( Russia, 1990s )
( Photo by Masha M. )
I just got my Bachelor in Special Needs Education and started doing my Masters, when I got a job in a children’s home. There were around 50 children there, aged from 7 to 15.
My only teaching experience so far was at a Special Needs school. Luckily, I was a teacher-trainee only and was working in a class with a very experienced teacher. Before I had a chance to get to the classroom, a big lad pulled my ponytail and pushed me into the wall.
“Are you new? Which room are you in?” – asked this boy, grinning from ear to ear. I found it hard to admit to this lad, who was almost twice as big as me, that I was here as a teacher. I looked younger than some of the students in the senior classes.
Two weeks of practice at this school proved to be quite entertaining – at least, for the kids, if not for me. One could only be impressed with the rich imagination of these kids when it came to “welcoming” new teachers. No day would pass without a half-chewed chewing gum or sharp pin left by caring childrens’ hands on my chair. Pens, pencils and chalk kept mysteriously disappearing just when they were needed. Once they even managed to stuff a few worms and caterpillars in my bag – I wondered how they managed to know about my particularly strong feelings for these lovely creatures. As for the lessons, they did not care much about them. Most of the kids were coming to this school only to get a free breakfast and lunch, as some of them were rarely served food at home. It was a special needs school after all, not Eton.
Kids in the orphanage turned out to be even more unpredictable and challenging. An innocent question such as “do you need some help with your homework” led to one 7-year-old boy rolling on the floor, shouting hysterically and banging his head against the bare wooden floor-boards. Later I learnt that every time his older sister, who was now living in the same orphanage, struggled with her homework, her dad would either punch her or bang her face against the table. He broke her nose once.
This girl came to me one day. She was a very quiet and meek girl around 11 years old. I liked her a lot. “What is the easiest way to die: to take some pills or cut your veins”, she asked, pointing at the blood vessels on her arms. I did not know what to say.
When all the kids went to a countryside summer camp, we were required to check their beds and cupboards every now and then. I was surprised to find little secret nests made of grass and leaves in some of the cupboards. Almost all boys found themselves “little friends” – either a lizard, frog or at least a caterpillar, carefully kept it in a jar. One could only wonder how much love and warmth these kids saw in their lives if they were craving affection from frogs and caterpillars.
Some kids were allowed to go home in the weekend to see their nannas. I asked one seven-year-old girl how was her weekend. “It was fine,” she said. “I went to see my nanna and met my mum with dad number 11.” Her real dad was in prison, while mum was running a little “business” from home. This girl quite innocently considered all the mum’s “clients” to be her dads and numbered them accordingly.
Older children were even worse affected. Their language gave me a real culture shock as it seemed that they could express all their thoughts and feelings in a few words, none of which would be listed in a mainstream dictionary. They were all into smoking and drinking. Covered with a thick layer of make-up, these 13-15 year old girls looked older than me, as was later proved by an orphanage’s cleaner, who openly admitted that it took her almost two weeks to realise that I was a teacher not a new kid there. It was such a disappointment for her, as she was so happy to see a normal “kid” there at last.
I bet, for these kids I was like a creature from another planet. I never smoked or drank. My only “street” experience was a quick run to the metro station to catch a train to the University and back. When I happened to be outside in the evening, I was almost always accompanied by a male relative or a trusted friend. As most Russian girls of my age, I lived in my family’s apartment. In spite of the sexual revolution that filled TV screens and newspapers stands with naked bodies, Russian families had traditional “sexist” attitude to girls’ upbringing. While lads were roaming the streets in search of fun to ‘get it out of the system’ before settling in with “good” girls, young ladies were under family’s control, waiting for their princes. Unfortunately old habits die hard even after ‘settling in’ especially in a big city like St. Petersburg with no issues on the supply side, so marrying Russian princes was like playing a Russian roulette. However Russian language had lots of colourful expressions for those girls, who did not want to play by these rules, as well as for those who did not settle by a certain age with local “princes”. By the end of the 4th year at University over a quarter of the girls in my course were married, quite a few of them had their first babies. One girl in our group became a widow at the age of 21. Her husband, who was still doing his Bachelor degree at University, was working as a security guard at night to support his young family with a newborn baby – the surest way of shortening your life-span in Russia.
The girls at the orphanage were obviously going down the other path – ‘not to be settled in with, but to get fun with’. That was a black-and-white game with nothing in-between. I would not blame them however. They hardly had any choice. Girls like me had family support. We grew up with mum’s loving kisses and dad’s warm hugs that made us feel secure, loved and needed. Long forest walks with dads and short naps in their caring strong arms taught us to trust. Watching our mums and dads, we got some idea of what women and men should be like, that we could use to judge people we met in our lives as well as guide our own lives.
As for those girls in the orphanage, they tried to look tough, but felt quite insecure. Most people they met in their lives were not very good role models. They had no idea of what a functional family was like or how males and females should be treating each other in a respectful way. What for an average person seemed dysfunctional was their only norm of life. That’s how all the people they saw lived. Having neither firm foundation in the past nor something to look for in the future, they were an easy prey.
Growing up without dads, these girls were craving for male attention and love. They wanted to feel secure in someone’s hug. Unfortunately, the love they were getting, was very short-lived and only added insult to injury, leaving scars of “being used” over and over again. I could only admire the staff members, who tried to make the difference, but these girls were still sinking deeper and deeper. By the age of 13-14 some of them were selling themselves under the nearest bush for a bottle of vodka. By the age of fifteen … One day when I came to the orphanage, everyone was silent. Two 15-year-old girls committed suicide….
* * *
“Mummy, mummy, why are you crying?” – I’ve heard the frightened whisper of one of my 7-year-old girls. She climbed on my knees and gave me a hug. I was scared to look in her eyes. There was neither mercy nor miracles in that world.