Nelli Mikhailovna's Students

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
I was a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps in Ukraine in 2002 and 2003. I taught English as a foreign language at a secondary school. This story is about the students I knew and about the kindness they shared with me.

I have compiled several stories such as this one into a book called "Courage in Poverty," which I would like to publish, although the stories stand alone pretty well.

Submitted: January 12, 2010

A A A | A A A

Submitted: January 12, 2010



Nelli Mikhailovna's Students
By Thomas Eric Ruthford
My first impression about Eric Ruthford
I liked Eric Ruthford, because he is very fun and clever man. He is volateer. Mr. Ruthford visited Ukraine and our town.
He was born in 1979 year in Seattle on the third of August. He was a good boy. Eric studied in Seattle college. Mr. Ruthford had only +B and he finished college with -A.
He has two brothers and one sister. Mr. Ruthford has pats dogs and one cat.
He doesn't like to watch TV. Eric Ruthford doesn't like fat. But Mr. Ruthford likes vareniks and ukrainer borsh.
He likes Chaykovsky. He had a work — journalist. Mr. Ruthford had a good education. He came to us to be our teacher. He visited four Ukrain's towns.
Mr. Ruthford is a very good artist. He sings songs very good and draws beautyful pictures. He likes American football, classical music, Mr. Ruthford likes very much children babys. He likes to go to the cinema. He likes our town too
Mr. Ruthford is very fun and clever, he is very, very tall and beautyful man. He is 22 years old. Mr. Ruthford, I think, the best American teacher of English, because he speek not very fast and I understand him. I liked him very much.
The End.

Being a storyteller, I suppose I ought to tell the reader a little about myself so that my perspective can be more easily understood to the reader. Rather than do that at this point, I think I'll let Katia's description of me do the work. I really liked this short sketch of me, which came from Katia, a talented 7th-form pupil of Dniprorudne's Secondary School No. 3. The letter was elegantly written with attractive drawings of stars, hearts and paint brushes in the margins. It's accurate on most points, except for the part about drawing pictures. I have no particular talent in that area.

I don't know if I can describe Katia as well as she described me, but she was the tallest pupil in her 7th-form class, and one of the tallest people in the school. She was 5 feet 10 inches tall and had long brown hair. Most people in the school thought this was an amazing height to hit for any 12-year-old, but my own older sister had done this, and continued on to 6 feet 1 inches tall, and I had also hit 5 feet 10 at age 12 and continued on to reach 6 feet 9 inches. She was very, very slender, probably the result of hitting her growth spurt early and fast, and she favored bright red shirts and skirts in her wardrobe.

On my first visit to the secondary school, I had come to Katia's class, a group of about 25 pupils, all around the age of 12, who gave me an interrogation that could put the American press to shame. Usual questions that Ukrainian pupils gave me were from the memorized phrases they learned in their English books, such as "What are your hobbies?" and "What is your profession?" but the 7th-A form pupils went for more penetrating questions, such as, "Were you a good boy in school?" and "Did you listen to your teachers or did you talk much?"

At first I thought they were just tossing out random phrases because it was fun to see how the Americanets would react, but the profile of me that Katia put together at the end of it showed that at least one of them had understood what I had said.

I had been in Ukraine for about two months when I met Katia's group of pupils, and getting evidence that I had made a connection with one of them was very rewarding. Most Peace Corps volunteers begin their service with idealistic expectations for how much help they can provide to the people in developing countries. All through my service, I had to balance my ideas of the assistance I felt called to do with the type of work I really could accomplish. The more I was frustrated by my inability to get a community anti-drug program going in the town, the more precious these personal connections with pupils became for me, especially as I found that teaching English itself was a lot more difficult than I ever thought it could be.

For an American going to teach in a developing country, it's easy to fall in to the arrogant assumption that because you're a native speaker of English and you have a university degree, you know how to teach English. Teaching it isn't that hard, but starting out, about half of what you come up with for lessons and activities isn't going to make that much sense to the pupils (or students if you're teaching in a university – for Ukrainians, children in primary or secondary school are always called pupils, and people studying in university are called students.) I had about 100 students in eight different groups ranging in level from third form (age 8-9) to eleventh form (age 16-17, the last year of secondary school at that time in Ukraine). During my first six months of teaching, I got an awful lot of blank stares from the kids as the activities I led made little sense. I used lessons that I had learned during my three-month crash course in teaching that the Peace Corps had given me upon arriving in Ukraine. These activities were explained in great detail in lesson books published by Cambridge and Longman, and I had followed the directions exactly, only to have them fail completely, with no one in the class able to answer a single question. I was astonished it wasn't working right. It was sort of like making your guests gag after following a Betty Crocker recipe exactly – I had used a reliable plan, so what went wrong?

