Authors: Paul M. Levitt
“The person who teaches Russian history at the school is a Stalinist,” said Brodsky. “I wouldn’t cross him if I were you. Let him teach whatever rubbish they poured into his head at teacher’s college.” He paused, lit another cigarette from the former, inhaled deeply, and sighed as he expelled the smoke. “Teachers’ colleges! Now there’s an oxymoron. Such places don’t teach; they engage in soul murder. What’s their subject matter? Pedagogy? Utter nonsense. The thousands of books and essays on the subject can be reduced to one good monograph, nothing more. These schools are fraudulent, wherever they occur, here or in the West. Unfortunately, a majority of your teaching staff come from them. The few who are actually knowledgeable hold degrees in science, mathematics, and linguistics. In the entire school there isn’t a single teacher of literature who knows how to read a novel or a play or a poem. All they do is summarize plots and talk foolishness about rounded characters and class struggle. And even if a book is imbued with class struggle, once you point it out, what more is there to say? Are you going to use the book as an occasion to hold forth on the divinity of Marx and Lenin, and to lecture on the defects of capitalism and the virtues of socialism? And supposing all your pronouncements are true, what have they to do with the book? A book is its own truth.”
The inadequate lighting from the two floor lamps in the sitting room was made all the dimmer by the tobacco smoke suspended in the airless room. Sasha could smell the nicotine on his skin and clothes. He wanted to run outside and feel the cleansing wind pass over him. When he heard rain spattering the small cottage windows, he relished the thought of standing in a downpour and having his clothes washed by what his mother used to call heaven’s tears. Instead, he stood and examined some of the books in the room, turning pages and noting some of Avram’s marginalia. At last, enough time had elapsed for him to make a polite exit, which he did, putting his face up to the rain and thinking of the adage: Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.
That evening, he requested the train master send a cable to Galina: “Come at once. The school needs you.” Although he had initially offered her a job for the spring, the fall term would shortly begin, and he knew he could use her immediately. If the other teachers wondered about this hasty appointment, he could win them over with the promise of lightened clerical work. In the fall, Galina could manage the front office and, in the spring, move into a classroom. He would arrange a school for Alya and lodging for Galina. In fact, she could, if she wished, share his farmhouse. He would gladly partition it, giving her an equal amount of space. The important thing was that she function as his eyes and ears, write the numerous reports required by the local Soviet, and relieve the current secretary, a sickly woman, ambient with anxiety over her many tasks. He asked Galina to respond at once. Fearing she would say no to his importunate request, perhaps because of her having to estrange herself from Viktor, he was delighted to receive a response the next day that said: “Will arrive Saturday next. Bring a wagon to the station. We have baggage. Appreciatively, Galina.”
She had neglected to say whether she would be arriving on the morning or afternoon train. So Sasha paced the platform from 9:30 a.m. to 4:22 p.m. It was a velvet day, with the leaves already starting to paint the forest in fiery yellows, oranges, and golds, the fall colors that brought travelers from afar to see the trees ablaze in chlorophyll wonder. Galina exited with bags and her daughter in a shower of sunshine, as if descending from heaven in a halo of light. Sasha hoped it was a good augury.
Hugging them both, he helped carry their bags past the small station house to the clearing behind, where he had parked the school’s old Model T truck that was mostly garaged because it suffered from age and a shortage of parts. Sasha crossed his fingers that the vehicle would make it back to the school without incident. The three of them strapped the luggage on the flatbed and climbed into the open cab. An accommodating farmer cranked the motor, knowing to cup the crank in his palm so that if the engine kicked back, the violent twisting would not break his wrist or his thumb. Sasha handed the farmer a few coins, honked the horn, winked at Alya, and took off in a cloud of blue exhaust. Drat! He had neglected to bring goggles for his guests to protect them from the dust of the roads. He wore a pair that made him look like a deep-sea diver. The dusty roads were also deeply rutted, and tested the springs of any vehicle. Sasha made it a point to ease around the furrows and drive with one side of the car on the smooth sides of the embankments.
