07 Jun Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 1: Choosing a School
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Choosing a School
Our propiska address bound us to a school with instructions in Ukrainian, something that the majority of the population looked down on.
Rakhil had her heart set on the School No. 14 located a mile away, across the lane from the local market where she hired a peasant woman three times a year to do our big laundry. That school offered instructions in Russian and a reputation for exceptional teachers.
Avram’s subordinate, Abram Isayevich, one of the few Jews indigenous to pre-war Kurenevka, owned a house there; he entered my name into his register as his great-niece (that was all the propiska required for a property owner.)
His house consisted of a room equipped with a gigantic wood-burning stove, a rusted sink, and a tub on frog legs filled with firewood.
With a disclaimer “she is Ukrainian but not an anti-Semite,” Abram Isayevich introduced us to his outhouse-sharing neighbor, Maria Fyodorovna Kuznetsova, a first-to-fourth-grade teacher at my future school. (He had entrusted her his house for safekeeping during the war when he and his late wife, a nurse, were at the front.) A newspaper and a magazine weighted down the capacious pocket of her apron.
Rakhil confessed, shamefacedly, that I knew how to read but, luckily, did not know how to write. She absolutely agreed with the concept that children should not know how to read or write when they began school – the same starting point would ensure equal progress in the Soviet society. But she hoped that my obstinacy would not count against me. It was not every day that Rakhil sounded meek or contrite. Maria Fyodorovna pulled out the magazine and asked me to read from a random page. “She’ll be bored in first grade. I have the third grade this year, I’ll take her,” she concluded.
(Fourteen years later, the novel Babi Yar, wrung out by censorship, made her son, Anatoly Kuznetsov, famous. A teenager at the time of the Nazi occupation, he based his story on personal observations. Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he defected to England.)
Maria Fyodorovna assured us that the principal, Nikifor Fedotovich Naumenko, would not object to my jumping over two grades. He wanted advanced pupils; we might not have needed a false propiska. Makarenko’s student, he had unparalleled influence in the city school administration (Anton Makarenko, a revered Soviet educator, established self-supporting labor communes where he rehabilitated street urchins after the Russian Civil War.)
Nikifor Fedotovich, a juvenile delinquent whose life Makarenko had turned around, graduated from the Course of Agitators and Instructors of the Communist Party that transformed into a Communist University that transformed into the Supreme Party School. His vocabulary and grammar remained rudimentary.
A stocky unsmiling man with a potato nose and a lion roar, he knew every pupil by name and was universally feared and loved by them. When he stopped some hapless first-grader on the first floor for running, the tenth-graders on the third floor stopped running.
Nikifor Fedotovich guaranteed the authorities a model school to trot out to various delegations. For that he demanded, and received, full discretion in staffing and in pupil selection. He accepted children of intelligentsia—people with higher education or in managerial positions—children that resided outside the school’s district and turned away most children from uneducated families that resided in the school’s district.
Worse, he hired professors discarded by institutions of higher learning—Maria Fyodorovna did not utter cosmopolitan or Jewish but she didn’t have to. By all accounts, Nikifor Fedotovich earned the title of mensch.
Through blat—she worked at a garment factory, after all—Rakhil acquired brown wool for my school uniform, black wool for the everyday pinafore, white cambric for the holiday pinafore. Polina sewed the dress and both pinafores and crocheted lace embellishments for the white pinafore. For the first school day, she sewed the white over-collar and over-cuffs to the uniform, afterward it was my daily chore, not a favorite one.
The pinafores had folds on the bottom and on the handkerchief pocket and secreted fabric inside the belts to let out as I grew. The dress had a hem sufficient for three school years; after that, Polina went with a two-piece solution. She had to replace the top more frequently than the skirt because I inherited Avram’s tendency to sweat; Rakhil, like many Gnoyenskys, did not sweat at all.
(Antiperspirants entered the Soviet reality in the late 1970s, after our emigration. Limited to the black market in the beginning, the product quickly rose in status to the most desirable present for a girlfriend.)
First Days of School.
The calendar marked the First of September, the first school day, in red. Dressed-up parents escorted girls in white pinafores and boys in blue suits to school.
Our principal roared a speech in the school backyard. Teachers marched their pupils around the building and through the main lobby graced by a wall-size painting of a little girl presenting a bouquet of wild flowers to Stalin.
Sun lit up everything in the picture: the blue sky, the green meadow, the grandfatherly Stalin in white military attire, the girl’s shiny worshipping face, her white pinafore. The ceiling prevented Stalin from straightening up to his full height, so he looked squashed vis-à-vis the girl. I did not know then that in real life he was five-four but I doubt that the painter had intended to zero in on that fact.
Scrawny and short for my age I appeared even tinier next to third-graders. I had to contend with sneak shoves and braid pulls but I did not cry. I didn’t even cry when boys sat on my briefcase after pushing the non-spill inkwell into it after class.
The ink spilled inside and Rakhil called me a slob. When I placed the inkwell into the recess in the desk the next morning there was not enough ink in it to fill our pens but I never tattletaled to Maria Fyodorovna. In a few days, she handed me over to Maria Illarionovna Poplavskaya who taught the first grade that year.
“Be patient while we learn the alphabet, we’ll catch up in no time,” Maria Illarionovna whispered in my ear. “Do you know that the school has a library?”
Slight and soft-spoken, she became the second mother to us for four years. Rakhil insisted that I invite Maria Illarionovna to the graduation ceremony eleven years later and thank her in my speech as the most precious teacher in our lives.
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