Mr. John and the Day of Knowledge

An excerpt from Chapter one in "Singing on the Heavy Side of the World"

By John Deever - Peace Corps Volunteer: Ukraine (1993-1995)

I can imagine how a high diver must feel standing at the tip of the board, poised on the balls of his feet. His toes hanging over the edge, he is finally in place, pausing to take one last breath before leaving solid certainty to twist off into the sky and fall, tumbling downward with as much grace and style as he can muster. That's how it feels: the first day of school. Even as a student, but more so as a teacher, at the beginning of a school year I have always been obsessed with the sensation that I'm about to fall and everyone is watching.

I had arrived, just two days before, in the central Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, following only a quick get-organized visit a month earlier and with little preparation for the first week of teaching. It would be my first morning at School 23 with students whom I would spend the next two years teaching English. I tried to squelch my quiet but nagging fear of failure.

Outside the front doors at least a hundred children milled around, waiting. The boys wore uniforms?brown or navy suits, some with a patch on the arm, all looking faded and worn. Many of them had outgrown the trousers of their school uniforms since the year before; spindly legs poked out beneath their cuffs to reveal white socks. The girls wore brown skirts, brown long-sleeve blouses, and lacy pinafores, some with bows or puffs of lace atop their heads. The youngest looked like Shirley Temple dolls... In clumps these young women huddled, chattered, and welcomed each other after a summer apart. Playful younger boys ran screaming through the crowd, chasing each other and bumping into other children, who screamed back.

Everywhere moved the blur of rustling flowers. Most children, who customarily brought teachers great bunches of bouquets to show their gratitude for being taught, held droopy yellow daffodils or stiff pink carnations. A few gripped white tulips or a trio of red roses in a cloud of baby's breath and fern, while others held heavy lavender camellias or the occasional dahlia. The solemn drabness of the children's uniforms was hidden in the splash of bright flower colors.

A teacher, visible only as a head and shoulders floating in a mass of children, herded the mob to the schoolyard out back. I slipped into the stream, hoping to see someone I knew. Many of them had heard about me, it seemed?little girls pointed and giggled, covering their smiles with their hands. I heard one boy whisper, "Amerikanets!" before scurrying into the crowd.

Then a mop-headed boy of maybe eight, bolder than the rest, stopped in front of me and planted his feet apart like a cowboy ready to draw. He held up his hand, waved it wildly, and shouted, "Khhhello!"

I smiled back and said, "Hello."

The children around him squealed with laughter, their eyes as wide as if a man from Mars had spoken. Frozen with panic, the boy stared me in the face a second?then hooted loon-like and dashed off.

September First, the Day of Knowledge, was a national holiday in the former Soviet Union. Now, beginning the second school year since Ukraine's declaration of independence, Soviet rituals had changed little. They had, however, taken on a new tint: The blue-and-yellow bars of the Ukrainian flag waved from the building of this highly regarded downtown school, which for decades had trained the province's communist officials and later their children.

The principal, a small, stern woman named Nina Volodimirivna, whose whole top row of teeth was pure gold, approached the podium. The mike whistled. In a bold, very loud voice, Nina Volodimirivna proudly welcomed parents, teachers, and children in sentences mostly incomprehensible to me, with my 10 weeks of rudimentary language training. I did recognize the Ukrainian words for "glory," "studious," and the "Great Nation of Ukraine."

At the end of the speech the crowd applauded. "Kolya! Annya!" the principal ordered. "Come here." It was time for the annual ritual Ringing of the First Bell, and from the crowd emerged a senior boy holding the hand of a first grader, a tiny girl of six. After a few more ceremonial words, Nina Volodimirivna handed the girl a large hand bell. The young man lifted her onto his shoulder and began to parade around in a space the crowd had made for them. From the loudspeaker above blared a Slavic-sounding march. Held atop the boy's shoulder, the girl used both hands to ring her heavy bell while the crowd cheered.

I looked around for Svetlana Adamovna, my counterpart teacher. According to the official Peace Corps plan, we were to assess the school's development needs together and come up with strategies for improving English education at School 23. On the first day of school, Svetlana Adamovna had told me, I would simply watch.

In the crowd I spotted her tall, white beehive of a hairdo. She carried a bundle of flowers bigger than most and was busy welcoming the parents and children. The children congratulated her by shouting, "Z Prazdnikom"?"greetings on the holiday"?before handing over more big bundles of flowers and dashing off. I greeted her likewise, and her clear blue eyes widened happily when she saw me. "I wish you Happy First Bell," she pronounced in her high, birdlike voice. She was dressed neatly, the pleats in her long skirt carefully pressed, her tanned cheeks streaked with bright rouge. I was glad I had worn a suit and tie.