Whenever my lesson was a stinker, I received either apathy (from older students) or raucous class clowning (from younger students). But then, there was the 7th-A, a very boisterous group of students that talked so much that they had driven their previous English teachers so crazy that they refused to work with them any more. In fact, one of these teachers had told the administrators of the school, "Don't give them to Eric. He'll run back to America!"

Chaotic as they were, the 7th-A always produced something in English. They were really eager to learn, and if I told them to write or to play a game in English, they played and said things in English, even if the result had nothing to do with what I asked them to do. I was able to control their restlessness by comedy routine – so long as the lesson was silly enough, I could hold their attention. The easiest method of silly English teaching was to focus on verbs like "jump" or "dance" and jump in circles until they came up with the verb tense I'd asked for. Another was to pull my English-Russian dictionary out of my back pocket and find some absurd thing I could shout at them in Russian when they misbehaved. Once, when Katia and Yegor were poking each other and arguing over a colored pen, I said sternly, "Katia i Yegor, nyelzi flirtovat no urok!" which means, "No flirting during the lesson. Both children looked at each other and shouted, "Foo!" (the Russian equivalent of "Yuck!") and stopped arguing immediately.

The leader of these kids was a pretty blonde girl named Alisa. She wore long skirts and had long hair that she let grow to be waist-length. I call her the leader because she was the most eager to do schoolwork, and the rest of the class strove to compete with her. Hers was the hand that was always in the air, she was always first to answer a question, and when I told them to write six sentences about their favorite holiday, Alisa wrote ten.

It's a good thing for teachers to like the pupils whom they teach, although it can be problematic when one pupil becomes so eager to please the teacher that she becomes the teacher's pet. The problem with Alisa, however, was that she was such an amazing student that she became the teacher's hero. More than anything, I wanted to be like Alisa in her eagerness and her speed to learn foreign languages.

I had taken French in high school and Latin in college, and I was always a C student there. I had not started Russian training until I got to Ukraine, and basic communication tasks were a challenge. The Peace Corps had given me three months of intensive language training so that I could go to the market and buy things and ask bus drivers if they were driving where I wanted to go, but the ability to make friends in Russian or read newspapers were still a long ways off. I was immersed in the culture and hearing the language constantly. Alisa, on the other hand, got five hours a week with me and Ukrainian teachers who had been trained in English, and she was picking up foreign words faster than I could.

Once, when I was at a loss for what to do for a lesson, I brought some food products to class that I had bought at the local food bazaar, and I gave them to the students. I didn't know exactly what they were, or how to cook them, and I wasn't able to translate the labels on the back into English. I told the 7th-A children that their job was to translate them in to English so that I could eat. The prospect of helping me out thrilled them so much that they had them all translated in about 5 minutes.

I used this group of students as my test group for new lessons. One early success came when I taught them a new set of colloquial phrases, including, "This is good stuff," "Put a lid on it," for "be quiet;" "What a load of baloney."

I told them to write dialogues using these words. Yegor and Valera, two twin brothers in the same class, quickly wrote:

Mom did cook dinner.
Son say, "This is good stuff!"
Papa say, "What a load of baloney!"
Granny say to Mom, "Put a lid on your man!"

If they couldn't do what I was asking them to do, I knew that the lesson would be a complete failure with the other groups. One early successful lesson I gave them was on how to use the past continuous tense (i.e.: I was working). One of the methods of teaching we were encouraged to use as much as possible was the communicative method, meaning that all instruction was done in the language they were learning. Rather than tell them was a word or a verb tense meant in their own language, it is the challenge of the teacher to show them what it means using other English words, pictures, or actions. (Sometimes you have no choice but to tell them what the word means in their own language. For example, the difference between the English words "find" and "find out" boggled every one of them, and I had to write the Russian equivalents on the chalkboard and made them write it down.)

For the past continuous tense, I decided to build a time machine out of the tail light on my bicycle, a shortwave radio antenna and a squeaky toy. I connected them all together with string. I began the lesson by explaining the past continuous tense. Then, I put them in pairs and told them they had to a write a story in the past continuous tense. When the stories were done, I brought up the pupils two at a time and told them that one of them was to read the story, while the other was to act it. Vika, a short black-haired girl, and Katia, who had written my biography on the first day, came up first.

"Vika," I explained to the class, "Is going to step into our time machine, and Katia is going to send her back in time." I gave Vika the tail light blinker and the shortwave antenna, and Katia got the squeaky toy. "Katia, squeeze the toy!"