They passed a lake that assured good fishing, but that would come later, Sasha promised. Avoiding any blowouts—the tires were bare!—Sasha made it back to the school in record time. He explained the housing situation, dire as it was throughout the Soviet Union, and offered to give Galina and Alya the farmhouse while he slept in a classroom that had, for some inexplicable reason, been home to an adipose couch. Galina seemed conflicted, but Alya begged that he join them in the farmhouse so that he could teach her how to play chess and could flip her in the air.
“We’ll see,” he said, “but first we have to carry the luggage inside, and you have to unpack.”
He had told Galina about his willingness to divide the house, especially in light of her smoking. She said she was quitting. He frowned skeptically. Once the family had unpacked, Galina offered to make everyone dinner. Sasha readily accepted, given his execrable cooking. He showed her the larder, which was more plentifully stocked than her own flat in Ryazan, and opened a bottle of wine, of a local manufacture. They clicked glasses, toasted her new life, and watched Alya run off to the barn and the hayloft.
Grudgingly, Galina remarked, “She’ll love it here.”
“We’ll just have to see.”
She donned an apron he kept in the kitchen, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and prepared the trout that he had bought for the occasion. He watched as she deftly salted, peppered, and dipped the fishes in a mixture of eggs and milk, and rolled them gently in bread crumbs. Then she made black tea. For dessert they had blackberries and yogurt.
“I must admit,” he said aimlessly stirring his tea, “I didn’t think you’d come . . . not now . . . not until spring.” Pause. “Why did you?” Pause. “My saying I needed you wasn’t the reason, was it?”
Through the kitchen window they could see Alya agilely climbing down a rope from the hayloft. Galina pointed and replied, “That’s the reason. I grew up in the country . . . among horses. . . . I wanted the same for Alya.” She looked imploringly at Sasha. “You won’t mind if we have a horse?”
In Ryazan, he had talked about the school and its former mission . . . and of course about the horses. Now she wanted one for her daughter. “Would a pony do?” Sasha asked. It would require less work and feed. But Galina knew equines. She would use her free time to look over the pasturage in the countryside, where she could both acquaint herself with the environs and evaluate the horseflesh. Then she’d decide. Her independence both frightened and excited Sasha, but where would it all lead?
When he introduced Galina to the teaching staff—five men, five women—they were seated in the smoking lounge, arrayed in a semicircle, with Sasha and his “woman,” as she soon came to be called, at the front. Sergei Putin, the groundskeeper and handyman, was also present. A factotum, he immediately smiled ingratiatingly at Galina. The instructors, all but one graduates of teaching colleges, were filled with theories about “active” learning, class indoctrination, love of the motherland, alternation of subjects to keep boredom to a minimum, weekly testing, circular seating, and the use of printed questions (which never changed from one semester to the next) to ready students for each class. Writing assignments were usually descriptive—“How I spent May Day”—rather than analytical or argumentative. His staff would have to be schooled in writing arguments, not plot summaries.
The teachers lodged in Balyk, some with other families, some in their own modest homes. Filatov had mentioned the advantages of housing the faculty in a single building, but given the shortage of funds, that project would have to wait. All but one of the male teachers were married, and their spouses self-employed: in stitchery, baking, wine making, and the like. Semen Sestrov’s wife was a painter specializing in miniature watercolors. None of the women teachers had married. Sasha’s roster read as follows.
Astafurov, Leonid (Greek and Latin)
Budian, Mikhail (Marxism)
Glinski, Pavel (World History)
Kotko, Benedik (Russian Literature)
Sestrov, Semen (Russian History)
Chernikova, Vera (Chemistry)
Levanda, Elena (Fine Arts)
Oborskaia, Olga (Physics/Math)
Petrowa, Irina (Biology)
Rusakova, Anna (French/German)
Sasha pictured his faculty as animals and plants. Leonid was anything but leonine. He was a hunched prairie dog with two large front teeth. Mikhail taught and looked like a wolf. Pavel’s fat cheeks reminded him of an inflated frog, and Benedik, with his unruly beard and nose sprouting black hairs, brought to mind a porcupine. Semen, who fastidiously attended to his dress and appearance, was called “the rose.” The women, too, resembled fauna and flora. Vera, tall and thin, recalled a giraffe; Elena, she of the delicate hands, an orchid; Olga, he swore, could have passed for a wild boar, including the protruding tusks; Irina Petrowa, the dissecting artist, had the instincts of a hyena, always scavenging; and sweet Anna, the lilac, always arrived at school pickled in perfume.