The ceremony was breaking up, and the children, a few still carrying flowers, pushed and shoved roughly, charging to their first class. When we got inside and out of the crush of small bodies, Svetlana Adamovna invited me to join her for the First Lesson.

The First Lesson had become something of a headache for teachers at this school, she explained. In the past, she said, the lesson covered a few school procedures, but focused mainly on the life of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov?Comrade Lenin, or "Grandpa Lenin," as people now joked. The "Lenin lesson," as Svetlana Adamovna called it, began the school year on a patriotic note: It gave students pride in their motherland. I didn't interrupt, although I wondered which motherland she meant?the U.S.S.R. or Ukraine. I got the impression she felt somewhat lost without the traditional lesson she had taught on this day for more than 20 years. The way Svetlana Adamovna spoke of the Lenin lesson as promoting love of country, a sense of duty, and a commitment to work reminded me of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. She still had phonograph records dramatizing legendary episodes in the youth of Lenin, who, like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, could not tell a lie. Now, Lenin would no longer do: In Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev, his statues had been toppled (although his grim statue still stood tall in Zhitomir's central square).

For Ukrainian teachers, not only Lenin but many other Russian images, symbols, and patriotic ideas were now off-limits. The state law that mandated a political First Lesson had not been discarded with Ukrainian independence; only the object of idolatry had changed. Teachers were instructed to glorify the blue-and-yellow flag, the "Tryzub" or trident, and the "Greatness of the Ukrainian People"?nationalist symbols and ideas that, ironically, might have earned jail time 10 years earlier. In a revolution from below, such a moment might have been glorious, as the old power got what it deserved and new leaders were installed on the throne. But not many Zhitomirans had agitated for independence, which had brought them economic disaster.

Svetlana Adamovna, at least, said as much. With a scowl of disgust she winced in scorn at the blue-and-yellow flag. "What greatness of the Ukrainian people?" she snorted. "I don't see this anywhere around me." She found it unbelievably strange and sad that the October Revolution of 1917, Red Square in Moscow, and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) now belonged to the history of a foreign country. So much she had been proud of was Russian. I asked her naively what she planned to teach for the First Lesson instead.

"Oh, I'll teach what I must," she sighed. "What else can I do? I'll play a record."

I followed her to a room on the first floor, where her students were already in their seats. As we entered, they abruptly stood up at their desks. There must have been at least 40, all between the ages of eight and 10. I took an empty seat at the back, hoping to observe quietly, but the children's eyes were on me.

When Svetlana Adamovna said "Good morning!" in precise Queen's English, the children turned in their desks to face her. In the collective bark of a long-drilled army platoon, they answered loud and clear: "Good morning, Dear Teacher!" If she meant to startle me, it worked.

Svetlana Adamovna welcomed her class of fourth graders to the new school year. She already knew everyone, having taught them English the previous two years. In a sunny, energetic voice, she began asking questions about Ukraine, quizzing the children to see what facts they knew. Our capital is Kiev, they told her. The Dnieper River "washes its banks" someone added. The sarcophagus of Yaroslav the Wise is in St. Sophia's cathedral, a boy volunteered. "Raise your hand," Svetlana Adamovna reminded. The children sat up very straight, with arms crossed on their desks; when one wanted to speak, his or her right arm popped up perpendicular like a semaphore's, trembling in eagerness to answer. Our country has 52 million people, a girl noted. The area of Ukraine is larger than France, said another. A boy said: Zhitomir is eleven hundred years old.

Svetlana Adamovna was an excellent teacher. On the first day of school, she subtly shepherded her class back to habits they had lost over the summer, giving reminders of how the game of school is played. Without any notes whatsoever, she let the children supply the material, then combined the knowledge in a few heads to add up to a lesson's worth for all. Without any explicitly scripted lecture?disdaining the subject even!?she directed discussion, generated questions, and conveyed information. I vowed to remember her method.

I also noted how obedient the children were. Maybe it was first-day excitement, I thought, hoping I was wrong. If they were used to that level of discipline, my life would be much easier.

When Svetlana Adamovna put on an old and well-used phonograph record, another Ukrainian march pranced happily along. It occurred to me that this music must have been officially approved in Soviet times (and therefore sanitized of real nationalism) or a teacher like Svetlana Adamovna would never have possessed it. The children listened with some interest at first, but their attention began to wander, and they started whispering, then talking, pointing toward me. Svetlana Adamovna noted the lapse and stopped the record. The period was only half over.

"Now, children," she said in Ukrainian, "you have the special chance to practice your English. You are going to meet and talk to a real American." Then she waved at me to come to the front of the room, switching to English to say, "This is our new teacher of English, Mr. John."