The toy squeaked, and Vika shook as if she was being electrocuted. She set the time machine down.

"Good!" I exclaimed, and moved my hands in front of Vika as if there was an imaginary bubble around her. "Vika is now in the past continuous tense, but we can still see her. We use the past continuous tense to talk about actions that took a long time to do. We use the past simple tense to talk about actions that happened only once, and they took a short time."

Katia began to read the story they had written: "Vika was walking in the forest," Vika walked across the classroom, and Katia kept reading, "when she fell." Vika fell on the floor. "She stood up and was looking around, and she saw a bear. While she was screaming, the bear ran."

The story went on like that, with Vika doing each past continuous action for a while and doing each past simple action quickly. The other pairs of students came forward to get in the time machine and told similar stories. At the end of the lesson, I realized that we had forgotten to bring Vika back into the present tense. "Oh no!" I said, "Vika is stuck in the past," and I asked her, "How were you? What was your favorite food?" The class laughed as I kept speaking to her in the past tense.

"Vika has big problems," I said, "When she goes home, she has to eat yesterday's dinner!"

The bell rang and they left, Vika pretending to cry.

I found that lessons worked particularly well with this group of children if they were based upon books or movies that they already knew and liked. They told me early on that they really liked Harry Potter books, and asked me if I had read any of them. I confessed that I hadn't, but I knew that my mother had read them. When Mom called a few days later, I asked her about the Harry Potter books, and if there were any parts of the books that were particularly memorable for her. She mentioned one part from the second book, about Hermione being turned to stone for part of the second book.

I came up with an idea for an activity that I thought worked well with that part of the book. I was going to use a Cloze paragraph, an activity when you read something to the pupils, and then you give them a copyof what you just read, but with all of one part of speech – the verbs, the adjectives, the proper nouns – missing, and they had to fill them in.

I began the lesson by explaining, we're going to play a game that has a little to do with the Harry Potter books, and I asked Katia to come up to the front. "Katia, please stand very straight. Katia is a statue. She's been turned to stone, and it's very sad-"

Before I could explain how this related to the book, Alisa sprang into the air and started explaining to her classmates what had happened in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. She didn't ask for permission to speak.

"I know what this is about! Harry and Hermione and Ron go to Hogwarts and learn about how to be a wizards and there's this really big snake, a basilisk, that lives in pipes and when you look at it, you can be turned to stone. Hermione really likes schoolwork, and she was in the library trying to figure out how to stop the basilisk, and she wrote some things down on a piece of paper, but before she could show it to Harry and Ron, the basilisk turns her to stone and she's left in the library with the paper in her hand and Harry and Ron have to figure out what the paper means!" Alisa stopped to gasp for air.

"You're Hermione!" said Valera, one of her classmates. The class began to laugh and Alisa turned red and sat down. (When the first Harry Potter movie came out a few years later, I was amazed to discover that Emma Watson, the actress they selected for Hermione, the ultimate in eager-beaver students, looked very similar to Alisa.)

I said, "Uh… thanks Alisa. Yes, that's pretty much the story right there. So here's what we're doing. I am going to read a story to you, and then I am going to put copies of it in Katia's hand. (She's been turned to stone.) There will be missing parts of the story, and you have to fill in the blanks. If you put the right verb tenses in there, you can save Katia. There are three teams. It's a competition!"

And, I read them a 10-sentence story about the basilisk, and stuck the papers into Katia's hands. Katia's classmates raced forward to grab the papers, and got to work. Alisa's team, of course, was first, but they had made some mistakes with the past perfect, so I sent her back. Eventually, Valera's team won, and Katia was made human again.

This group of pupils engaged with my teaching to the point of getting annoyed whenever something interfered with the lessons. They received English instruction four and a half hours a week. An hour and half of this instruction came from me, and three hours came from a Ukrainian teacher of English named Vladimir Alexeivich, a man in his late 20s with sharp features. He usually wore a black leather jacket. He spoke out of the side of his mouth and rarely said anything cheerful, and often accused me of speaking too fast for him to understand. (I came to understand pretty early on that the children understood my English better than he did.)

The idea was that on my day to teach lessons, Vladimir Alexeivich was supposed to sit in the back and be ready to assist with any discipline problems that came up. Once, he and another teacher were sitting in the back of the room, chatting with each other while I was giving a lesson, talking while I was talking. I found this mildly frustrating, but wasn't inclined to do anything about it. Then, Alisa turned around and said in a motherly tone, "Vladimir Alexeivich, ei yi yi!"

