Mandatory Russian Classes, Private French Lessons and The Fear I was an Idiot!

In Fifth grade we all were enrolled in Russian classes at school. The Mrs. Radulescu nightmare stopped after fourth grade and now we were old enough to have several teachers, for Romanian, math, physics, chemistry,  sciences,  music, sports and of course foreign languages, meaning Russian.  The Romanian alphabet is Latin, our language is one of the five Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portugese and Romanian).  Learning Russian didn’t come easy  to us, as they  use the Slavonic alphabet and letters which looked like they could be anything but what we were used to.  Above all, Romanians hated the Soviets and it wasn’t even clear to us, the children, that in fact our powerful neighbors, The Soviets where a bunch of countries with no connection among themselves which were conquered and placed after the World War II under the umbrella of the feared Soviet Union, our neighbor and pretend friend . We thought they were all Russians in that big country and didn’t know of Ukranians and Muslims and all the other many subgroups living in this huge artificially made country.  We knew  however, the Soviets took part of Moldova from us, and Chisinau, the town of my parents college years, was now part of that country and not Romania where it truly belonged. We were hearing stories of how Romanians in the newly formed  Soviet Republic of Moldova were persecuted and not allowed to use their language.

No, we did not like the Soviets and yet, here we were, every week, in school, like little soldiers, in our austere school uniforms,  we stood up when our Russian  teacher entered the classroom and in perfect unison, like a well-rehersed choir we shouted loud and clear: “Straizvuite Lydia Vladimirovna!” That meant “Good Day…” and then she answered in Russian and asked as to sit down.  Every week, we had lessons of Russians, every week for the next four years and all I remember is how to say good day! I have no other recollection of my Russian classes, but in parallel with my compulsory school classes, my mother decided to get me a private tutor and teach me French as well! I was going to be an erudite!  The French tutor was an older overweight woman with grey hair. Her story was, that she belonged to an Aristocratic family and after the communists took over, her family’s house, as many others, was confiscated by the state and given to families of the “people”, party members, the working class.  The original owners were allowed to keep just one room in their own homes and access their formerly private kitchens and bathrooms which now they were using jointly with the working class families. Most of the Aristocrats couldn’t find jobs commensurate with their fine education which was no longer appreciated or needed. Beside, they didn’t have what the Party called “a healthy origin”.  That meant parents who were uneducated workers or  Communist Party members who fought the former regime  and continued to support the “welfare of the party” through their actions. Under these circumstances, my French tutor’s only chance to survive was to go at students’ house and give private French lessons.  I was very touched by her story, however, that gut feeling I had about Annie’s ex, the heaviness in my gut, was always present when she came for our lesson. I knew, somehow I felt she disliked me, or us, or the fact that she, a former classy person, who had maids and never had to do anything, was now forced to travel from house to house and give lessons to all these communist brats. Probably in her mind my parents were part of what she hated most, the communists. The truth was, my parents were professionals forced to become communist party members to keep their jobs. They never spoke in meetings, they barely did what was required to hold on to their professions, as million other intellectuals were forced to do. But the French tutor didn’t know this and our lessons became more and more boring and tension filled. Sometimes she dosed of while I tried to read some Aesop fable in French and when I saw her asleep, as I read, I’d stop and start again the minute her eyes opened.  Then, she’d praise me and as I remember saying “good day” in Russian, I do remember “Bonjeur” in French. That was the extent of my knowledge in both languages.

After a while, my parents wanted to witness one of my tutoring sessions  in French and so they discovered I knew nothing, or so they told the tutor who after a year of weekly lessons was told not to come back. It was not working.  Was it me, was it the tutors?  My affinity to foreign languages was not my forte and “other qualities” needed to be found to put me on the right path of becoming an intellectual, someone worthy.  It was unconceivable that a child coming of such brilliant parents couldn’t speak either Russian or French! My parents looked worried… My math wasn’t that great either and my father, who was good at math, started tutoring me himself, to save money. What I remember of his lessons, where the blows I got to my head while being called “an idiot” every time I made a mistake. And I made many! His tutoring didn’t last long.

What to do with such a mediocre child? What’s going to happen to her? I heard my parents whisper. Yes, it seemed I was okay at reading and liked to write but where could that take me? Nowhere!  Then my mother, who I must say, was the most resourceful person I ever knew, discovered that I had some artistic talent at drawing and modeling in clay. She took me to the Bucharest School of Arts for Children.  There was a test involved. Tests were involved everywhere so I was getting used to them.  To everyone’s surprise I passed the tests and I started attending the Arts school twice a week, in addition to my regular classes. The goal however, was not that I’d become an artist, a painter of some kind, but my mother’s ambition was for me to be an architect, so drawing was important!  Never mind, my father’s conclusion that I was an idiot when he tutored me in math should have given her a hint…. Mother concluded he was the idiot and hired me a real math tutor. She was blonde and calm and always smiled. She had the patience of an angel and never called me an idiot, but many times I felt like one, when I had to re-calculate a formula over and over again until I was finally “getting it”.  However, her kindness and all the tutoring and activities prepared me for the real test, which was getting into High School, and not any High School, but St. Sava, the best in the country.

From my 8th grade classroom’s window,  at St Iosif,  I could see the austere building of St. Sava. The Fortress I had to conquor with my knowledge and prove to the world I was not stupid as so many of them implied.  Was I good enough? Was I better than the other hundreds of candidates who would compete for the less than a hundred spots at St. Sava? And if I wasn’t good enough? What would happen then? That would have been undeniable proof my father was right, I was hopeless.  I imagined myself being enrolled in a technical school, where not so bright kids were sent and  forced to learn how to make shoes or stockings or work on the essembly lines. I feared I wouldn’t know how to even do those activities!

The closer the date of the High School exams, the greater my anxiety, and there was no way out, no where to hide from the truth that will be revealed about me; Was I a true idiot or not?

Only time could tell!

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