Nino Dopidze, 38 years old, Khashuri

‘’When I was growing up, no one let me feel different and I didn’t realize that I was different. One day when I wanted to run outside with the kids and my mom couldn’t explain why she wouldn’t let me go, she let me stand in front of the mirror and told me not to forget what I’m like. She did that because I couldn’t fully understand my condition and sometimes it was dangerous to my health. Therefore, I don’t have complexes about myself, I just want to be healthier and do what I want with all my heart – I want to work, travel, and spend my energy. I also thought, what if I hadn’t been like that and my life was different?! I think I would miss something important. I love that I can enjoy little things every day.
I was studying in Rustavi, where there was a special boarding school for spinal diseases – I finished 9 grade there. This school was completely equipped in every way to ensure proper conditions for learning and rehabilitation. For example, there were special beds in the classroom – we would lie down and write using badges during the lessons. The school had a separate building, where we were given daily physiotherapy, massage, tests, and various procedures. In the 90s, of course, everything was messed up and stopped, but the medical services and procedures were still available.
When I finished 9th grade, I continued the school in Khashuri. I got used to the new conditions easily, didn’t have any discomfort, and enjoyed a friendly and warm environment there.
My doctor kept telling me that I should stay home, exercise regularly, and have massages. My illness was progressing and I was advised not to think about continuing my studies as I might feel worse. I was a little naïve then and couldn’t fully realize what the doctor was telling me. By the way, he said the same to my parents, but they never forbade me to get a higher education. I was independent even as a child and I decided, by myself, to continue my studies. I started finding out where I could pass exams without cheating. my classmates were going to study in the theological seminary. So, I decided to try myself at the Christian Art faculty and I got enrolled successfully.
I often had to go to the doctor and I had to lie in bed. My only source of entertainment was reading – I’ve been an avid reader since childhood. During the summer, I spent several months in the village, where my father would help me take a lot of books with me in his car and I read a lot. Therefore, I have a special attitude towards libraries. I always lacked access to books and wished to have a lot of them, but getting my hands on new books was hard back then, even when I was a student. I asked my friends to lend me books by modern Georgian writers, and new releases. I managed to read a lot of books like that. Not to sound pathetic, but literature was everything to me – a friend, a way to climb mountains, a way to travel abroad. Literature had opened many doors for me; doors that I haven’t been able to see and feel in real life. I can say that literature saved my life.
I finished my studies in 2005 and returned to Khashuri. I always wanted to work in my city and change things here. Therefore, I never wanted to stay and work in Tbilisi. I wanted to teach art. I went around all the schools in Khashuri and Surami, I left résumés, but got rejected everywhere. For example, during correspondence with one of the schools, I was told that they had a vacancy and I was invited to the interview. I went to the meeting and once the director saw me, he was shocked, it was obvious from his expression. They told me that they no longer had the vacancy and I was given some weird explanation. I remember another case as well, I went to one of the museums and they told me that they didn’t have job offers. I found out soon that they accepted another person for the job.
In short, there was no place for me to work until I met Davit Tsikarishvili, who was then the head of the cultural union. A neighbor of mine advised that he was a good man and I should talk to him about my job. Indeed, I went to him and he, a person I met for the first time, found the whole two hours to talk to me. After our conversation, he told me to bring my documents the next day and start working. I was very surprised and didn’t believe it, but from that day Dato became my protector and then a good friend. In general, getting used to the environment wasn’t easy and in addition to that, I can’t forgive people the fact that if you are not a relative of someone, you are not perceived as a person and you are not respected.
A person with a disability, who may not be able to work and has no parents, cannot support himself in this country with his own pension. I, for example, am getting a pension that is not even enough for my medicine and there is no program that will even fund medications that a person with disabilities regularly needs. Once I had to go to reanimation, we spent up to 2000 GEL and only 500 was financed by the state. People with special needs should be supported by the state, and for example, when the government increases pensions for the elderly, it should also increase it for people with disabilities.
At the Children and Adult Creative Development Center, where I work now, I had an art history course in the beginning, but not many people were interested in it. The main guiding principle of the work our center does is to have many students, who will receive benefits so that we will get funded by the City Hall. Therefore, because of the low number of interested people, my course had to be closed. At the same center, I taught English to small children for a while, because at that time the English teacher had suddenly left the center. I’m not a specialist in English and didn’t like the responsibility I had. In short, I told my supervisors to find an English specialist and I would do what I love the most. They immediately agreed and I created a Readers Club. The club exists for the fifth year now. It’s a very comfortable environment here for both me and the kids.
My goal is to give out as much information as possible about the current processes in contemporary literature and authors, i.e. to put more emphasis on what isn’t taught in school. We don’t read anything during the lesson, it is a very boring process, nor do I instruct them to read any books in just a week. My method is this – I make an interesting presentation for kids about the new book and author and then I do different activities according to the content of this book. For example, when I explained the book ‘’The Ballad of a Broken Nose’’, I handed the children pieces of paper and asked them to draw the school gate as they imagined. This book is about a teenage boy, who describes the school gate as the gate of hell since he hates school. At my request, a picture of 9 out of 10 children showed that school was horrible for them too. I got so nervous about it, that I could hardly retrain myself not to cry. In general, children tell me a lot of things because they really need to share what they don’t like at school. Today’s school can’t follow children’s development and for them, the lesson is already a routine process where nothing interesting happens. In addition, children need to feel that we perceive them as individuals. The kids think they can’t do anything and that is the school’s fault too. I’m often told – ‘’Do you know how badly I draw?’’ ‘’I can’t write at all’’ and so on. Children naturally have very interesting opinions on various topics, but we don’t encourage them enough to express their thoughts freely so that they don’t feel ashamed. Maybe some would think it’s exaggerated, but to interact with children is so interesting, that no matter how bad we feel when we’re with them, we feel better.
At the end of the year, we do presentations of favorite books or favorite characters in the club, where we also invite guests and the kids tell them about their favorite books. We would love to invite writers to our club too, but I always shy away from inviting them. The biggest problem for us, when planning different activities, finance, because I can’t ask children to raise the funds. I want the Readers’ Club to be a hub, where children can learn and read something new. We are also trying to create a club library – to have a lot of interesting books in our space.
I collaborate with the NGO ‘’Parents for Education’’ and with them, we set up a group of seniors in the Readers’ club, where there is no age or gender limit. We planned to have those meetings once in a week – it wouldn’t be intended for learning, but would be more space for free discussions. We managed to have one meeting before the pandemic and we plan to continue these meetings in the future as well.
It’s very painful when you are given a real opportunity, you have a job to do and you can’t do that, you can’t take responsibility, you can’t achieve your goals. I’m very happy to be able to work with children and there are people by my side who give me enormous, vital strength.’’
Author: Ida Bakhturidze
Photographer: Nino Baidauri
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili