The Russian School

I was born in Ohio during the Cold War.

At that time Moldova wasn’t yet a country. Tucked between Romania and Ukraine, I’d never noticed it on the map during geography pop-quizzes or seen mention of it in National Geographic, my two childhood sources of world knowledge. But as I prepared to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the new country, Moldova has just ended a civil war, its president was communist, and through pre-departure research, I learned a recent civil war had ended, the president was a communist, and many outpost towns spoke Russian exclusively instead of the national language, Romanian.

As the poorest nation in Europe, Moldova’s workers had little work. One in four adults left the country to seek employment. Those who stayed used their bodies for income and sustenance, working in the fields, but also trafficking themselves to those trading in sex and human organs. It lacked an international marketplace for wine—its only export—so people tended to drink up what was on hand. It had schools without adequately trained teachers and politicians without scruples. Orphanages were filled with children whose parents had either departed the country or couldn’t afford to feed them.

Moldova needed a superhero, it seemed, not an English teacher.

I wasn’t the first American to be stationed in Riscani. Three other English teachers had passed through before me. Their site reports didn’t inspire confidence. “Kind of a ghost town,” and “very Russian,” one described Riscani. The mayor, a member of the communist party, was labeled “unhelpful and patronizing.” The schools were “terrible environments” which suffered from “daily disorder” and “undisciplined children.” Yet all the other Volunteers had arrived speaking Romanian, and they’d clearly suffered for it. Each had recommended that future volunteers sent to Riscani speak Russian.

So there I was.

When I arrived at the Russian school for my first day of teaching, most people thought I was a parent dropping off a new pupil. I’d dressed in clothes purchased at the “professionals” section at the bazaar—a purple dress shirt with snapping breast pockets and a pink tie. Teachers asked if I was lost and told me where I might find my child. Sometime during the chaos of these first moments in the school, among the bodies of boys and girls and adults running to find the correct room, a small girl came up to me and complained that a boy had lit her hair on fire with a match. She showed me a collection of singed ends as proof. I understood nothing, patted her on the head and said, “Very good."

I made my way to the English classroom, met briefly with the school director—a man with a naturally angry face attempting to smile—and was then alone with a class of fifth graders.

The look of serenity on my face was completely fake. Sweat rolled behind my ear down into my collar. I loosened my tie. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

“Does anyone speak English?” I asked.

Nothing came out of their mouths. I repeated the question in Russian, and almost immediately 15 little hands began shaking in the air to indicate 50-50. We did introductions in Russian and then in English and completed 45 minutes of basic grammar and vocabulary. I could tell these fifth graders weren’t ready to write poetry. But they’d successfully introduced themselves and expressed their likes and dislikes. Nearly all had liked football and disliked mathematics. It seemed my new job wouldn’t kill me.

So then I felt optimistic about my eighth- and ninth-grade classes. The textbook for this level asked students to express opinions about the political systems of English-speaking countries.

“Does anyone speak English?” I asked. No one responded.

I asked again in Russian and they began to giggle. All 20 of them laughed. One managed to choke out, in Russian, “Of course not.”

I tried not to panic.

“Please take out a piece of paper,” I said.

The students looked at each other to see if anyone understood what I’d said. A student in the front row reached into her backpack, removed her textbook, and placed it on top of her desk. She smiled at me.

Students in the back murmured. Those who had textbooks—about half the class—placed them on the desktops.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s start with the textbook, then.” I held the book in the air. “Textbook,” I said, and the students repeated, “Textbook.”

We named objects for the rest of class.

 

A class full of cell phones

My next ninth-grade class performed even worse. They didn’t respond to questions, English or Russian. They stared out the windows or talked to friends at nearby desks or played games on outdated cell phones. Every child had a cell phone. One pupil recorded himself screaming monkey noises into his phone and played it back every few moments. In 45 minutes, I managed to introduce myself, nothing more, but I doubt any one of them could have told you my name later that afternoon. I hadn’t exactly captivated them though to be fair, I couldn’t remember their names either. Miroslav had been the kid making the monkey noises. The rest of the students were a confusing mix of Dashas, Mashas, Sashas and Pashas.

During the first week of lessons, each boy shook my hand after entering the classroom. Each girl smiled at me before sitting down. The shock, wonder and awe, or whatever my students felt about having an American teacher, didn’t last long. The fifth graders, those groups attentive on the first day, now settled into the habits of the older kids, gossiping in whispers, finding interest outside the windows, claiming ignorance in all matters concerning education. Instead of answering my questions they came up with their own. What is your father’s name? What can we call you? Why isn’t Mr. Aaron married yet? And why are the tips of his shoes rounded? My students obsessed about my shoes. Evidently a teacher needed pointed tips to be taken seriously. I would attempt to present new material but eventually derail the lesson by committing a crime against one of a million Russian superstitions, whistling indoors or tossing a hat in the air. Twenty minutes of perfect behavior would evaporate in a second as the students argued over the practical consequences of my indiscretions.

Will Mr. Aaron die poor?

No, like this he will never get married.

But I think he will just catch the flu!