Vladimir Alexeivich stopped talking and looked like he was about to say something sharp to this 12-year-old who had just chewed him out, but said, "I am sorry, Mr. Ruthford. It won't happen again." Most of the time, though, Vladimir Alexeivich did not bother showing up to my lessons at all. Once, as I was teaching, I saw him out in the schoolyard in his black leather jacket, walking slowly and smoking.

The English department at our school had 10 teachers, only two of whom besides me were male, and both of these guys made it clear for every minute that they were there that they didn't want to be there. It took me some months to figure out the reason: Ukraine has compulsory military service for all young men. They have to serve for 18 months in the Army, but there are a few exceptions. One was they could be exempt from service if they became teachers in villages or small towns where there was a shortage. Both of these guys were draft dodgers. Far from being happy to find a different way to serve their country, the two of them behaved as if carrying out a prison sentence. The pay of being a teacher was bad ($40 a month at that time) and I don't think either of them liked working with children. The other male English teacher, Roman, quit as soon as he was eligible to go work in a sunflower seed oil factory.

With the 7th-A class, I could not go to their regular English teacher for help with advice, which was frustrating, so I was forced to find a different source of help. I learned that in the Ukrainian educational system, children are put in to groups of 25-30 children when they start the first form, and they stay in those groups for the next 10 years. Each class of children becomes something like an extended family for the children. In the course of a week, each class will be visited by an assortment of different teachers who provide them with instruction in different subjects such as math, science or language.

In my own education, when we got to middle school, each pupil was given a unique six-period schedule that had some flexibility for the pupil to choose topics he or she wanted to take. Each period, a pupil would have a different teacher and a different group of children to study with. For the Ukrainians, the group of children is static through the day, and through the course oftheir 10 years of primary and secondary education. Also, from year to year, they retain the same group of teachers – Lidia Ivanovna can be teaching English to the same group of children from first form to tenth form, which can provide a continuity of progress that's helpful to figuring what kinds of lessons help the children best. And, it's satisfying for the teachers to see their work pay off. One interesting quirk of this system is that pupils in the same class hardly ever date each other – by the time they are old enough for the hormones to start working, they already know too much about each other for dating to be interesting.

Changes are made to teachers when they retire or if a teacher does something to offend enough of the parents to make them all go to the school director at once and demand a new teacher. And, children can change classes, but a change is a pretty significant thing: a child becomes "the new pupil" even though he has just moved up the hall to a different room.

For a teacher, there are two main paths one can take when discipline is getting out of hand. The main disciplinarian for a class is the klasnomrukomvoditel, a word that can strike terror in the hearts of pupils. Literally, it means "class director" but I think "homeroom teacher" would be a better translation. For the 7th-A, their homeroom teacher was Nelli Mikhailovna, a mathematics teacher. Nell Mikhailovna taught math to the 7th-A, but she was also the main person for communicating with the children's parents, and organizing four or five meetings per year that all the parents were expected to attend. She maintained their grade records, too. Unfortunately for me, Nelli Mikhailovna did not speak a word of English. Also, for several reasons, I could not rely on Vladimir Alexeivich to tell Nelli Mikhailovna about discipline problems for me. For one, he didn't really understand English, either, and for two, the first question Nelli Mikhailovna would ask Vladimir Alexievich would be, "And where were you when this happened?" Vladimir Alexeivich really didn't care much about discipline himself.

The other path to deal with a discipline problem is to write something in their dnevnik, or daybook, a book that every child was expected to carry at all times, and was where daily information about grades, discipline and homework was kept. "Present your daybooks!" was another phrase that I learned was good for striking fear into difficult pupils. Being told to get their daybooks out meant that they were either going to have to write a homework assignment in it, or that the teacher was going to write a grade in it, or that the teacher was going to write a note about bad behavior. A conscientious mother would demand to see a daybook at the end of the day, which would provide a good summary of what her child had done during the day and had to do for homework before the next day. A child could hide or "lose" his daybook, but "I forgot my daybook," is red flag No. 1 that your child is up to something, and from there a much more intense interrogation would begin.

Both of these methods of discipline, if done well, are excellent means of keeping children in line and keeping the parents informed, but to make them work, the teacher has to be able to either speak or write in Russian.

I think the children knew that I wasn't well-connected with their discipline system as they pushed the limits continuously, and my telling the class clown to sit in the corner for some time out was losing its punch. My Russian was pretty shaky, so I got my dictionary out and started to practice sentences such as, "Vika threw a pencil during class and she talked out of turn too much." I found an English teacher who was more helpful than Vladimir Alexeivich and got her to help get the grammar and spelling right so that I could say it and write it.