Reading the expressions and posture of his staff, Sasha saw a range of emotions regarding Galina, from “She’s here to spy on us” to “I’ll just wait and watch”; from “She’s quite a pretty woman” to “Clearly, she’s a harlot.” To relieve the tension, Sasha explained that the current secretary, Mrs. Berberova, had long needed help in the office. Galina would oversee enrollment applications, student transcripts, state financial aid, housing arrangements (most of the students boarded with local families or commuted), and counseling. In the spring, she would assume additional responsibilities, academic ones, as she was qualified to teach Russian grammar, which staff members found onerous, and French language and literature.
Anna, currently teaching French, asked, with downcast eyes, “In the spring, am I to give up my spot for
“No, Galina will teach beginning French, and you the advanced courses. I am sure Galina can learn a great deal from you.”
A satisfied Anna relaxed her shoulders and settled back into her chair. She even swept her wispy hair from her face.
Vera sat stiffly and pouted. Never one to speak directly, she struck poses. Sasha asked her to state her concern.
“Will the teaching staff still have the final say about admissions or will
Vera conspicuously sighed in relief.
Sergei, he of the oily smile and bad breath, wanted to know whether Devora Berberova would still be in charge of the financial transfers that came from the state to the school. He seemed to be in her thrall. Sasha suspected that she occasionally dipped into money that belonged to the school. How else to explain the costly gifts that the gossipers said she showered on Sergei?
“I am introducing a new accounting system,” replied Sasha, “one that Galina is familiar with.”
She glanced at him skeptically but did not question his statement, though she did remark that she regarded the school as exceptional owing to the outstanding qualifications and dedication of the teaching staff. Sasha suppressed an ironic cough, since he had already told Galina that both the staff and curriculum needed overhauling.
“Where will you be living?” asked Semen, who always had an eye for a pretty woman.
When Galina glanced at him, Sasha feared that he’d have to answer the question mincingly, but a second later she bravely spoke up:
“At the moment, as you know, I am staying in the farmhouse, which is not a satisfactory arrangement. But the director intends to have a wall built and make two living quarters out of one, for privacy and decency. Have you a better suggestion?”
A flustered Semen, not expecting a question in return, acknowledged the shortage of housing and said that the director’s plan sounded reasonable to him.
“Any further questions?” asked Sasha.
“Just one,” replied Elena. “Will my counseling duties be curtailed? I am, after all, the only one on staff, who holds three degrees, in psychology, art history, and education.”
Whatever the occasion, Elena never failed to tout her three degrees, even though her sclerotic personality made her an ineffective counselor. The students much preferred talking to Devora Berberova, who had about her a genuine warmth. Teachers and students alike often lodged complaints; thus the eventual announcement that Galina would be sharing the counseling was greeted enthusiastically.
The group then recessed for tea and biscuits, after which Galina absented herself, and Sasha took the occasion to revisit his ideas about academic standards.
“When classes begin, I trust that we can overcome our old habits. Instead of asking the question ‘how,’ we should be asking the question ‘why.’ Why, for example, does Macbeth fall prey to the inducements of his wife? The how question can lead only to summary, not analysis. In science, for example, instead of asking for the names of phyla and taxonomies, give the students that information, and then make them apply it. Take vertebrates, five classes of them, right, Irina?”
“Asking students to repeat fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals accomplishes little. Better to give them the list and ask why reptiles are included. We would, then, be testing not whether they had memorized the list, but whether they could apply to snakes the characteristics of vertebrates: spinal cord, central nervous system, internal skeleton, muscular system, and brain case.” Sasha paused and looked around, noting his colleagues’ discomfort. “I realize it’s a seismic shift to move from how to why, but unless you have a better suggestion, I can see no other way to teach our students to extrapolate and think critically. Can you?”