A Teaching Life: In the US, England
In Cahoots with Putin?
I am the American teacher in my first Soviet Classroom with primary students in October 1986. I ask for their names and write them down, an important part of my practice. I ask my first question. Silence. I ask another. Silence. I see a right hand, angled up, elbow fixed on the desk. I look at my list of their names: “Alyosha.” He stands. Still. Does he have the answer? I hear a whisper. No answer. More whispers. He answers. He sits down folding his arms on his desk joining his classmates.
This pattern repeats throughout the day. When Yuri, Natasha, Dima, Nikita, Yulia, Vika, André…stands and hesitates—even for a few seconds––the whispers come. The longer the hesitation, the louder the whispers, a cacophony. And if no answer, the teacher leans in and prompts loud enough for me to hear. “I want to hear from Yuri.” “Please let Natasha answer.” My pleas fall on fallow ground.
Years later I have reflected on this moment and countless others like it. Was I in cahoots in preparing Russian children to regurgitate the words of Putin? To show deference to authority?
Stepping Off the Path
It’s October 1985. My tour group is in Moscow’s Palace of Pioneers, a showcase of exemplary Young Pioneer students performing on multiple floors throughout the massive building in living dioramas behind floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. Tourists are gawking through the glass observing selected Young Pioneers demonstrating their skills and workmanship.
I stop on a landing, leaving my group. I peer through a small picture window into a large darkened room. A young Pioneer girl, with light brown hair and braids, about ten, alone in the near corner. She’s in her brown school uniform with white apron wearing her Lenin pin and standing before a dozen stuffed dolls sitting at miniature desks. Other tourists race up and down the stairwell past me.
If you’ve read my first entry. You know something of who I am. From my early years, I have been what one would call a contrarian. I wanted to be part of life around me intending to do it in my own way. I considered myself a maverick, designing my own lessons and delivering them in my own style. I spent most of my years teaching eighth graders, for me a joy. I wanted my classes to be memorable.
I loved teaching and the adventures I had in and outside of the classroom. My first foray into another teaching world happened in Oxfordshire, England in 1971-2 teaching in a progressive primary school teaching alongside seven-to-ten-year-olds, a remarkable year.
In October 1985, I stepped away from the classroom for a two-week tour of Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv. Twenty minutes off the plane in Leningrad's international airport, before meeting our guide I found myself face to face with a Russian women with wild hair and two children. Two days later, I had lunch in her flat, and returned several times; she managed to slip me into a Soviet primary classroom––off the tour.