After one lesson got particularly out-of-hand, I went to Nelli Mikhailovna's room. When I came in, a 5 foot 4 woman in her mid-50s with golden hair stood up and started speaking to me quickly in Russian. I wasn't able to understand much of it, but she was full of animation and kindness. The general jist of it was that the kids really liked me, and that Alisa would be an ideal match for me. I smiled and thanked her. I would have objected to the suggestion I marry a 7th-form girl, but I didn't know the Russian word for "jailbait" (it turns out that this word is completely untranslatable). I told her about the flying pencils. She looked angry for a second but then said, "They've been like that since they were 6." I told her that Katia was talking too much. She asked, "Which Katia?" I couldn't remember her last name. I put my hand high in the air as if to touch Katia's tall head. "Ahhh," Nelli Mikhailovna said. I told her that Maksym and Sasha were poking each other too much. She said, "Maksym" and pointed to one corner of the room and then "Sasha," and pointed to the other corner. And then she promised she would handle it.

And, the next time I saw the 7th-A, their behavior was twice as good. They started off by apologizing for being so difficult. Being such eager, active kids, they continued to give me trouble from time to time, but I had learned that I could make them shake in their chairs by mentioning Nelli Mikhailovna's name.

The 7th-A class was my favorite, both in their response to the instruction and in the fact that disciplining them actually did improve their behavior, and it was all because of Nelli Mikhailovna. When Russians discipline children, there's always a lot of shouting involved, so for an outsider to the process, it's difficult to know whether the parent or teacher doing the discipline is really providing structure in the children's lives or just getting them accustomed to explosions of yelling from adults. But, Nelli Mikhailovna took such interest in the children's progress that they really wanted to make her proud, and she was consistent in coming up with punishment that hurt – extra tasks or making calls to parents that would get the appropriate change in behavior.

I didn't get so lucky with my other classes. One of the downsides of the Ukrainian system of keeping children together in the same group for 10 years is that the problems and conflicts that they have simply get passed down from year to year.

I remember one day when I was teaching the 9th-A, I had fifteen pupils in the group I was teaching, and I had five class clowns. One of them, Masha, was the most difficult, meowing like a cat whenever I spoke, causing the boys to laugh hysterically whenever she did it. No amount of telling them to stop would actually get silence. At the end of the lesson, I told the five clowns they had to present their daybooks. The three boys who had been laughing the most gave me their daybooks and I wrote, "They were disobedient during the lesson." They thanked me.

Thanked me? I soon discovered that being disciplined by the American was a novel experience that few pupils had had, and my signature in their daybooks was a rare item at our school. (I remembered back to the first day I had been to that school, the children were asking me for my autograph. "Why?" I asked. "You are famous," they said.) The two girls, Olia and Masha, didn't have their daybooks.

Later, I found Natalya Vladimirovna, their homeroom teacher, who was actually fluent in English. I told her about the problems, and she said "I don't know what to do about them. They're just crazy. Masha misbehaves because it makes her the center of the boys' attention." I had to agree with her interpretation – these children were 14 or 15 years old and hormones had just hit them. Natalya Vladimirovna went on, "I talk to the parents, and nothing happens." Natalya Vladimirovna was the fifth homeroom teacher that had been put in charge of this class. The children's parents were quick to get angry with the teachers and frequently demanded that the director switch homeroom teachers.

For a teacher, to be switched out in this way was embarrassing and frustrating, although it usually did not result in a loss of job. Rather, the teacher would be made the homeroom teacher of a new class of first formers the next year. Natalya Vladimirovna didn't want to go down in history as one of their rejected teachers, and was afraid to offend the parents with too much discipline.

"Please, allow me to call the parents!" I said to her. Olia's family did not have a phone (only about half of the apartments in our town did have phones) but Masha's family had one. I called her Masha's mother and I said in Russian, "Your daughter was talking with boys while I was trying to teach and she was meowing like a cat constantly!" Masha's mother gasped, apologized and said she would deal with it.

The next week, when I had that group of students again, I demanded that Olia bring her daybook, which she did. Masha also gave me her daybook even though I hadn't asked for it.

I said, with an amazed smile, “But I already called your mother! Why are you giving me this?”

“Please put the note in there.”


“To remember.”


“Please, write it.”

And so I wrote in Russian, “She was very naughty. She likes to talk with friends during the lesson very much.” She thanked me.

“Masha, you are a strange girl.” She just smiled and left.

My celebrity made discipline difficult. Foreigners were so rare in the town that the smallest souvenir from me, even a negative one, provided a keepsake.

