came into play. I got the job as the History Department Chair and arrived in Oklahoma City in 2006. Oklahoma City was very different from other places I had lived in but I joked that if I could live in Pazardzhik, I can live in Oklahoma City. (I guess part of that joke is that I really loved my time in Pazardzhik just like I have loved my time in Oklahoma City.) So eventually I bought a house, and I’ve been there for ten years, which is the longest I have stayed in one place since my four years at ACS.

What are you currently busy with, apart from teaching and now traveling to Bulgaria?

I’ve been coaching baseball, which reminds me of the softball games here at ACS on the tiny field south of Sanders. The one thing I like about teaching and the school year schedule are the opportunities to travel. Oklahoma City gets a little hot in the summer, so I usually leave and visit my parents outside of Boston or my friends in California. Oklahoma City is also nicely situated in the middle of the country, so equally easy and quick to get to both coasts, although I’ve spent a lot of time exploring neighboring New Mexico and Colorado as well.

What did you manage to do so far on this trip?

It was an amazing trip down memory lane just getting ready to come back. I spent a lot of time looking through shoeboxes of photos and old yearbooks.

It’s been magical being a tourist here. I had never actually spent a summer in Bulgaria; I would always go home to work at a summer school in the US. There was actually one year when I was working at ACS that I got on a plane after graduation, flew to Boston, had dinner, went to sleep, woke up, and went to my first day of work at my summer job – the world’s longest commute! After that, I decided that summers were more for relaxing. While I was teaching at ACS I used my Trabant to explore all over the place, and even drove it out to the Black Sea a couple of times.

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Three Trabants on ACS Campus, 1999

I haven’t been back in Bulgaria since 1999, so it’s been seeing 17 years of change all at once. The campus is the same, people are the same, but the world around us has changed, you know, with smart phones and wifi. Having a smartphone and all the different apps has really made being a tourist a lot easier than it was back in the 90s. My former students have probably changed the most, from teenagers to grown-ups now and many with families.

The other day I walked about 25 kilometers all over Sofia, I just couldn’t stop. It has been fun taking the metro around, too. I can still remember how to get around, and I have been to Slaveykov Square, Vitosha Boulevard, different museums (that I rarely visited when I lived here), and the Zhenski Pazar. I was so happy when I saw some gyuvecheta in the market. I make sirene po shopski once or twice a month, usually when I have people over. It’s my go-to dish, as it’s unique and easy to make. I am definitely bringing back more gyuvecheta.

My house has a lot of Bulgarian stuff in it; I’ve got a poster of Saving Private Ryan in Bulgarian that I have framed. I also have this old sign I found on the College campus that says telefon. The other sign I would love to get a hold of is Ne pipai! Opasno za zhivota! so I am keeping my eye out for one that I can liberate.

I don’t know if it’s still the same, but as teachers at ACS we had this special English-Bulgarian hybrid of a language. We would use handy Bulgarian phrases in our English speech, like ‘na gosti’. You wouldn’t say even to an American “Oh, I am going to visit my Bulgarian friends and we’re going to have so much food!” So we would say: “Oh, I am going ‘na gosti’ and everybody knew what you meant. Or ‘boza’ – how can one really translate ‘boza’ to English? Or the really short ‘sus ili bez’ when being asked with or without cheese for your ‘purzheni kartofi.’ I was a little surprised when I first came to Bulgaria that there were a lot of English words like ‘weekend’ or ‘teenager’ being used in Bulgarian.

I remember you appeared once on a Bulgarian TV talk show and played the blues. Do you still play the guitar?

(Looking at the Yearbook 1997) Oh, my gosh, there they are, the lyrics. I think somebody taped the show here on TV and then I took the tape to America so my parents could see it. I found it years later when I was moving from New Orleans to Oklahoma City. I got it converted to a DVD and put clips of it on Facebook recently, as part of my planning for this trip. In the crowd shots you can see Roumyana Ivanova and Vlado Marinov, and a few other familiar faces.

I was actually on a cooking show first, called Ot nishto neshto. It started with my Bulgarian teacher Lora Tomova tasting my apple cobbler at the Thanksgiving party that the American teachers would throw for their Bulgarian colleagues each year. She loved it and connected me with the cooking show. And they came up to the College to film for a day, I cooked some chili, some cornbread, and apple cobbler, of course. And since they were going to air it right before St. Patrick’s Day, I made some Irish soda bread, too – the only time I’ve ever made soda bread – following my mom’s recipe. After the show, a few letters came to the College with people asking me for more recipes.

Later, I played the guitar on the Kak shte gi stignem (amerikantsite)… – Todor Kolev’s show. That was the absolute highlight of my musical career. A huge thrill to be able to play with such talented musicians and in front a national audience. I still have some of the memorabilia they gave us for appearing on the show. In my spare bedroom there is a clock that doesn’t run anymore, but it says Kak shte gi stignem, so it is more art than function.

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John on Bulgarian national TV

What are some of the most vivid or funniest memories that you keep of your time here?