Mr. John was to be my formal title. In Ukraine (and Russia ) teachers must be addressed by first name and the patronymic form based on one's father's name: Svetlana Adamovna, Galena Vasilievna, Nina Volodimirivna. As elders and figures of authority, teachers were to be respected; both names had to be used at all times. When I told the staff that my patronymic would be "Davidovich" there were howls of laughter. Too odd-sounding ... the name would seem funny to the children, they said. "John" would be too informal, and "Mr. Deever" was difficult for them to say. Thus we settled on "Mr. John." At first my new name sounded silly to me, especially when ninth graders said it, but later even my Ukrainian friends (who normally called me John) addressed me formally in front of my students by saying, "Mr. John, may I speak to you?" "Mr. John" lost its connotations of day care and became a title I held with pride. It conveyed some of my specialness there, and I liked that. Eventually I caught myself using it in class to refer to myself in the third person: "Mr. John doesn't like when you talk while he's talking," "Mr. John likes to hear all of you sing," or "Mr. John has a headache today."

On that first day of school, the pupils were thrilled to try out their English, never mind what my name was. Svetlana Adamovna encouraged them to ask me questions, reminding me to answer slowly and clearly. The first brave boy stood up by his desk and said, "What is your father?"

I momentarily thought this was a philosophical riddle before recognizing it as a question about professions. "A professor of mathematics at the university," I answered. He squinted in confusion, nodded, and sat down. Svetlana Adamovna translated, and then he smiled. "What is your mother?" another asked. "A teacher," I said. They all understood that.

A girl raised her hand and said, "What are you?" I told her I was a teacher, too, and it seemed such a playful question that I asked her back: "And what are you?"

She had already sat down. When she realized my question was directed to her, she stood back up and went pale with fright. She looked to Svetlana Adamovna in helpless panic.

"Irichka, you know this!" her teacher chided. "What ? are ? you? I am a ?"

"Pupil!" shouted a triumphant boy in the back. "Pupil," Svetlana Adamovna repeated. Irichka stood back up and said, "I am a pupil."

Many others raised their hands frantically; I called on another boy. He stood up and said loudly, "I am a pupil!" One after another, children stood up and pronounced this phrase, continually repeating that statement of identity for what seemed like 10 minutes. I kept pointing to outstretched, waving hands until Svetlana Adamovna cut off one last child who'd been waiting to say, "I am a pupil." She urged the children to ask Mr. John questions.

Another boy, whose face had been squinched in concentration all this time, stood up. He said, "Do ? you ? have ? car?"

"A car," Svetlana Adamovna reprimanded. "Do you have a car." (She pronounced it "caahh" with no audible r.) The boy nodded and looked to me eagerly.

"I did have a car. I sold it before I came here." Everyone (including Svetlana Adamovna) looked puzzled. I realized that, after my few weeks of language training, I knew enough words to form that sentence into Ukrainian. I repeated "I sold my car," in Ukrainian. At the sound of my flat, American accent?but speaking their language?the children's eyes grew even wider.

A boy in the back shouted out in Ukrainian, "What kind of car?"

I told him a pickup truck, forgetting to make him speak English. The room bubbled with excitement now. I understood a little of their language. What they really wanted was to ask me genuine questions in Ukrainian. But Svetlana Adamovna scolded them and reminded me as well that we were to speak only English.

A child asked, "Do you have a mother?" I smiled and said yes. Perhaps they'd forgotten our discussion of professions already. I called on a pale girl who'd been silent until then, who asked, "Do you have a father?" Yes, I said again, a little impatiently. Thanks to the car question, the class had remembered a new sentence structure: "Do you have a sister?" "Do you have a grandmother?" "Do you have a cat?" "Do you have a dog?" I smiled like a candidate for mayor and answered each question as sweetly as I could. Until the boy who asked about my car said, "Do ? you ? have ? girl?" Mischievously I formulated an untactful answer in my head. If I speak quickly, I thought, not a soul in the room will catch what I'm saying.

Fortunately, Svetlana Adamovna interrupted and changed the theme, suggesting they try "Do you like ? ?" Hands went up everywhere again, and I called on each in turn, giving everyone a chance to speak. The children, as if practicing a substitution drill, asked about every animal, food, and place they could think of. When I answered yes to "Do you like borsch?" they cackled with laughter. Irichka then asked, "Do you like Zhitomir?"

Yes, I answered, yes. I did like Zhitomir.

They hardly cared what I said, so long as Mr. John looked them in the eye and responded. They liked to be called on and to speak English words, and hearing me answer yes or no was enough. The act of speaking to and understanding a foreigner in a foreign language was a magical experience. By the time the bell rang (a whole 20 minutes later), I was exhausted but happy.

For that group of children that year, the First Lesson was not about Lenin, and not even much about Ukraine . Instead, they saw what independence had brought to their school: a person from America who could talk with them. A person who had come to stay for a while.

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