Monday was Katya's first day of school (and her birthday! I'll post more about that separately, but you can see her wearing her favorite birthday gift from Chris and me--a matching outfit with her doll, Kit). This year it was a HUGE deal, because you don't start elementary school until age seven (or almost) in Russia. Last year she was still at a Russian kindergarten--where they cover material commonly taught in first grade in the United States. Being a первый классница is something that every child looks forward to--and that parents and everyone else celebrate, too.
We really like the school that we chose for Katya. It's a private school that runs from nursery school through 11th grade (the last year of high school in Russia); Natalia will do her last year of kindergarten there next year. The school is very American in that it stresses child development in all areas, not only in academics. All it took was a quick chat with the director to know that it just felt "right" there; I knew that Katya would be loved, nurtured and challenged. Katya liked a lot, too, when we first visited and when she returned for orientation meetings.
You can tell how carefully they approach the first graders' adaptation to school by how they've developed the orientation process: all incoming first graders spent three mornings at the school last spring after the regular school year had ended. They got to meet one another and every first grade teacher during those sessions, as well as familiarize themselves with the actual school building and "feel" of a class. The teachers discussed all of the children and divided them into homerooms based on their impressions and detailed questionaires that parents and the school psychologist had filled out (each child had already met with the school psychologist upon enrollment).
During the two weeks before school started, Katya and I were invited to come meet her classroom teachers during an individual meeting. Each class has two teachers: one main teacher who runs the class and another teacher who closely follows each child, ensuring that he/she is learning and thriving. Katya and I split up so that we could spend time one-on-one with both teachers. They used the meeting to get to know Katya better and to go through an EXTREMELY detailed questionaire with me about Katya's likes and dislikes, learning styles, ways of coping in different situations, etc. They wanted to have every bit of information possible to hit the ground running with her (and every other child in the class).
The first day of school was wonderful! The elementary school children, their parents and all of the faculty gathered on the playground for a formal ceremony and parade into the building. (Chris remembered that it had been exactly three years ago during the exact same celebration that 186 schoolchildren were murdered in Beslan when terrorists took them hostage; what a tragedy... Some students from Katya's school were touched by terrorism, too--they were among those taken hostage in the seizure of Dubrovka theater in 2002. I'm not sure if they survived).
In any case, the first graders were the guests of honor; they sat by the stage on special benches. There were welcoming speeches and then the first graders were officially introduced. The 11th graders paired up with 1st graders, pinning the school pin on them and escorting them in a celebratory march as each child's name was read aloud. Older students spoke and sang, and then there was a real surprise: it turns out that a famous Russian singer, Joseph Kobzon, has a granddaughter in the first grade--and he sang for and with us all. Even Chris, Katya and I knew the song he sang, "Пусть Всегда" (May there always be). Katya didn't know who he was, of course, but she recognized him on a billboard as we drove through the city later that day and was tickled pink.
It was then time for the "первый звонок" (first bell). The 11th grader who had attended the school for the longest (or who was the youngest in first grade) rings the bell with the youngest (or first to be enrolled) first grader. Every school does this--and the graduation ceremonies in 11th grade are appropriately called "последный звонок" (last bell).
A very nice 11th grade girl (who had been one of the hosts of the program--so Katya felt quite special) then brought Katya to her classroom and stayed with her for the next hour and a half. Parents waited while the children did a craft with their older buddy and teacher, then all the first graders and their parents went to another school playground for a balloon-releasing ceremony. That morning each child had written a wish on a slip of paper and tied it to balloon. Katya wished for happiness, which was so bittersweet; it makes us sad that she hasn't been happier all along. The balloons looked so beautiful in the sky...
We then went back inside for what I thought would be a very quick mini birthday party for Katya. I had made a unicorn pinata and cupcakes; nothing too fancy since I knew that the first day of school would be short and rather busy!
Much to Katya's (and my!!!) surprise, her teachers had also arranged a surprise party for her! It's traditional in most Russian schools to give your classmates birthday presents, but we never expected it because no one had even met Katya yet! How would they have even know about her birthday??! It turns out that teachers had told the parents of every child in the class... and the parents had been hiding birthday presents for Katya all morning! I had been waiting with all those parents, utterly oblivious to the bags they were hiding from me! (In the picture below she's only holding HALF of them! Edited comment later: I temporarily removed the picture of her with her presents b/c you could see the name of her school on her pin. I'll figure out how to airbrush it out and post it again later. ) I met two sets of parents that were particularly nice; I hope we'll become good friends. Katya likes their children, too. (Thus far, she thinks everyone is kind and friendly).
Katya was stunned and her wish for happiness was instantly granted; she knew she belonged and that she would have many kind friends. The children's gifts were incredibly thoughtful and generous and she loves each and every one of them. The children were soooo happy to have surprised her and make her birthday special; that meant the most of all.
We then went to the dining room for cupcakes and tea (soooo Russian... The kids have tea three times a day; Katya loves it). While the children ate, their teachers lead them in song: "Пусть Бегут", the theme song to the Cheburashka cartoons--and a popular birthday song, created by Eduard Uspensky (for whom I did some translation work when I came to Moscow as a college student in 1991!!! I never would have believed then that my daughter would one day be serenaded by that song on her birthday...)
It was then time to go home... Katya didn't want to leave :-) We hurried home, though, to get Natalia--who was about to have her own first day at a new school! I'll post more about that separately.
Added the next day: In response to a comment about Katya wanting happiness as her balloon-releasing wish, I wanted to clarify a little. Katya wanted to be happy at her new school. She wanted her school to live up to her hopes. At her previous school there was one manipulative, mean girl who chipped away at Katya while pretending to be her friend. Unfortunately, we didn't realize how hurt Katya was until the school year was almost over. For Katya, happiness is being around other kind children. We're working a great deal with her on how to react in a healthy way when someone isn't so nice, since kids will be kids and she's bound to get her feelings hurt sometimes.