Saturday, September 3, 2016

School, Part 1

A second installment in my autobiographical series:

The Soviet school year started on September 1st, unless that day fell on a Sunday. Our school had about a thousand students, all of whom stood grouped by class in front of the building on opening day, dressed in holiday uniforms and holding flowers.

Uplifting speeches were made out front, but instead of listening to them we told each other all the new jokes we'd heard over the summer. Before puberty these jokes, called anekdoty (anecdotes), were the most exciting things in my life.

The joy of hearing others laugh when I got to a punchline was overwhelming, and the kids who most often told jokes that I hadn't heard before seemed like the coolest ones in school to me.

I don't remember the vast majority of these "anecdotes" anymore, just their general types. There were ethnic ones, for which one would have probably been expelled from most Western schools of that time, but which everyone in the USSR told without fear and without anyone taking offense. There were jokes about Vasily Chapaev, a Civil War hero and the subject of a popular 1930s movie, jokes about Stierlitz, a Soviet spy from a 1970s TV series about the Great Patriotic War, jokes about Vovochka (little Vladdy), an extremely sexually precocious and inquisitive little boy, and many others.

Since there was no pornography anywhere, up until my late teens my entire stock of knowledge about sex came from these jokes. It was very hazy and incomplete.

When the speeches were over, we walked to our classroom, put the flowers in a great heap on the teacher's desk and took up our usual seats.

For the first three years all of our classes except for gym were taught by a single teacher - a tall, kindly, very proper middle-aged woman named Yevdokiya Gavrilovna. This name-patronymic combination sounds rustic and archaic to a Russian speaker's ear, but as I remember, there was nothing rustic about her as a person.

Starting in the fourth grade we got separate teachers for every subject, with the entire class walking to a new classroom during most breaks. The class itself, as well as the seating arrangement, tended to persist. Sometimes a kid left because his or her family moved to a different neighborhood and sometimes new pupils came in, but quite a few of the kids with whom I started first grade were still in my class in the eleventh.

The only kind of education with which I can really compare the Soviet school system of those years is the American one, in which I was briefly enrolled at the age of 17. The difference in quality was stark.

We studied quadratic equations at the age of 11, calculus at 15 and series at 16. Starting at age 13 we had to memorize dozens of Euclidean proofs and were often required to prove things on our own.

Rote memorization, which largely disappeared from Western education during the 1960s, was still very much alive in the USSR of my youth. We had to learn hundreds of classical 19th-century Russian poems by heart, some of them quite long. Pacing my room late in the evening, trying to learn a new poem, anxious that I wasn't going to finish it on time - this is a very familiar to me image of my younger self.

Ironically in view of the nature of my blog, the thing that I hated the most in school was writing literature papers. This often had to be done in class, in 45 minutes, or over the span of two periods. In spite of great efforts I wrote some of the shortest papers of any of us, rarely more than a page and a half. I remember our literature teacher viciously showing a paper of mine to the entire class as an example of what not to do.

There was no corporal punishment, but it was definitely OK for teachers to call us idiots. Which we often were of course. Parents could be summoned to school for stern talks and in the early grades kids could be sent to a corner of the room as punishment. And yes, I've stood in that corner.

The grading system was numeric. A 5 was equivalent to an American A, a 4 to a B, a 3 to a C and a 2 to an F. The grade of 1 (colloquially a pole, the kind on which criminals were impaled in the Middle Ages) was very rare and indicated a truly extraordinary level of stupidity. I was mostly a 4 student.

Grades were usually given in two ways: for tests and as a result of being called to answer in front of the class. A period usually started with the teacher looking at the roster and picking one kid to come up to the blackboard.

I grew up without God, but not without prayer. "Don't pick me, no, please, not me, not today" - silently in my mind of course. Some teachers sadistically lingered with their pens hovering over certain portions of the roster. We all looked attentively, knowing how far up or down the alphabet each one of our last names was located.

When your name was called, you had to prove yesterday's theorem on the blackboard or recite the assigned poem by heart or analyze a sentence or answer questions about the historical period which we were then studying.

A bit about that sentence analysis:

Every part of speech - nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. - had to be underlined in a specific way. For example, for some reason I still remember that adjectives required a wavy line. There were also ways to indicate the subject, the direct and indirect objects, modifiers and whatever else of that type that there might have been in a sentence chosen specifically for its ability to confuse an 11-year old. Even if you got all of that right, your grade might still have suffered because your handwriting wasn't good enough.

There was no multiple choice on tests. Math and science exams' problems were written in chalk by the teacher on the blackboard. Each desk seated two students, so to minimize cheating the teacher wrote two sets of questions, one for the right side of each desk and one for the left. We still sometimes managed to cheat by passing notes or looking over the shoulders of our smarter classmates.

One type of Russian language test was called a dictant. The teacher dictated a literary passage which we had to write down while trying to avoid spelling and punctuation mistakes.

Innumerable rules of punctuation were studied relentlessly. Sentences of immense complexity were invented to torture students and illustrate grammatical points. Of course now, as an adult, I punctuate entirely by feel both in Russian and English.

The only classes which boys attended separately from girls were shop and military preparedness. I know that girls were taught cooking and the like while we were in shop class, but where did they go when we were in military class? No idea.

Our military instructor, a retired officer and a very cool guy, explained the armed forces' command structure and equipment, taught us to assemble and disassemble an AK and supervised marksmanship tournaments. These involved airguns which looked like old hunting rifles and shot little lead pellets.

Together with our textbooks and notebooks each one of us carried a "diary" in his school bag. This was a thick booklet where we wrote each week's schedule of classes. Next to each class was a space where a teacher could put a grade if there was a test that day or if she had just called you to the blackboard.

Some kids altered these grades after the fact to fool their parents. There were kids crying after particularly hard tests. School mattered a lot to many. I never tried to alter a grade because my parents never asked to look at my diary. Of course they had a general idea of how well I was doing - neither badly nor very well. I take the fact that they didn't push me to study harder as evidence that my own lifelong lack of ambition was directly inherited from them.

Besides the diary, grades were entered into a "journal" - a tall, thin, classily-bound book which remained in the teacher's possession during a class. When we all walked to a new classroom, our journal was carried by a teacher's pet, almost always a girl.

The school year was divided into quarters. At the end of each one a teacher summed up your overall performance in his or her subject with a single grade. The same thing was done at the end of the year. There was one quarter sometime around 9th or 10th grade when I achieved an absolutely perfect level of mediocrity, getting a 4 in every one of 15 or so subjects.

Yet in spite of my inborn laziness and the famously demanding nature of Soviet education, I never hated going to school. In fact, I missed it all through the summers. I'll try to explain why in the next chapter.


  1. The Australian education system may be even more lax than the American, believe it or not.

    Could you write a post on conscription? Overall I'm in favour of it, I think it makes an interventionist foreign policy very difficult to execute.

    - Yevardian

    1. I think you're right about conscription. The US anti-war movement was a lot louder in the Vietnam era than it is now because lots of men feared that they'd get drafted.

  2. Calling students "idiots" is a very toxic thing for a teacher to do. Its sad if such ignorance was commonplace.