Eventually, the students’ kindness and patience evaporated entirely. I was treated like any other teacher but I could stand in front of them all day without reacting to their insults. I wouldn’t understand words like suka (bitch) and blin (damn it) for a few months yet. If a child cursed I’d repeat the words loudly—“Bitch! Damn it all!”—and when the laughter subsided we’d get back to class.

Other aspects of my demeanor confused them also.

I didn’t hit anyone.

If a student (almost always a boy) misbehaved in class, it wasn’t because I was American. He did it because he thought school was the place a boy got away with indiscretions unthinkable at home such as spitting on the floor, swearing, wrestling, and smacking girls on the butt. All were common-place. If a student got caught, he’d get a smack upside the head from a teacher. Almost every time I approached a boy after he’d touched a girl, he’d shrivel up in preparation for taking a blow.

Several of my eighth-grade boys smoked. If you smoked, you had to do it outside, that was the school’s only rule about smoking.

Two weeks into the job, I arrived at school and was informed by a ten-year old pupil that there would be no classes that day. I thought he was threatening me. I advanced toward him and expected him to shrivel, but he didn’t. He smiled. I turned to the brightest girl in the class who proudly announced, “Teachers’ Day!”

The school’s other English teacher, a young woman named Nadezhda, entered and informed me these children weren’t lying. It was a holiday, Teachers’ Day, a Russian tradition. We went to the gymnasium, where students recited poems, danced and sang, and student waitresses served shots of cognac and vodka to their teachers. The entire room toasted every ten minutes. I passed time by counting how many laws this ceremony would break in America.

The next day, everyone was back at work nursing hangovers. I stayed out of the teachers’ room because we were expected to finish the leftover cognac during the breaks between classes.

 

Tough questions

A month had passed since the first day of school, and my students were finding more and more ways to waste time in class. I’d ask a question, five hands would  go up, and the only response I’d get would be, “Moshna vuitia?” And I’d scream back, “No, you can’t leave! Stop asking!” and then the whole process would be repeated a few moments later.

At last, when it appeared we’d get nothing done that day, the leader of the class, a girl named Natashka, raised her hand and asked politely, in English, “Mr. Aaron, what is the Sex Bomb?”

I must have blushed. The questioner was 11 years old.

“A bad thing?” she asked.

I claimed ignorance.

“Listen,” she said, taking out her cell phone and playing a song.

She wanted to know about a song. I felt less confused. I recognized the singer, Tom Jones, and I even remembered when the song had played on American radio a decade before but how to explain the lyrics?

Natashka used a dictionary to eliminate alternative definitions of sex and bomb but the two words together didn’t make sense to her. While I thought about my response, two boys asked to leave and I casually waved my hand for them to get out, not wanting them to ruin the only productive thing we’d do all day.

“Well,” I explained. “You know what sex means, yes, it means a lot of love. And a bomb is something that explodes. So a sex bomb is when you have so much love that you explode.”

“A bad thing, I think,” said Natashka.

“Yes, okay, does anyone have another song to translate?”

Every hand in the class shot up, but just then an alarm echoed through the entire school, a sound like a giant copper ladle against a metal pan. The students screamed, “Fire!”

My thoughts went directly to the two boys I’d allowed to leave class. In my mind they’d teamed up, one standing on the shoulders of the other, to pull the fire alarm.

“No one’s going anywhere!” I screamed. “It’s just an alarm. We’re finishing class!” The students looked scared and then looked to Natashka to clarify the situation.

“Beg your pardon, Mr. Aaron. But in Moldova we don’t have fire alarms, just fires.”

I heard Natashka speak the words in Russian and I felt like I hadn’t understood. I walked over to the door. The handle was cool on my fingertips. Through the wood I heard a commotion in the hall. I cracked the door open and saw smoke billowing down the corridor and students running in every direction. I closed the door and turned back to the class.

“Okay,” I said. “Run.”

The smoke was thin enough to see through. I followed the students as they ran outside into the courtyard where we found the two boys I’d excused from class. They held their palms up to me in anticipation of blame. “Not us,” they said. After a minute the entire school stood collected and accounted for in the courtyard.

The school director and the vice directors took turns yelling at the kids.

“No accident!” said the director, holding a soot-covered trash can in the air. “Firecrackers don’t jump into pails by accident!”

I glared at my students from across the courtyard and they continued with their palms raised. The two boys became more agitated as I walked toward the director, alternating between flapping palms and index fingers against their lips pleading for my silence.

I returned to my spot.

“Go home,” said the director. “All of you.”

Plastic had burned in the trash pail and fumes had spread throughout the school.

No one ever discovered who lit the fire.

 

Written by Aaron Weiss, who taught English in Riscani, Moldova from 2006 to 2008. This is an excerpt from “The Russian School,” a chapter of his book, Lenin’s Asylum, and is reprinted courtesy of the publisher, Everytime Press. The book is out now in paperback and eBook formats from everytimepress.com. Weiss is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee with one special mention, and the recipient of a grant from the Bronx Council on the Arts. To read more of his work visit www.aaweiss.com. This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Winter 2018 issue.