Our new 11th Grade Russian Lit teacher Stalina G., may her soul rest, opened her first lesson with a question.
What do we need to do to earn good grades in Lit?
That was the question.
She scanned the classroom in that searchlight manner schoolteachers have. Anyone? Anyone?
No-one said anything.
Time dripped silently out of the Salvador Dali clock on the classroom wall.
To get good grades in Lit, we need… Wee neeed… Weee neeed… Weeeeee…
To read, I said in exasperation.
Stalina G. beamed.
Exactly! Egg-zacklee! To read! We need to read! What is your last name? Ah! I know your family. Of course! It’s in the blood. Blue blood. The pedigree will always show!
I felt a golden teacher’s pet cap landing on my head. Heavy is the crown.
Stalina G. was a university professor and a study in contradictions.
She introduced addressing students by the respectful ‘you’ not the familiar ‘you’, collegiate style. She allowed reading choices. Soviet school students all normally had to read the same stuff, and the idea of choosing was new to us. So, I never read Gorky’s Mother, a Soviet lit staple; I read The Artamonov Business instead, by choice. The Artamonov Business is not a bad book.
Stalina was the wife of the 1st Regional Secretary of the Communist Party but, somehow, by 1990 she’d become vehemently anti-Communist. All school Lit before her had been taught through the Communist lens. She taught all school Lit through an anti-Communist lens. Everything on Earth was proof that Communists were evil. Every book.
Stalina introduced actual text analysis into our curriculum, which was a good thing, I thought, but she used the analysis to bewildering ends. One lesson was on the lyrics to Rossiya, a song by Igor Talkov, may his soul rest. The lyrics go like, Russia had been glorious, rich, peaceful and Christly, but then bloodthirsty Bolsheviks came and ruined everything.
Alright. It’s an opinion.
Stalina read the lyrics stanza by stanza, with expression, pointing out all the epithets she thought were effective. In closing, she said, this song is incontrovertible proof that Communists are evil.
No it isn’t, I thought quietly to self. Songs are not proofs. Texts are not facts. There’s plenty of proof of Communist atrocities, but song lyrics ain’t proof.
But that was not the hill for me to die on. I wasn’t going down that day.
I was going down another day, and all through my own negligence.
Stalina G. sought to re-introduce Logic and Rhetoric, which had not been taught in the Soviet times, into the secondary curriculum. Not a bad thing.
She devised an Open Lesson, kind of like a Show Class, so that the school admin and folks from the Department of Ed would come see how Rhetoric could be taught to high-schoolers.
We were the Show Class. We were completely unrehearsed.
The Show Class was late in the day. We’d just had, like, four Physics hours and two Chinese hours; out blood sugar levels were low, our stomachs were rumbling, our concentration was flagging, our heads were almost hitting the desks.
There were Ed Department people present, as well as the school principal, and we just weren’t in show-class form.
Stalina had us finish her sentences extemporaneously. I don’t know what it was supposed to achieve. There must have been a rhetorical aim and a teaching rationale provided, but my blood sugar, like I said, was low.
Okay, students. Please finish this sentence for me. At this juncture, when we particularly want to…
At this juncture, when we particularly want to…
When we particularly want…
(She motioned for me, the star pupil, to speak of our particular junctural wants.)
At this juncture, when we particularly waaaant…
To eat, I blurted.
To eat.
I was not allowed in Stalina’s classroom for two weeks after that.
She stated that she did not intend to teach, or award grades to, students who did not learn and who undermined the learning process.
It took a four-way negotiation session for me to be permitted to attend Russian Lit again.
The negotiations were between Stalina, the principal, our class dame and me, and I did have to grovel.
Stalina graded my exit exam essay a C-.
She also graded my college entrance essay a C.
This is incontrovertible proof that I am shit at essays.