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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Spirituality on the College Campus

The other day, Petya had an invite from a Public Ivy College to sit in on an Advanced Russian class.  Students would be giving their Oral Presentations before Finals.  We weren’t quite sure what that meant, but he and his father were excited about sitting-in.

Why they didn’t want me there, I don’t know, maybe it was a guy thing.  Why the Italian side of the family was going to Russian class, rather than the Russian side of the family was anyone’s guess.  But after so many years of wedded bliss, I knew that Benedetto could hold his own in any situation and I had the utmost confidence in him.  Meanwhile, I drove around in the SUV with the other kids and dogs, thinking up fun diversions for three hours while the two guys attended Russian and also Global History, whose head of the department had also invited him.

They followed my map to a “T” which thrilled me, because, as everyone knows, you can obtain your Ph.D. in a subject, but if you can’t figure out how to read to a map, you’ll be in dire straits most of your life.  Running from Global History to Advanced Russian required traversing half of the campus in less than ten minutes, after chatting with the history professor, so make that five minutes.

Entering the appointed building and room, the Russian professor, a young Asian lady with long, dark hair in jeans, greeted them, and they took their places near the back.  About 15-18 students were there, a few readying themselves to give formal, oral presentations, as their turns came up.

She called on the first student of four who would be presenting today.  In skinny jeans and black t-shirt, wearing a blue flannel shirt about two sizes too small over that, and black, high-top sneakers with wire-rim glasses, he appeared to possibly be an art student.  He brought his typewritten page in Russian, folded and placed oddly under his arm, to which he glanced repeatedly, while pacing back and forth and talking, not looking at the class.  From what the guys could determine, the students were supposed to have their presentations memorized.

He spoke on what the holidays meant to him, sharing that he was a minister’s son, and that his fond memories include life revolving around the church.  Decorated for the holidays, with candles and colors, his family and his faith were paramount.  Benedetto and Petya glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, a refreshing perspective that one didn’t always encounter on secular college campuses.

The next presenter was a young lady, one of only two in the entire class, wearing pink plaid shorts, ankle boots, a white shirt, green windbreaker, and a purple floppy hat.  The guys felt that she spoke the best of all, no ummms, no hesitations, fairly flowing Russian.  She was animated and actually connected with her audience.  Her talk centered again on family and food, how her parents always made the holidays special for the kids.

Benedetto sensed that these students were much younger emotionally than their college years, or that their memories took them back to a younger sense of self.  He liked it.  Nobody moaned about having to be with their families, full of eccentric characters for the holidays.  But then they weren’t part of his family growing up….

Another student sat in the front row, one of the few in the class with a haircut that actually had a part and was combed.  He ate during most of the class, from a two-sided styrofoam container looking to contain curry and rice.  Inbetween presentations, he walked out to toss his trash.

Father looked at son, and son shrugged.  Both knew full-well they’d get booted out of homeschool for similar behavior, which by the way, has always been the rub for me:  how do you boot out homeschooled kids?  They get out of doing school (???) and you still need to feed them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  Something’s wrong with that picture.

Presenter #3 sported a regular-sized, green flannel shirt, jeans, plastic-rim, rectangular glasses, and a white shirt.  He dutifully turned in his typewritten Russian sheet, which the professor scanned as he spoke to the class.  The student stood leaning against the blackboard, one foot behind him with its sole on the wall.  He talked of being a born-again Christian, of how the birth of the Savior overshadowed all else this holiday season.

Benedetto leaned over to Petya.

“Did he just say he was born-again?” father asked son, unsure if he understood enough Russian to understand… what he thought he understood.

“Dah,” Petya nodded, absorbed in the talk.

As the student wrapped up his presentation and fielded Q&A as all of them had done, in rushed Presenter #4—a half an hour late, and more than a few rubles short.  In the same uniform of jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, this one had a shaved/stubble haircut.

The professor glanced up at his arrival and he motioned with his finger and hand, faking a shot to his brain.  He sat down and the teacher promptly called on him, asking if he was ready to make his presentation.  He rose and made his way to the front, tripping over a desk, kicking it out of the way, and mumbling, “Six hours of memorizing and I don’t know a single word!”