From there on, I was able to continue working with Natalya Vladimirovna's 9th-A class reasonably well, and Nelli Mikhailovna's 7th-A class continued to be a joy. I taught the 7th-A how to use comparatives and superlatives. I told them that single-syllable words got an "er" or "est" when they went up in degree, and longer words usually got "more" or "most." They seemed to get it, and they came up with some interesting results:

Valera, who liked airplanes, wrote following sentence: A Tupelev jet is comfortable, an Antonov is more comfortable, and a Boeing is the most comfortable. I told him that was excellent.

Next, was Alisa who came up with an overly involved answer. She decided to run up to the chalkboard and draw a picture of a flower in a vase, and painstakingly drew every petal, a fruit basket with an apple, banana, orange and bunch of grapes, and a house with a front walkway and chimney. Then, she declared, "The flower is big, the fruit bowl is bigger and the house is the biggest!"

I thanked her and resisted the urge to tell her that she was overthinking the question, which didn't involved drawing things. To say "You're trying too hard," to this girl might have made her cry.

"Who wants to go next?" I asked.

Sonya's hand shot up. I called on her. She said, "Alisa's clown is beautiful."

"Huh?" I said, and she pointed at the picture of the flower in the vase, and indeed, it looked like a clown.

She went on, "Alisa's Titanic is more beautiful." (The fruit bowl did look like a steamship.) "Alisa's Mark 34 is the most beautiful," she said and the class went into hysterical laughter. The house did look something like a missile, if you thought of the walkway as its thrust flame.

Sonya was medium-height blonde-haired girl who wore her hair in braids who inhabited an alternate universe. She had a bizarre sense of humor that made me wish I could find a tape of Monty Python with Russian subtitles to show her. At another lesson, when I was teaching how to use "very" and asked the pupils to use the word correctly, she stood up and said, "Vladimir Alexeivich is a very important bird," a joke which seemed to touch off a riot in the classroom. I got a confused look on my face and said, "What?"

I was about to tell Sonya that she shouldn't insult her teacher that way when Vladimir Alexeivich said in English, "It is a very stupid joke and she is a very stupid girl." With that, I decided I didn't need to discipline her. It was too harsh of a thing to say to a pupil, and, besides that, I kind of shared her opinion.

All of the other teachers who worked with Sonya said that she inhabited a fantasy world of sorts, writing love notes to pupils who were five years older than she was, and talking about flying horses all the time. Sonya gave me a terrible surprise on the day after Valentine's Day when I was teaching their class. The American practice of giving little cards and candies at school on Valentine's Day had caught on in Ukraine, and I started the lesson by asking the children, "What happened yesterday?" This was supposed to be a conversational exercise to get them warmed up by having them tell me about the previous day's festivities.

Rather, a high-pitched "Oooooh!" came from the class and they smiled and competed with each other to tell the big news: "Sonya tried to die in the bathroom."

"Do you know what you just said?"

"Yes!" said Alisa, and held up Sonya's arm. She had an inch-and-a-half scar on her wrist. Sonya laughed in embarrassment and a few tears came from her eyes. My eyes got to be the size of dinner plates, which only contributed to the laughter sweeping the room, as I realized that they weren't making this stuff up.

I started doing what any good Russian would do in a situation such as this, and started shouting. "TIKHA! Ob etom nyelzia smeiatsia! Eta ochin seriozna!" (QUIET! About this it is forbidden to laugh! It's very serious!")

After a minute of silence, I tried a different English warm-up exercise and I went on with my lesson.

I told Sonya to stay afterwards and tried to get her to tell me why she'd done it. She didn't want to say. I hugged her and said in a confused mixture of Russian and English. "Sonya, you can't do this. You're like a little sister to me. You'll make me very sad if you do this again and everyone will be very sad. Please promise me you won't do it again!"

She promised.

"You have to talk to someone about this," I said. "You need help!"

"Who?" she asked.

I really didn't know the answer to that question myself. Ukraine has a state-run health-care system, but there are few charities that address mental health issues. Most American schools have the phone numbers for "counseling hotlines" printed on posters on bulletin boards that desperate teens can call for advice. I had never heard of such a service in Ukraine, but I didn't know that it did not exist. I went home and called the Peace Corps office in Kiev to see if they could help.

Across a scratchy phone line, I said, "One of my students tried to kill herself!"

The Peace Corps Medical Officer on the other end said, "What, one of your students tried to kill you?"

"No," I said, "she tried to kill herself!" and then I explained everything I'd seen. The PCMO or "Peace-MO" as we volunteers called medical officers listened to what I said, and she said, "It doesn't sound like it was a serious attempt, but it was a definite cry for help."

