School 69

Neither of my parents were in Russia on August 31st, 1997. They were then visiting Canada, which would become my second home. I was watching Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and told my grandmother that I would like to fall asleep and not wake up tomorrow – my very first day in school. I ate a red apple, hoping it was poisoned…I woke up to find it snowing on the first of September (!). A friend of the family, Larissa, came to escort me to school with my brother, Boris, and our grandmother. My parents left me glossy boots to make my way to school for the first time. There was nothing except slush and wet leaves on the ground: sleet mixing with frost, which had apparently killed summer long before September 1st. The air was damp and heavy. I was more sorrowful than anxious: like I was being torn away from a familiar warm nest into the unknown flight of Life. There was a ring in my pocket – a gift from my Grandmother – a ruby in silver. It was too large for my finger, so I carried it in my pocket as a talisman. Larissa told me that silver is “a kind metal” unlike gold – for which millions of people had slit one another’s throat. I later wondered which metal suited me best…I didn’t know yet that ten years later Larissa would steal my grandmother’s pension money entrusted to her and terminate my family’s friendship…My thoughts were only on me, and who I would become in those unthinkably long years that were going to mark my Russian school education.

Boris, the dutiful brother, ran ahead of me, grandma and Larissa – taking as many photos as possible in preservation of a memory for which my parents were absent.

I neared the school yard, packed with girls with large, gauze bows in their hair (mine was done up in a ponytail, with no absurd bow attached), and boys whom I disregarded…except one: a high schooler who carried a large cake before all of us – newbies – and proceeded to cut it in four accurate slices. At that moment, the whole yard of children held its breath in expectation…Instead, the principle was given a piece; the vice-principle – another. A pair of overweight teachers devoured the other two sumptuous pieces…

A few annoying speeches followed, welcoming us all to school…but I no longer cared.

The cake was a lie. The last photograph taken by Boris in the school-yard on that day was proof of my indignation…

The number of my school in Ekaterinburg was 69. But our respect for the teachers was so vast, that not once – after learning the physical mechanics of that number from the high-schoolers– have we dared to laugh. We have been taught a great deal at School 69. The walls of our school were vividly painted with scenes from ancient bylinas (Russian legends), and with the glorious scenes of Russian history. Oleg the Prophet stepping with his ornate red boot on his dead horse’s skull – a snake emerging to sting him from the eye-socket – was especially intriguing to me.

Admiring the paintings, we studied as well – our minds expanding with knowledge and our hearts filling with pride.

History and literature soon became my favorite subjects.

Our grade 3 program in mathematics was equivalent to a Canadian grade 6 program. We had school on Saturdays starting grade 2, and our school breaks were spoiled with piles of homework.

Our teacher, Lyudmila, was a strong-minded woman in her fifties. She was an example of moral purity and exceptional fortitude, having never missed a single working day. Not even on the fateful day, when her husband, returning home from the bulochnaya (bakery), had a heart attack, and died on a bench of a small park…Some teenagers mocked the poor man, believing he was drunk and purpled with intoxication…A passing police-man scared the hooligans away. By that time, Lyudmila’s husband was gone.

Learning what had happened, I swore to myself to never disappoint my teacher. I came up to her and said, “I promise to do extra well on my assignments from now on!”

She gave me a smile, affirming that her greatest joy and pride was her students’ success and passion for learning…I stayed up late to memorize the poem she’d assigned to us in Russian literature class…

I could not fail her…

The following morning, however, I faltered. My mind suddenly went blank.

I forgot the opening line…Only that short, opening line – or even, the poem’s first word!

I swallowed my tears of shame.

“Well, Anastasia, you’ve failed the assignment,” said Lyudmila and then sadly reminded, “How could you? You promised…”

I yearned to shout to the whole world that I almost knew that poem, but all I could do was whisper, “I’m sorry…”

Years later I told this story to one friend.

She laughed, “You are still crying over a simple word that you forgot years ago!?”

I reminded her that “Love,” “Trust,” and “Life” are all simple words as well; however, they mean so infinitely much.


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