Six hours?  As in overnight?  As in “Didn’t he know for months or weeks that he had this assignment pending?”

He handed his typewritten presentation to the professor, while muttering, “We’ll just go with some extemporaneous, random thoughts….”

“No!” I responded as my guys recounted the events of the afternoon.

“Yes!” they said in unison.

The professor tried to save him from himself.

“Would you like to postpone this presentation to another day?  Maybe you’ll be having a better day then.”

The class ended early due to this fellow, allowing Benedetto and Petya time to chat in Russian with the instructor.  She was flabbergasted at Petya’s level of fluency after 8.5 years home, not to mention that my husband could make a nice exchange of pleasantries, too.  Petya answered her questions of where he was born, the climate there, and how long he’d lived in the U.S.

“You have done him an extreme service,” she acknowledged.  “Keeping up the Russian will help him all thoughout life.”

Petya caught many of the grammatical mistakes the other students made with their endings on words that should have been declined.  I caught some of his when he typed up a thank you e-mail in Russian, and in turn, the dog would probably play clean-up if I overlooked something.

Not that either father nor son heard from all of the students, but they were led to believe that Petya might be the only native-born son in the crowd.  Hard to say.  Petya looks pretty American, too.  They noticed that practically every student wore glasses (“It’s the Cyrillic alphabet,” I explained later.  “It makes you go blind with every hook and curl meaning something.”) and jeans.  Each presenter on this Public Ivy campus had a love for their families and their faith.

So it seems that spirituality will always be alive where there are thinking minds and open hearts, even in the case of those who need to be rescued from themselves and their incomplete presentations, and are no doubt, uttering a prayer of thanks on college campuses worldwide, for miracles great and small.

 

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8 Comments : Leave a Reply

  1. avatar sarah says:

    Hello Alexandra, This post makes me want to get your opinion on what is going on with my little 5 year old Sasha. He takes native language Russian at our international school in London. Last year he loved it plus the lovely teacher would come to our house after school for private lessons to catch him up. He remembers Russian and he is very very proud of being Russian. When he was asked what he is thankful for for thanksgiving he said Russia. So this year he doesn’t want to take Russian! The teacher emailed me today that his little Russian Oligarch fellow classmates (there are 5 kindergarten Russians) are very concerned he is going to forget his Russian! He is very very smart and probably doesn’t like they are all speaking at home and much better than him. I am happy to give him private lessons at school or at home with me attending but he won’t agree to any of it. So far I have not pushed it. However, I do feel strongly he needs to keep up his Russian as it is an important part of his identity. Any thoughts on handling this?

    • avatar admin says:

      We went through this with our second son (Pasha), who probably has some of the best Russian, along with the oldest of our girls (Mashenka). Both of them came home at “older” ages– around 11/12. But as soon as things moved beyond chit-chat to real study, our second son threw a fit. I remember him refusing to talk to the tutor as she lovingly coaxed him out of it. (I wanted to kill him-!)

      Some kids do not like competition and this might be your Sasha’s issue, not the Russian itself. See if he needs a break, but also supplement with anything that might be “fun”– there are Russian cartoons on Youtube like “Nu, Pogodi”, or maybe “Cheburashka”, etc. Or see if playdates might work with the other Russians. I had the kids listen to Russian Bible stories when they first came home, just to be soothed by the familiarity of the language, plus stretch a little beyond their childish vocabulary.

      There are times and seasons, aren’t there? You’re a dear to be concerned about him, Sarah. Every once in a while, our kids might need a break, but we’ve always stressed that Russian is not going away for good. We might take a different approach and lighten up occasionally. Our children are not going to be 110% fluent, but at least they’re trying. For me, that’s good enough. :)

  2. avatar sarah says:

    Okay, one more added part to the picture. Our three year old Diva, Miss Gracie was NOT in a nice place and has no interest in hearing Russian at all. Would you try to have her take lessons? She is three and the school doesn’t start the native language program until 4 years old. But, she obviously isn’t speaking it at home. With her bad associations would you have her take lessons now?

