There’s something about the word “orphanage.” I guess one is predisposed to feel sorry for a bunch of neglected, impoverished or abused kids. The ones we visited in the regional orphanage/school near Birobidjan weren’t pathetic, but neither were they beautifully turned out, all bright-eyed and on top of the world. They were dressed poorly. Clean, but poorly.
The Children’s Building for school-age orphans was in the old school house of Waldheim, one of the nearly defunct Russian Far East villages settled by Jews in the 1920s and ‘30s. The town is in the potato fields about a half hour out of Birobidjan. The Germanic name, Foresthome, reflects the Yiddish language history of the Jewish Autonomous Region. The orphanage for babies and toddlers was in Birobidjan. We had met the school’s English teacher at a conference we lectured at and felt like making some sort of contribution. We finally rounded up a box of children’s books mailed along with others from friends in the States. The teacher was delighted to have them, along with a cassette of American folk songs I had taught the regional English teachers and recorded for them.
The kids were animated and likable, and they liked us first, welcoming us with cheers and open arms. They ganged up on us as we made our second visit for a music program the day before Victory Day. We sat by a window overlooking the acre or so of plowed ground that soon would be the school’s much-needed garden. We were early and watched the director, a stout, capable-looking woman, helping three older girls plant cabbage seeds in plastic-covered hotbeds, preparing seedlings for late-spring planting.
I don’t see my grandkids very often, so I’m no longer used to having small children drape themselves over my knees. I felt a little guilty that my first reaction was to worry that I might catch something from them. I looked down at Yana, a 10-year-old who looked 6. Her hair had been hacked off at about two inches long. Why had someone done that? Easier to keep clean, I guess. Skin eruptions here and there. Dirty clothing, in this case. Dirty fingernails. A whiff of urine. I recalled admonitions to the staff one summer when I worked at a hospital for retarded people: “Wash your hands often; keep your fingers out of your mouth.” The little creature needed a hot soapy bath and a fresh change of clothes and shoes. I looked at her hands. What poisonous bacteria lurked thereon? (I hasten to add that most of the children were reasonably clean, and the school appears to make do very well on extremely limited means.)
Yana kept her eyes on Sharon, next to me. She and the other little girls beamed at her, rapturously sometimes, this beautiful woman from a far-away magic kingdom. Many of the kids are too small, maybe stunted. I read a painful phrase in a book about Russia’s gulag days: Children who were abandoned and unloved didn’t grow properly, suffering from “failure to thrive.” Some of these orphans clearly had failed, had been failed.
Ruslan, 14, looked about 10. But his brain had kept thriving throughout whatever unhappy circumstances had brought him here. (Not all were orphans; some were simply abandoned to the state by unwed mothers or parents who couldn’t rear them.) His English was unusually good, and he held us captive in the hall until he had finished reciting a long, repetitive English poem, “The Tasty Herring,” something akin to the one about the old lady who swallowed a fly and other animals.
We observed an English class and made a note to find them some more readers and a map of the U.S.A. (oh rich, clean world that has everything, in abundance — and its own sad children, I must remember.) The teacher, an attractive, small middle-aged woman with golden front teeth and no molars, struggled mightily to keep the little beggars’ attention. She half-succeeded. About six of the kids, 10 to 12 years old, were involved in the lesson, when not distracted by the other six, who were out of it. It appeared that this division is common in Eastern Russian schools: teach to the 50% who have it, ignore or simply squelch the 50% who are the have-nots.
She moved swiftly around the room to stay on top of things, her muscular legs reminding me of how she had danced the night away after a conference. With typical Russian enthusiasm, she had exhausted several partners, whirling madly around the large room, sweat flying. Russian energy. “I love to dance!” she had said early in the evening. That was for sure.
The children who were not listening looked vacantly around the room. They didn’t look like they were having thoughts. They were just glancing here and there, brains on dead center. Switched off. In the cold term from a cruel world, “damaged goods.” No hope. Many Russian babies have been adopted by Americans these days, although in typical leftover Soviet fashion, some bureaucrat recently ordered the practice stopped, for no good reason. "We are not selling our children," he announced. So there are many good things that now may not happen. In such adoptions, if they resume, there is some risk of finding later that alcohol damage has happened to the children.
The teacher had printed a poem on the board, beginning ”April brings the primrose sweet,” although she had written "primerose." And when they read aloud, all pronounced it “prime.” A typographical error in a textbook, a common occurrence, dutifully got memorized along with the rest. It didn’t seem appropriate to correct it, although she had a number of questions about their textbook later and we were able to correct as well as explain some things.
One of the shortcomings of some Russian schools (possibly many) is their use of outdated textbooks from the old regime. As with almost everything, there's not enough money for new books. So they still repeat, “If five comrades must share 13 tractors, how much time. . .” Books are filled with exercises based on one of Russia's few reasons for pride: its space program. Kids learn grammar translating sentences about Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, the Cosmonauts. . .
The kids who weren’t mentally damaged were having thoughts, clearly visible in their eyes. Searching, their eyes penetrated ours. They kept ignoring the teacher in order to look at us. “You must come from a wonderful place,” said their eyes, wistful, not exactly sad, mostly northern blue. “Could you take me back with you, so I could see it? Just for a little while?”
My eyes felt a little sad, a little watery a time or two. They answered, of course, “No kid, I can’t. Sorry.” The children happily settled for picture-taking, clamoring to be photographed with a friend or, in one case, a sister. They knew I wasn’t taking instant pictures and that they wouldn’t get a copy, at least not for a long time. It seems they just wanted to be noticed, kind of have it recorded on paper somewhere that they exist and are worth something. They matter to someone. The rich foreigner took pictures of them, and that proves it.
We visited the orphanage again before we left, taking along the photos we had made of them, and another box of books. They greeted us like old friends and in Olga's class they sang an American song, "On Top of Old Smoky," that they had learned from the folk song tape I had left for them. It was a strange, warm feeling, hearing children in this remote village sing a song I had prepared for them. “All cahvered weeth snow. . .” We were delighted and touched.
They wanted another song, and I got an inspiration: I taught them "Little Peter Rabbit Has a Fly Upon His Nose (and he brushed it away with his paw)." It's a fun song for kids. The words are accompanied by hand gestures — ears when you say Peter Rabbit, waving hands when you say "fly," finger pointed at your nose, hand brushing away the fly, hand held up for "paw." You repeat the verse, each time leaving out a word and substituting a hand gesture.
At the same time that I was singing and gesturing and watching the kids sing and gesture back, I was aware of something wonderful, almost magical in that international moment: a bunch of little Russian kids with shining eyes, standing in a tattered schoolhouse in a snow-covered potato field happily singing in English, "Little Peter… had a… upon his… and he …. it away with his….."