In one of the little towns on our Waterways of the Czars tour of Russia, we visit an actual school, where one is struck by the disparities: 800 children, ages six to seventeen, gather five days a week in a building that looks to have been built by a team of inebriates wearing blindfolds. There aren’t a lot of right angles, in other words, and many of the lintels seem to slant and dip. And yet, the curriculum appears to run circles around our typical courses of study.
Here on the left and below, a typical classroom, not at all fancy, as you can see.
And yet our Russian tour guide has this to say about the curriculum, “The pupil’s courses are compulsory, yes?
“They study the Physics, the Chemistry, the Mathematics, the Literatures.
“All children are also studying the English beginning in Fifth grade and in high school are adding a second foreign language to that, either French to German, yes.’
My guess, based on information we have so far exchanged in the last week? That of the 25 well-fed Yanks stuffed into these slender desks not a one speaks or understands Russian. We are spotless in our ignorance.
Next, we file into a small auditorium which I suspect also serves as lunchroom and gym as the auditorium did in my own 1960s elementary school. (We called it the Cafetorium, in my mind a wonderfully jaunty, sort of Jetson-ish Space Age name. ) Here, three young girls in peasant garb sing us a lengthy folk song, during which, at regular intervals the music calls for periodic vocal yips which the girls dutifully provide even as their faces remain bland. They also swing little wooden gadgets back and forth that look like miniature venetian blinds and make the kind of clattering sound you might get on tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles down a set of stairs. The girls sing, yip and clatter for a good five minutes before bowing, shyly and adorably, and hurrying off the stage, offer us the chance to buy fanciful cloth dolls which both the boy and girl students have themselves sewn.
The dolls are female dolls, all with voluminous skirts and THIS one, we are told, is Little Red Riding Hood. But one has only to upend her, toss back her skirts and – whoops! – here under the ruffles of her petticoats is the child’s own grand-mama, of ‘What Big Eyes You Have’ fame! She has spectacles and grey hair covered by a babushka. Another flip of the wrist, yet more tumbling and here appears the head of the Big Bad Wolf in all his ferocity!
Many of our group buy one. I do not, I think because as a child in the long ago Ozzie and Harriet years I had the American version of this doll which always unsettled me.
On our way out of the schoolhouse, we pass a handmade poster honoring a young graduate of this school who, serving the Russian army, was killed in Chechnya. In this portrait, dressed in his new uniform, he gazes manfully at the camera and we study his gaze. His story, carefully inked in block writing around his image, remains a mystery to us however, as people who can neither speak nor read the language of this country.
As we depart the school building, small and antiquated looking as it is with the cords for its electronics stretching from here to there in a way that no stateside Fire Marshall would allow, I get the feeling that these 800 children have minds far more fully furnished than our own minds here in the ‘Like Me, Buy Me, Like Me’ west.
And it comes to me at the door that perhaps the reversible doll unsettles me still not for any Freudian beast-under-the-skirts reason but because it reminds me uncomfortably of the ostrich, who also hides his head so as not to acknowledge what he does not wish to acknowledge.