    • avatar admin says:

      Turn the associations around in a very low-key way. Let her watch Russian cartoons and associate fun with the language. Take her to a Russian deli and have someone greet her (again, low-key, keep their distance, offer a piece of candy, etc.). No need to force the language right now. It can easily develop. You might watch an alphabet DVD, or color in Cyrillic letters. They have a few phonics books in Russian, too: MA-MA. Or something like “My First Thousand Words in Russian” where you can point to the object and she can say the word in English and in Russian: table/stohl. I don’t believe in tricking children or forcing them to confront horrible fears–we want them to be able to trust their inner voice. Instead, I would prefer slowly breaking down walls that they’ve built to protect themselves.

  3. avatar Sarah says:

    Great advice on both fronts, thank you! I agree he doesn’t like it that he isn’t fluent. We actually have music and DVDs so I will get them out. My boys adore YouTube so I will get them on that one too! All the best!

  4. avatar Don says:

    We adopted our secnod daughter at 4 years 8 months old. Sheonly spoke Russian. As I had been studying Russian for about I wanted to try and keep her Russian language. Her sister who was adopted at 16 months old and is 8 months older started picking up Russian from our new daughter. We thought this was all well and good. It seemed our second daughter had some articulation issues. We ahd her evaluated by a Russian speaking specialist in the New York area. We found out she had some articulation issues as well a missing about 6 letters from the Russian alphabet. I mentioned that I spoke some Russian and was trying to keep her Russian language. He said it was a big mistake and what I would end up with is a bilingual illiterate. He said this should only be done if Russian was the native language at home. Fast forward and she is now in 7th grade and her average in English is up in the 90′s. I would have loved to keep the Russian, but glad I didn’t as she not only caught up from being far behind and is now at the top of her class.

    • avatar admin says:

      I understand, Don, and have probably spoken with that same “specialist”. Our children were older (preteens) when they arrived home, and we felt that it was a disservice to go from one language, childish though it may have been from never having non-orphanage schooling, and one of ours started that at age 10 (!), to “no language” as they transition to a totally new language. A lot depends on the age, and the experience level of the child.

      Before the child arrives at the Internat level (age 7 – boarding school), their Russian language usage is rarely corrected in the dyetsky dom. They will often speak a babyish Russian, and could be missing letters, etc., such as your daughter experienced.

      That same specialist in NY does not believe that it is beneficial for the children to be able to discuss their fears and concerns with their own Russian-speaking parents (whether the parents have much or little Russian), but that they should only go to a trained specialist. Hmmm…. I have known many parents to forfeit valuable bonding time by not speaking Russian to their new child. My own Russian is hardly uber-fluent… since… my parents refused to speak it to us growing up! Those were Cold War days when our goal was to fly beneath the radar and blend in to the American culture.

      I studied Russian in high school and college (elective, not major). Many years later when we first adopted, I used a tutor to work intensively on child-friendly phrases/vocab. Each time we went to court, it was noted that our Russian ability helped to create a special bond with the child. Also, the fact that our other children spoke Russian/English in the home and made DVDs for the new children, greeting them, taking them on a Russian-speaking tour of the home, meeting the dogs, etc., was noted in court. Nobody cared if the kids developed a slight American accent, or in English never lost their Russian accent. They were doing their best to honor their heritage.

      When our children arrived home, my far-away father only spoke Russian to them when they would Skype each week, and hence would speak the same with me. I think I was the only one at a disadvantage!

      All that being said, I do believe that retaining the Russian could delay the acquisition of English to some degree. For the first six months, we generally did not review Russian words/vocab, simply taught the children in Russian and in English their regular subjects. Yes, they will not pick up English as quickly, since there’s not an urgent need to learn it. But our first son was taking college courses at 15, so even with a slight delay, or some misspellings, we believe that retaining Russian has helped him rather than hindered. Our children have learned to read, write, and speak other languages, as well.

      So it’s a trade-off. The part about the language being native or not at home doesn’t sound logical, and I’ve heard the specialist state that, too. If that were the case, our children should never learn foreign languages at all, since many language teachers are not native-speakers even up to the college level.

      Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers have little language to retain. If a parent wishes to teach them a few words, why not? (Many arrive home petrified of all things Russian, and that’s not too psychologically healthy, either.) But for the older kids, if we can help them retain/ transition/ feel at home with their native language, I think it’s predominantly a benefit.

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