In a small village of barely 1,000 people, the school in Penészlek, the headmistress, Henrietta Hajdu, works wonders. A good half of the children are disadvantaged, but all continue to learn. In fact, artists, teachers and social workers have even come out of the classroom.
Throughout the school corridor, signs read “You’re fantastic!”, “You’re talented!”, “Be determined!”, “Never give up!”.

“I thought that music and dance could really reach the hearts of Roma children, so I went to learn traditional dance,” says Henrietta. “When we perform, I go on stage and dance with them. And it’s not just the Roma students, the Hungarians are also part of the dance group. We have an eighth-grader who is performing her own choreography and will be going to art school from September.”

The children go to basketball, volleyball and football training, but there is also a handicrafts club, they look after their own vegetable garden, and the big pupils got the material for the small pond from the villagers. But the parents also organised a charity ball; the proceeds were used to sew blackout curtains for the classrooms.

“I couldn’t do anything for the school without the support of parents and colleagues. We stick together, sometimes having barbecues in the schoolyard with the children and parents. Right now, two colleagues are getting ready for the evening serenade; we treat the children to meatballs and potato salad, and they write poems for us. One of the children wrote in a poem last year to one of our colleagues, ‘you are my surrogate mother’.”

“Here there is no conflict between Roma and non-Roma; we grew up together, we all graduated from the same school, and there are even mixed marriages,” says the village leader. “The kindergarten is run by a Roma professional with exemplary care. I’m glad I chose her from among the applicants.”

“A child can go to school to get a C in maths, and also to have fun and get the most out of it. I’ve always strived for that. Four of the eighth-graders go to vocational school, one to a vocational high school and seven to a vocational college. It was never the case here that a child did not go on to further education, but it was a different matter if the parents did not support it and he or she dropped out of secondary school. But our attitude is that everyone has talent, we just need to find out what it is. Some of our old students are now teachers, others are social pedagogues, and some have brought books to be signed. One of the most beautiful stories is that of a disabled Roma boy. For a long time he refused to believe how talented an artist he was because he couldn’t use his hands perfectly. He now has an exhibition of his work in Budapest…”