I recall how on some long weekends during the school year, all I wanted to do is stay in the house and put a tape in the VCR. My mom would send me tapes she had made of all Thursday and Friday television shows, six hours; she would even tape the commercials. And the other teachers would just come over to the house and we’d watch American TV for a few hours. Remember Bill Fisher and Kalinde Webb? My sister was coming to visit, and she was leaving on a Friday, and Thursday night they were broadcasting the last episode of the hugely popular show Seinfeld. So my sister tapes the show, gets on a plane on Friday, and arrives here on Saturday. We pull into the College, Bill comes out of the house, says to my sister, “Hello! Welcome to Bulgaria! Where’s the tape?”

I vividly remember the first graduation, because it was really hot, and I remember the seniors of 1997 complaining because they were wearing these strange black robes.

I remember how one year, my first or second one, my students had been working in secret on this enormous hat with all sorts of decorations on it, and they gave it to me to wear for the prep March Madness parade, which I hear is still a tradition.

I was happy to see posters of Grease, the musical still up on the walls in Sanders. I sang a song, High School Dropout – a terrifying experience!

I also remember Robin Morrison, an English teacher organizing a Monster Mash lip sink performance for a Halloween featuring Nathan Monash, Rebecca Glenn, Kevin Samuelson, Robin, and myself as various monsters, ghouls, and goblins. I think the students thought it was a real hoot.

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Pairs of shoes belonging to preps invited over for breakfast at ACS President Dr. Charles’s house on the first day of school, 1996 

What makes you happy these days?

Gardening is a new hobby I have, although Oklahoma is a difficult place for gardening because of the extreme weather. I like to grow weird things. I grow spinach and kale and easy things like that. But I also use my gardening as a history project. I teach high school History, so each year I try to grow what I call “historical crops”: peanuts, cotton, and even tobacco. I don’t smoke, but I grew tobacco because the history of it is interesting. I also grew winter wheat. Oklahoma is mostly oil and gas economy but they also grow a lot of wheat. And the wheat here originally came from German immigrants who had been living on the steppes of Tsarist Russia. You plant the wheat in the fall and harvest it early in the spring. It seemed strange to me, being from New England, to be planting seeds in October but it is big business in Oklahoma, so I was curious to see it grow.  Apparently a lot of farmers have cattle graze on it during the winter but I only have squirrels who dig it up to bury pecans. The squirrels have sort of domesticated me and I usually head to the garden with peanuts and sunflower seeds in my pockets to give them.

Did I tell you the story of my neighbor in Oklahoma City? After I bought a house, I was in my back yard, and sure enough, on the other side of the fence I heard a woman speaking Bulgarian to her kids. A few days later, she was in the front yard and as I was getting out of my car she came over and said, “Hi, I’m Maya, welcome to the neighborhood.” And I replied, “Moje da govorim na bulgarski” She was stunned! “What?” she replied slightly confused. I answered her with, “Razbira ce, vseki amerikanets mozhe da govori malko bulgarski.” And of course we became friends and they’d invite me over to their house. And there were parties, a whole little Bulgarian community. You could buy sirene, kashkaval, and lyutenitsa in some stores nearby but you can’t get rakia, for some strange reason, probably because Oklahoma has strange liquor laws. You can get rakia in Boston, though and every time I go back home I bring some, as well as some lukanka. I used to bring rakia to my parents as a gift, but they only drink it when I’m there. So 17 years later, I just finished my supply of rakia. So it was time to bring more: “Why did you come back?” “To stock up on rakia.” (laughing)

Do you have a message to our readers, ACS alumni?

If you mean alumni teachers, I would say, “Come back!” When I was here it was a little difficult to travel around Bulgaria. The phone wasn’t always reliable and guidebooks were often out of date or had wrong numbers and information. But now it’s just a question of a few clicks or a cell phone call to arrange everything from bus tickets to a hotel room.

Actually, alumni – teachers and students, – come back and visit the campus! I’ve never gone to a reunion. My parents have moved, so I don’t really go home to the place that I grew up in, so this is the first time I’ve ever really done anything alumni-like. So I recommend coming back and being a tourist. It’s nice to be back here and not thinking about essays to grade or tests to make. It’s a very different experience, you have more time to sit in cafes and meet with people and appreciate how wonderful Bulgaria is.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

When I was at Harvard, I wrote a treatment for a documentary I wanted to make about ACS. I never got beyond a script, but the story was, and it wasn’t really a secret, about how some of the books from the American College library had been moved to the Rila Monastery during WWII. I think it was a Saturday when a few of us took the school van up to the Rila monastery to bring the books back to the campus, and they were put on display in the library. A few months later one of the pre-war alumni was visiting and started smiling because he saw his name on one of the old library cards that he had used to check the book out 50 years ago.

In high school I probably would have been voted “The Least Likely to Travel outside the United States. “When I tell my high school friends that I spent six years teaching in Bulgaria, they are shocked.  Jumping on a plane and coming to Bulgaria was a giant step… It changed my life. It’s amazing that I was only here for six years, because I think and talk about Bulgaria all the time.

Sofia, June 2016

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