I grew up in the former Soviet Union. By the Soviet standards, I had a completely normal childhood. This short personal essay is about my homeroom teacher, an ardent communist, who left a lasting impression on me, although not necessarily a welcomed one.
Her name was Elizaveta Nikiforovna. It’s a mouthful, even if your mother tongue is Russian. We called her Liza, but never to her face. Nor did we call her madam or comrade, because madam was capitalistic, and comrade was falling out of fashion. It was the time when the Communist Party began to lose its grip on the nation, as its geriatric leader, Leonid Brezhnev, was losing power along with his teeth, becoming a fixture of numerous jokes circulating among average citizens, out of earshot of devout communists. The time was late 70s – early 80s: the era of five-year economic plans, the cold war, and the iron curtain was coming to an end. Yet up until 1991, when the Soviet Union finally ran aground, the Soviet propaganda permeated every aspect of our lives.
For seven years, from grade four to my graduation in grade 10, Liza was my homeroom teacher: the captain of our ship, our lord commander, our drill sergeant, our mother hen, our pastor, our tyrant, and our curse. She was a tall, skinny woman with a slight squint to her eyes and pursed lips, as if she disapproved beforehand of anything you might say, do, or think. Liza taught Ukrainian language and literature in our school, which was part of a small town community located in eastern Ukraine. An ardent advocate of everything Ukrainian, Liza was unrelenting in her desire to make us speak, think, and breathe Ukrainian. Her reading lists and assignments were not for the faint of heart. I did not share Liza’s linguistic enthusiasm, because the country’s official language was Russian, and my parents did not speak Ukrainian. Nevertheless, having read every book on the reading list and having memorized every piece of Ukrainian poetry ever written, I learned to appreciate the mellifluous cadence and richness of expression of the Ukrainian language. For that I am grateful.
In grade five, we learned that teaching us how to parrot Ukrainian poetry was not our teacher’s only passion. She saw her role much larger than that. “I will teach you how to love Motherland,” she used to utter fiercely, her chin up. She repeated it so often, it began to sound like a punch line, but I never dared to laugh: Motherland equaled the Party, and any mockery of the Party could bring about Liza’s rage and a visit to principal’s office. The Soviet school system developed many methods of teaching us how to love Motherland, and Liza pursued all of them with determination and fervor that could move mountains. In grade five, we were instructed to copy the Soviet Union Constitution by hand and learn it by heart. Every Tuesday, Liza held an hour on politics,and we were each to present a piece of political news that invariably praised the great achievements of the Soviet people and condemned the never-ending plotting against our country by its numerous enemies. When my name was called, I would read an article with expression in front of the class and get a nod of approval from Liza and a check mark in her journal. The only political information that seemed to have stuck with me though was mostly names: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher; according to the papers, they were miscreants who didn’t like our country very much.
There were also demonstrations – two in May and one in November – when we were to march in columns through the streets of my hometown to show our devotion to the communist cause. Again our teacher kept record of attendance in her journal, and skipping a demonstration was worse than skipping a class. Such transgressions could lead to expulsion from school and the Young Communist League (an organization that prepared youth to become full-fledged members of the Communist Party) with no prospects of university education or good employment; in other words, no future to speak of.
In the fall, when the air was getting crisp in the morning, and the trees in my hometown were awash in various shades of orange and red, it was time for us to harvest vegetables on the nearby collective farms. We were not paid for our work, but it was not volunteering either; rather, it was our duty to Motherland, and it was never to be questioned. The fields had their benefits though: for almost two months each fall, we were exempt from homework and tests and did not have to wear our tired brown uniforms. (Instead we could wear jeans, or, more precisely, pants that kind of looked like jeans with a plain label “made in USSR” or no label at all. One of my luckier friends, whose aunt worked at a department store and had access to imported goods, sported a pair of khaki cords featuring a nice leather label with black lettering “Wrangler” on the back. Oh, how we envied her…) Every morning a bus would pick us up from the school yard and take us to a collective farm. We would work until noon, have lunch, work for another four hours, and get back home by the same bus. As always, Liza chaperoned these trips and worked just as hard as we did.
Raised on a collective farm, my teacher adored physical labour. According to her, hard menial work made you a decent person. She extolled those who harvested more vegetables and exceeded daily harvesting quotas. She also insisted that we pick through the dirt bare handed. “You need to feel the earth,” she said, and we had to put aside the gloves our parents had packed to keep our hands warm and clean. In Liza’s view, callused hands with dirt stuck under fingernails were a badge of honour. My piano teacher was not impressed with the condition of my hands during the harvesting season. “Feel the earth?” she asked incredulously. “Why don’t you sneak some dirt into her gloves in the winter? That may teach her a lesson.” I never dared to follow through with my music teacher’s advice.
Once, having finished our day’s work, my four friends and I skipped the bus and walked back home. It was the end of October; the day was filled with sunshine, and we walked the road, enjoying the weather and the company of friends. We were old enough to work in the field, why couldn’t we enjoy the freedom that came with being an adult? This couldn’t have been further from the truth. The following day all hell broke loose. Liza was implacable in her fury. She called the five of us dissidents and rogues and threatened with suspension. Soon after, she paid my parents a visit to discuss my misbehaviour. At the end of the two-hour “interview,” when my mother thanked my teacher for being considerate and caring, Liza asked indignantly, “Are you going to let her off easy?” To which my mother replied, “Do you expect me to punish her right now in front of you?” Without saying good-bye, Liza stormed out of our apartment and slammed the door behind her. My mother never punished me for that transgression; she told me just to let go of it.
No doubt Liza took our walk home from the collective farm as an act of disobedience — a deadly sin not to be taken lightly. I think she looked at us as if we were broken and in need of correction and blamed our parents for not doing their job of instilling the right values and ideals in our heads. Small wonder we did not like our homeroom teacher very much. When we felt she was unreasonable in her demands, we feared and resented her, quietly resisting her autocratic power.
In grade 10, we held a potluck in our homeroom to celebrate the Soviet Army Day (February 23). Our mother hen was sick and could not join us. One of my classmates, a quiet girl, who was second to none at harvesting crops, brought a bottle of wine, which we all shared. Then someone shoved the empty bottle in a desk compartment meant for books, where the bottle stayed safely, until a student on cleaning duty unearthed the ill-fated thing right before our teacher’s eyes. At that fateful moment Liza was at her desk marking our homework. Unable to think of a better way to destroy the evidence, the boy on duty tossed the bottle out of an open window. Thankfully, he had enough sense to ensure that no one below was hurt.
The very fact that someone smuggled alcohol onto the school property drove our teacher into a frenzy. She wanted to know the name of the perpetrator and spared no effort to find out. The entire class was grilled for several days; we spent hours in detention in the following weeks. Other teachers and some of my classmates’ parents got engaged in the incident investigation, but our resentment of Liza’s rule bonded us stronger than crazy glue. We held our peace about the origins of the empty bottle until the end of the school year. I believe Liza never found out who had brought the wine.
Now, nearly two decades later, looking back at those events, I wonder how my life would have been different, had I not crossed paths with my homeroom teacher. For better or for worse, she left a lasting impression on me and influenced many a choice I had made in my life, often without my being aware of her influence. Maybe somewhere in the shadowy corners of my consciousness, there lurks a “Liza,” who comes out from time to time to tell me that I am a dissident and rogue, and that I will never amount to anything and never be good enough to meet her standards. It is not in my power to change or chase away the past. Yet I believe I do have a choice. I can get all angry and resentful about what that small nagging voice has to say. Or I can listen to its hidden advice, thank it for being considerate and caring, and just let go of it. I think I will stick with the second option.