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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…!

The Swiss Cheese Internat Education

When we first learned of Russian boarding schools for orphans, images of freshly-scrubbed children in crisp uniforms engaging in serious studies flooded our minds. The more accurate picture might be more like a sinister Soviet penal gulag with a bit of learning thrown in for good appearance.

“How many months are there in one year?”  I quiz our not-so-new arrivals.

They stare at me blankly, despite the fact that I’ve reviewed this information time and time again. I feel the months mocking us, as they rush by at breakneck speed, while the kids barely plod along.

“Okay, we have twelve months in one year,” I rehash. “What is half of one year, how many months?” I coax.



“Twenty-two,” they grasp at straws. They answer in descending order, according to their ages, and ascending order in their numeric responses. I’m happy that our eldest is spared these multiple-guess quizzes.

“Listen, here’s the whole pizza pie,”  I demonstrate by arching both arms over my head as though I were a ballerina. Pretty creative. “We have twelve slices. How much is half of the pizza pie?” I try again.

They pause for a moment, carefully considering their options with this breathtakingly-elegant illustration being portrayed before them.




I feel my blood pressure escalate. I lower my arms and bite my lip. I could give them the benefit of the doubt, could be that they’re stating their ages… and mine.

“Who calls it a pizza pie, anyway?”  Benedetto adds his two cents as he passes by and hears our ridiculous exchange.

Do I look like I need help?

“Probably you, you’re Italian,” I toss back, turning again to the children. “We divide by two to get one-half of any number.”

Three out of four of our children were in a Russian internat (orphanage boarding school). The one who has fared the best to this day is the one who never went to school at all there. It was Petya, our first, who came home at age 7.5 and was still in the dyetsky dom. Most of the kids in Russia start school at age 7, but for some reason, he had never been moved to the internat.

Which was good for him.

Our other three had been sent on to the Korrectionalnaya (or Spetsialnaya) Shkola. These special, or correctional, schools met the needs of the mentally-inferior orphans, those who had roamed the streets, starving and unkempt, down-and-out and dazed. Perhaps they had missed years of school by residing with neglectful or abusive family members, or never attended school at all. The spets-shkola was where they ended up.

Depending on the institution, some bordered on partial insane asylum, the kids often entering with shaved heads and much suspicion. (Another time I’ll write about the impact that these places have on children who are not altogether basket-cases, yet.) School would not be to their liking, they decided, before they ever began.

The internat was different from orphans attending a village school, which also sometimes happened. The local school, intended for all mainstream Russian children in the community, would be expected to have a normal level of education. The internat, however, expected little, and placed all children according to their previous educational achievements, nil for our kids. This had our oldest daughter entering first grade in her tenth year, and finishing second grade in her eleventh year when I met her.

“This is the tablee’tsah oomnazheh’neeyeh,” I pointed out the times tables on the backside of the colorful notebook that I had just bought her in a local bookstore.

“Nyet!” one of her teachers swooped in, scolding me. “That’s only for children in the third class!”

I neglected to mention that, in America, Mashenka would soon be expected to be in the sixth grade.

The internat did the best they could, but our children came home with a Swiss-cheese education, full of gaps. The seasons, the days of the week, basic measurements, countries or continents were nowhere to be found on their mental landscape, barren, blank desert that it was. Russian history, literature, and geography were missing, as well. One of them vaguely remembered bits and pieces when I told how my own family had left Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution.

“That’s when the Tsar left power,”  I rehearsed for them in Russian. “Someone else took over.”

“Oh, you mean ‘Baldy’?”  Pasha asked.

“Lenin?”  I asked.

“I’m not sure.”  Just in case, we skipped Baldy’s mausoleum in Moscow.

For all I know, he may have meant baldy Gorbachev changing history with glasnost and perestroika. Or baldy Putin whose name was the only one they remembered. (Thankfully, Medvedyev had hair.) You simply could never be sure what they knew and what they didn’t know. The cheese had a lot of holes.

I later learned that a child completing nine years in a spets-shkola had the equivalent education of a child in fifth grade in a regular school. We literally had to start at the very beginning:  how to sit, how to hold a pencil properly, how to study for the next day, how to listen, and focus, and remember.

But, as Sister Maria, the von Trapp family nanny would assert, when we start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start.


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