From there began a search for some kind of a counseling service I could tell Sonya to call. The staff in Kiev tried, but didn't come up with much.

Calling Kiev for help usually resulted in a comedy of useless paperwork. Kiev was 500 km from Dniprorudne, and the Peace Corps staff did not know much about the area I was living in. There were 250 volunteers around the country, which was the size of Texas, and with 30 staff members, there wasn't that much they could do to help us with a problem. They were responsible for our safety, but the only thing that they could do was pull us from the site if harassment got too bad. Unless you needed money or prescription drugs sent to you, or you were so sick that you needed hospitalization, there wasn't much point in calling for help.

After several hours, a staff member from Kiev did call me back and gave me a phone number I could call in Zaporozhye, the regional capital 80 km away. The number was for an emergency psychiatric clinic. I decided to test this number myself, and I tried to explain the situation to the woman who picked up. She was very impatient with me and hung up on me mid-sentence.

I sat in my apartment in astonishment. The suicide hotline had just hung up on me.

I called back and started shouting. "Listen, woman! A 13-year-old girl has tried to kill herself! She needs to talk to a counselor! Is there someone near my city whom she can talk to?"

The answer was no.


The answer was a reluctant yes.

I hung up and decided not to pass that number along and I tried a more local search. I called Nelli Mikhailovna at home. I said, "My heart stopped today! I saw Sonya's wrist."

She said, "I know! I told her mother that she needs a psychiatrist! She's beyond the kind of help that teachers can give."

"Do you know why she tried it?" she asked.

"I don't know. Some kind of rugaltestvo (rude talk) with her friends," she said.

Nelli Mikhailovna promised to keep in touch with Sonya's mother. Eventually I talked to the town priest and found out that our town's hospital did, in fact, have one mental health counselor, and he thought she was pretty good. I went to the hospital and talked to her, and she said she'd be willing to talk with Sonya if she came. I got her phone number and then passed it along to Sonya the next day at school. I don't know if she ever went to see the counselor, but her mood did improve over the next several months. I felt the life in me rise a little bit each time I saw her.

I made regular stops in Nelli Mikhailovna's to ask her about Sonya, who did not do anything self-destructive after that. As I got to the end of my time in Ukraine, my Russian improved to the point where I could actually get to know her a little better. She lived alone. She had been divorced for some years from her husband. Her one daughter made it to adulthood, but she died in childbirth, and her grandchild was stillborn. She told me that she loved having the children in her class to look over – they provided her with something to focus on other than the grief. As I learned more Russian, Nelli Mikhailovna was able to tell me more about the students who came to my lessons. Alisa, Sonya and Katia, and the other girls who the most active at my lessons came from homes without fathers. Nelli Mikhailovna used a word I didn't understand to describe Alisa's mother, so I gave her my pocket dictionary to find another Russian word I might be able to translate. She found "aristocrat," which I don't think was what she meant, but she went on to say that Alisa and her mother had a very proper, overly gentle way of living, making Alisa prone to overreacting to misbehavior by her classmates. Vika, on the other hand, did have both parents in the home, although she did not live in town, but in a neighboring village. Whenever I held an extra optional lesson in the afternoon, attending it meant that she would miss the early bus back home. (The municipal bus – there are no school buses in Ukraine.) But, she liked my lessons enough to endure the inconvenience.

Ten months after Sonya's suicide attempt, my time in the Peace Corps was up. I did have the option of extending my service a year, and I seriously considered it for two reasons. One is that I wanted to continue teaching Nelli Mikhailovna's students. The other was that I had wanted to do more work for people in need in Ukraine. The Peace Corps had encouraged us to come up with secondary projects, and I had thought that I would start an anti-drug education program for children or come up with some kind of income-generating work for poor people. I had been encountering the awful Russian word nyelzia in response to my ideas, which means both "it is forbidden" and "it is not possible." This word epitomizes Slavic pessimism, but I thought that if I pushed for another year, we could start something positive outside of my teaching.

I eventually decided to leave because I was getting exhausted. I was lonely and unable to make friends my own age to relax and have fun. (I did make one friend near my age, but I kind of suspected he worked for the Ukrainian Security Service, meaning I had to behave really well when he was around.)

As much as I hated to leave the students, going back to the United States when they were 9th formers was the right thing to do. When they were 7th formers, they were 12 years old and at the height of their creativity before "coolness" set in. When they were 14, they didn't receive my lessons as well as they used to. One of my problems as a teacher was a certain childishness in my instruction style that depended a great deal on play-acting and songs. Younger children loved these games, but teenagers just didn't connect with my goofball tendencies. I had to accept my limitations with some humility and with thanksgiving. I wasn't Mother Theresa, but I was really glad that I had known these kids. I hoped that just by being myself, that would have some kind of positive effect on them. It was a vaguer result than I had hoped, but it was what I had.

