Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dyen Uchitelei (Teachers' Day)

October 5th was"День Учителей" in Russia and it's quite a big deal. During the period of the Soviet Union, there were holidays to honor a variety of professions; this is of the holidays that is still going strong years after the USSR crumbled. I hadn't really been aware of the holiday until this year. Sure, I'd seen some parents bring the girls' teachers flowers in the past--but I'd never paid that much attention to it, considering that we also made a big deal out of teachers on the first day of school, at New Year's, on March 8th (International Women's Day) and at the end of the school year (as per American tradition).

This year we met the holiday full-force and head-on. The kids at Katya's school were giddy with anticipation. They painted portraits of their teachers and prepared a school-wide assembly (grades 1-4 meet together every Friday morning) for them. The different groups put on dances, sang songs, recited poetry (a VERY Russian thing to do) and individual kids showcased their talents by playing instruments or doing individual dance performances. Katya insisted on bringing her violin to school so she could play for the whole assembly; luckily her teachers somehow redirected her attention to the numbers she was already in! (Somehow Katya is convinced that the few lessons she has had with her grandmother qualify her for solos in front of large audiences... Ah, to be so confident!)

Katya spent an inordinate amount of time planning her attire for the special day and chatting about it. We bought big boxes of chocolates for her teachers and the director and she drew them pictures. Natalia got pulled into the whirlwind of anticipation, too. Even though her school wouldn't be observing the day, she was excited anyway. She helped me to put together a little gift bag of Bath and Bodyworks goodies we had brought back from the USA for Ira, the child psychologist who works with her and who is very much a "teacher," too.

The students at my school were equally excited. I don't usually work on Fridays, but both the kids and my colleagues asked me if I could come in that day. The lower school put on a show for us at 10 a.m. and the upper school was next at noon. Each class in the lower school sang, danced and recited poetry. Individuals also played the guitar, piano or did dance numbers; one girl in particular is such an amazing rhythmic gymnast that she has a chance of making the national team in years to come. (How I wish I had videotaped her!). The "host"for lower school's show was a 6th-grade-girl that the children asked to join them. She introduced each number and helped the kids on and off the stage. The older classes created their own group skits and also sang, danced, recited poetry and played musical intruments. (I was quite surprised by the 8th grade's parody of "South Park"... I should know by now to never be surprised by anything here!)

As I sat there and watched these shows, I couldn't help feeling a bit uncomfortable. It's one thing to have your students thank you and give you gifts of appreciation; it's quite another to have a school-sponsored day when the students are expected to. And the PROSE! The lead-ins for each number were flowery, rhyming, over-the-top poetry extolling the virtues of teachers and the students recited it all in earnest! No kids in America would have been caught dead reciting--or without bursting into laughter--such verses as "Oh selfless, wise teachers who shape the clay of our minds and character, forever leaving their fingerprints upon us..." I kept thinking, "Did the teachers MAKE them memorize this shtick?" I was actually a bit embarrassed; it's hard to smile in thanks at the kids for the performances when you think they've been forced to do so and might secretly be cursing the faculty for it.

But NO! I later learned that the kids in grades 3 and up had created the shows ENTIRELY on their own! They actually WROTE that poetry! (Quite impressive that they could do so, quite shocking that they would). It felt a little "Stepford Wife-ish;" perhaps the years of enforced poetry during nursery school, kindergarten and grades 1-2 leave such a strong mark on Russian kids that they actually grow up knowing nothing else--and truly enjoy it. I still find it hard to believe that among the most sincere participants in the show were some of my most challenging students-- kids who try to get away with having phones in class and won't stop chatting. Throughout the day, kids came up to me and offered me cards, flowers, a mohair scarf, a nice pen, and chocolates. They were truly glad that I had come in on a day that I don't usually teach.

But wait... there's more! The kids all went home early (the only time all year that they do) and at 2:30 there was a banquet for the faculty (grades 1-10--the equivalent of senior year). It's a small school, so there are only 25 of us. The common room (used for gym, assemblies, theater, etc.) was decorated with autumn-themed cut-outs, ribbons, and a long, fancy table. We had a typical "spread" that you would find at a Russian wedding: lots of smoked fish (salmon and sturgeon among them), breads, olives, pickles, salads, fresh fruits, cheeses, fancy desserts... and LOTS of alcohol. Champagne, red and white wine, cognac, vodka... And NO soft drinks or juice! (No, Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore). There was also a DJ!

At first, as I had been in the morning, I was a bit put-off--by the alcohol. I kept comparing the day to celebrations at the private schools I had worked at in America. Then I realized that the director was making quite a statement by toasting the faculty as if it were a wedding, and that he hadn't cut any corners in choosing the menu or beverages... He was making a conscious choice to treat the faculty to a lavish meal, showing that he values them highly. Interpreted in that context, the event took on new meaning for me. (Another difference is that as opposed to in the USA, no one here was driving; they would all be going home by driver or public transportation).

The dinner probably lasted for hours and hours, but I had to leave after an hour and a half to tutor the girls who come to my house every week. I also got off with making my toast early in the meal, before having to sip too much champagne after others spoke. I'm really glad that I went, though. The people that I work with are very nice and it's nice to get to know them better. I know that they really appreciate the job I'm doing and it feels good.

When I got home, various people on the street stopped to wish me a happy holiday; they knew I was a teacher because of the gifts and flowers I was carrying. (That was shocking! People NEVER speak to one another on the street here; if you smile at passers-by they even look afraid...) Then the girls I tutor arrived with more gifts! Their mom, Natasha, had sent me the kindest e-mail the night before about how happy she is that I'm teaching her girls, that I love them as if I were another mom or close relative. It's true; they're a very special family and I feel very lucky that they've become such good friends of ours. Expat friends come and go, but I know they'll always be our good friends in Moscow--long after we return to the USA.

When Katya got home that day, the first thing she asked was how many flowers I'd received. I showed her my bouquet, and she smiled very proudly. "I knew you'd get lots of flowers, Mommy."

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