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Encounters with Soviet People (Part IV)

kazakhnomad
Aug 16, 2008, 7:32 AM 0

p. 229 “No doubt Tatyana believed what she was saying.  Nearly all the teachers I had met in Soviet schools insisted that their students knew more about America than American students knew about the Soviet Union – despite outdated texts and slanting media reporting.  Few accepted my contention that neither of them knew much about the other, though most agree that glasnost has opened the way for better understanding on both sides.

 

Everyone expressed fascination with the comparative informality of American classrooms, especially in the social studies… “Now let me talk about the informal atmosphere of lessons.  I like it!  It’s good for both teachers and students.  Of course, it has nothing to do with familiarity…And the students are not afraid of making mistakes! They can be right and wrong, but they are free!  I like this atmosphere.”

 

p. 230 – “I no longer have a perfect idea of your American system of education!…Everything in the Soviet Union is so centralized, so organized…Our system is not very good, of course, but it is easier to grasp the idea of our system of education.”

 

p. 165 – “We have known each other now for more than a month,” I began with Valentina’s first group.  “As you no doubt realize, I am interested in what you think and how you see yourselves from your point of view…”

“I do not really know who you are,” Igor told me after the lesson…At the break, Valentina strode up to me.  “The children will not give you honest answers,” she asserted.  “They do not know you well enough.  It takes years before you can learn about such things from them—years.” No comments or questions about what I was attempting to do.  No queries about my methods.  Just this comment.  That was all.  By now I felt ill, as my heart was thumping and my ears were becoming warm.  I had gone too far.  And, what was worse, I had offended Valentina with my presumptive behavior.

 

p. 154 – “I wonder again what would have happened if I had challenged her [Valentina] at that time half-way through my two-months in her school.  No doubt, she would have been polite.  She always was.  But it would have been that Soviet politeness that comes with a knowledge that hers was a superior position.  Such politeness feels worse than disdain.  She would have listened to my rage.  But nothing would have changed.  Valentina and her students would have tasted my American feistiness, and for that I would have been proud.  We are the land of democracy, after all, and I would have been its momentary champion.

And they might have acknowledged my viewpoint as well.  But understood it?  Probably not.  How could the students have understood when they had grown up in a society where alternative sources of information did not exist?  Every subject had its own textbook where learning meant to memorize its contents.  In English classes to retell the text meant to memorize its contents.  In English classes to retell the text meant to repeat it verbatim.  Any hesitation invited prompting from classmates or words and phrases from the teacher.  When students shared their opinions, teachers corrected their thoughts as well as their grammar and usage.

I wonder, too, if a challenge to Valentina at that moment would have put me more on the outside and isolated me more than I already felt.  I was teaching in the school, after all, on borrowed time.  And I was a teacher without my own students.  Shortly I would have to leave.  Whatever impact I might have made would be absorbed by the routine of the weeks and months to follow, as the endless treadmill of memorized information smoldered thought and squelched memories and hopes.

 

p. 167 – “Perhaps Valentina had a point.  I was a foreigner, after all, an interloper who had been assigned to the school for two-months to teach groups of children for five or six lessons each – mere moments in the scheme of their lives.  What chance did I have to win their respect?  Their confidence? Their trust? How could I enter their lives and belong to their collective world, even for a while? …Had I been fooling myself during all those years as a teacher at home when I taught students for only a year, sometimes two?  Could we have touched each others’ lives in such a short time?

 

…She preferred to be consistent, to perform the known, the expected.  She was, after all, the product of an educational system that had created its own womb—and now she was one of its caretakers.  It was her bread and butter.  She had always done what was expected and done it well…and she understood the basic premises underlying Soviet education:  its conformity, consistency and continuity.

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