A month before I left, I did come up one lesson that they did connect with well. I got the idea out of the news: Hurricanes.

No hurricanes ever threatened Ukraine, but I had always thought they were interesting systems. My older sister had thought them intriguing enough to become a meteorologist. I had heard on the BBC World Service that Hurricane Isabel was threatening North Carolina and Virginia, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to give them a brief science lesson and to teach them some English words about hurricanes.

"Repeat after me: Hurricanes are very interesting!" I said.

"Hurricanes are very interesting," they replied.

"Hurricanes are very dangerous." They repeated that, too. We went through an assortment of words like "eye," "eye wall," and "storm surge," and I drew a picture of a hurricane with counter-clockwise rotation on the board.

Then, I asked them, "What is a meteorologist?"

One girl answered, "It's a man who studies the weather."

"Correct!" I said. "But today, it's going to be a woman who studies the weather. You are going to write a dialog between a young meteorologist and her parents. They are having a holiday on the beach, and on the news, a hurricane warning has been announced. The young meteorologist is a 14-year-old girl who wants to stay and watch, and the parents are worried about safety."

They worked for 10 minutes. One group came up with:

Young meteorologist: I want to see the hurricane!
Father: It's a bad idea. I don't allow you to stay here.
Mother: Father is right. It's very dangerous.
Young meteorologist: But, father, it's very interesting. It is necessary for my work.
Father: I said -- NO! You may die!
Mother: We don't want to lose you! We love you so much!
Young meteorologist: I stay here and point. I want to see a hurricane.
Father: We may go now! The hurricane is here!
Young meteorologist: A-a-a-a!

And another group came up and offered a dialog that had more words:
Father: It's a bit cloudy today, isn't it? I think there will be the hurricane here soon.
Young meteorologist: Yes, I think so, I heard the message on the radio. It will be great! Hurricane! Yahoo!
Father: We should better go away from here. I don't want to be like in a washing mashine.
Young meteorologist: I am a young meteorologist, I dream to see it for the whole of my life. Don't discriminate brave meteorologist. It will be fantastic: eye, eye wall, and the great storm surge.
Father: You'll sit in the car or we'll leave you here. Who's the master, I said? That's for you to decide, but remember it will be dangerous... a little.
Young meteorologist: Oh, it's always like that.

What amazed me most about these dialogs was that they were remarkably accurate to what had actually happened. When I was 12, my family was planning to visit Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 1991, but we heard in the news that Hurricane Bob was on its way, and the authorities issued evacuation orders. My sister, Julia, was absolutely incensed that we weren't staying to watch nature's fury. Coming up with the proper response to this tantrum wasn't exactly hard for my parents. "NO!" (Julia is now a forecaster for the National Weather Service.)

I was glad that I had been able to pick a lesson that connected to something on the news. Whenever anything bad happens in America – natural disaster or moderate accident – the Russian and Ukrainian news channels cover it in great detail. Usually, something like five to ten people were killed in these incidents, and not really relevant to Eastern Europe, but the fact it was happening in America seemed to make it more newsworthy. I never could decide if the reason that they did this was because they could get dramatic footage from CNN without having to research it themselves or if it was to say, "God will punish America in its greatness." A couple of days after I gave that lesson, Yanna Yurievna, the mother of Anton, one of my students, found me on the street and said that her family had been watching the news when a story about Hurricane Isabel had come up. Anton spoke up and said, "Mama! This is what we learned about in English class! It's a wall of water!"

I knew that I would miss the children and for a while I considered asking for an extension in my service. But I knew that I had to let go. I went home, and I kept up with the students through letters. Vika and Alisa got in to good universities in Kharkov and Kiev. Sonya changed schools, and her classmates didn't have any information to pass on about her.

After three years in the U.S., I did go back for a visit. Katia came to meet me for lunch in Kiev. In the time I had been gone, the Wisconsin International University had opened a branch campus in Kiev and offered Katia a full-ride scholarship to attend. If she finished the program, she would emerge with an accredited bachelor's degree, a particularly valuable prize as there was only one other university in Ukraine that provided a bachelor's degree that would be recognized if you wanted to go to graduate school in Britain or the United States. All of the instruction was in English, and she said she was able to understand the professors pretty well. She said she really liked it.

She also filled me on another piece of news that made me happy: Nelli Mikhailovna had remarried.

© Copyright 2020 tallestcousin. All rights reserved.

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