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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…!

Tutoring and Trauma

I’m not entirely sure that tutoring is traumatic for my kids, unless you factor in the idea that they might have homework to do afterwards.  Yet, it does seem to conjure up a post-traumatic stress syndrome of sorts.

When my father passed away in the late summer, our children’s main Russian chit-chatter disappeared overnight.  The Skype was shut down on that front, and the children didn’t “have to” speak to anyone in Russian on a regular basis.  Though the boys have had a Russian tutor for a few years, we needed someone for all of the kids to keep the language growing beyond my elementary/intermediate conversations and commands.  How would they ever discuss Tolstoy’s works without sufficiently-developing vocabulary?

I spoke privately with a few Russian acquaintances who had no time… during the one time… that we might have time… for a lesson.  Finally, I found a Russian grad student who was willing to come to our home and give it a shot every couple of weeks.  Hardly intensive, but hey.

The kids are always reticent when it comes to Russians.  They don’t quite know how to take them… or leave them.  Generally, they divide Russians into three distinct groups:  bad Russians (anyone from the past), good Russians (current family and friends from that background), and therapeutic Russians (those who have been there, done that, and understand their backgrounds—Russian camp counselors, leaders at Russian teen conferences, etc.).  It never dawned on me to discuss into which group the tutor would fall.

“When Miss Anya comes, we will all be nice, dah?” I ask them.

“Dah, Mama,” they respond.

“You will have notebooks, pens, and you will participate when she asks a question.”

“Dah, Mama.”

What that meant to each of them was a subject we neglected to address ahead of time.  Wrong move.

Miss Anya arrived ten minutes early, a good sign.  She was bright, attractive, energetic.  I made name place cards in Cyrillic and everyone sat around the dining room table.  Benedetto stayed nearby in the kitchen with the overexcited dogs, and I ensconced myself in the living room, trying to surreptitiously monitor the proceedings.

She spoke about the weather, coaxed them into speaking about themselves.  Never mind that they had already composed one-paragraph synopses of themselves, courtesy of moi’s efforts.  Their blank minds went to blanker still.  One or two had special interests that they were willing to share.  Naturally, Petya led, as usual.

“I play tennis a lot,” he rehearsed in Russian, as child after child parroted (sp?) the same.

“And what sports do the rest of you enjoy?” she asked.

“Tennis,” said Pasha.

“Tennis,” said Mashenka.

“Tennis,” said Sashenka.

They neglected to mention the girls’ interest in horses, the fact that they had been at Russian camp, the idea that any of them could have a favorite subject in school beyond history, math, history, and history.  Boooor-ing.

I had to walk through a couple of times and liven things up, lest she run from our home, overcome by ennui.  What had happened to my chatterbox, fascinating children?  It was as though the KGB had arrived for an interrogation session, or the Ministry of Education, intent on finding out the real scoop… and sending them back to Russia.

Instead, I realized the real issue as Miss Anya pressed them to give her synonyms and antonyms for common Russian nouns:  they did not know into which group of Russians she belonged.  Her conversational and sympathetic style lent one into being lulled into thinking that perhaps she was the therapeutic type.

“Yest vahprohs’see?” (Does anyone have any questions?)

They were telling her a word here or there they might have forgotten when one of them went off on their own topic of interest.  I nearly jumped up from the couch and could feel my cheeks begin to burn, my heart beating faster.

“Miss Anya, what’s the word for nightmare?” one asked intently in Russian.

“Nightmare?” I could only imagine that she thought she heard incorrectly, but no, they were now to embark on a psychiatrist’s favorite word-association game, as she supplied them with word after word straight out of a Dickensian orphans’ novel.

“And abuse?  And hell?  And beating?” it went on.

They were nearing the one-hour mark and I couldn’t stand it any longer.  Entering the room, I glimpsed the shirker among them taking no notes at all, the studious one nodding and participating,  the shy one sitting there and writing non-stop, and the motor-mouth about to wind up to “cannibals, shootings, and slow death”.

“Alright, everyone,” I cheerfully interrupted.  “If there are random words that we want to know, we can always look them up in our English-Russian dictionary, right?  But if it’s vocabulary that has to do with our topic at hand, Miss Anya will help us with it.”

After the tutor took her leave and appeared, so far, unscarred for life, I had a talk with the children.

“What in the world-?!  What kind of crazy words are you asking her about-?!” came my low-key approach, indicating the inappropriateness of their conversation.

If their Russian language was not up to speed, they could always play the orphan card and garner sympathy over the sufferings of their past.  This modus operandi was getting old, in my opinion.  Maybe they truly did need a therapist, yet, whenever I suggested one, no-no-no, we don’t need to speak with anyone, we’d rather dump our shocking pasts on any innocent bystander willing to listen for a minute or two.

It’s time to add another category of Russians to our list, beyond good, bad, or therapeutic.  This would be “business Russians”—teachers, artists, train conductors, shop clerks—just everyday people with whom they could engage in small talk.  For some of our kids, the weight of their past meant that there was no small talk, only the heavy issues of life, so burdensome as to pop out at any moment.




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2 Comments : Leave a Reply

  1. avatar Linda says:

    An interesting post.
    I’ve never really thought that other children would react that strongly to Russian. Especially your children for some odd reason. (sorry)

    Thank you for posting this, it gave me a new way of looking at our sons “oh my, I hear Russian spoken, I’ve got to run away from these horrible people, where’s my parents, can I climb on them” act.

    • avatar admin says:

      I know, Linda, I felt the same way. For ours, it’s not the Russian language per se, because we speak Russian-English at home, but it’s trying to figure out “who” these people are– perpetrators of abuse? kind strangers? family members?

      I know there are some parents who keep their children away from any Russian-language speakers, and I think that could be counterproductive. But, as we can see, there are many confusing feelings sorting it all out….

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