First grade in Moscow, Russia

Note: these are my memories and my interpretations of what happened, which isn’t always the facts.  

1989; Moscow, Russia

A little background:

When I was 6 years old and in kindergarden, my parents were given the option to keep me there for another year or move on to the first grade.  I couldn’t wait to start school and, the overachiever that I was, did everything I could to pass the tests (do American schools test kindergardeners?) and move forward. But even though I passed, my parents decided that it would be better for me to stay another year.  I was devastated.

At this point Moscow was still communist (although I believe that this is around the time that the revolution began) – this meant a number of things.  For one, we were required to wear uniforms.  Normally, these uniforms consisted of a brown dress and a brown apron.  However, since the first day of school is a celebrated holiday, we wore our “special occasion” uniforms, the same dress with a white apron.  We were also decked out with our Red Star with a photo of Lenin in the middle.  These were required to be worn every single day until the Fall of Communism.

I remember that first day – I was so excited to finally attend a real school.  Because I was attending a specialized school, one that concentrated in Math and Languages, I wasn’t with any of my friends from Kindergarden nor any of my neighbors that I knew.  It was as close to a “private” school as you could get during this point because you had to pass a number of tests before you were accepted.  An outgoing 7 year old, I wasn’t bothered by the fact that I didn’t know any of the other students.  Rather, I was excited to make new friends.

I remember kissing my parents good bye and walking into the huge auditorium that was decorated for our first day of school.  This is one of the most celebrated days and everyone went all out.  There were a ton of flowers (a standard gift to your teacher on the first day of school), excited parents in the doorways and giddy school children shuffling through the crowds, eager to find their seats.  I spotted a boy that looked like he was about my age and seemed lost, a dead giveaway that it was his first day as well.  I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he wanted to be friends and he nodded.  We quickly introduced ourselves and took our seats in the front row which was reserved for the first graders.

Our school had children from 1st to 10th grade, the last grade before “continuing” education.  Since schools weren’t large or readily available, our class was divided into various other classes with about 20-30 kids in each class.  We were al assigned a letter and I was excited to learn that my new friend, Alexis, was assigned the same one as I was.  The ceremonies began and we all watched excitedly as the Principal of our school spoke in his booming voice, smiling at the first graders.

My first day of school was everything I expected and absolutely nothing like the school I attended in the US years later: all the students were seated and expected to sit, still and silent, with their arms crossed in front of them.  You were not allowed to speak out of turn and the only way to be called on is to stiffly raise one of your arms, keeping your elbow perfectly grounded on the table, forming a 90 angle with your forearms.  It’s interesting how a class of nearly 30 7 year old sat there, silently, waiting for the teacher to address the class.

We learned about Lenin and his greatness.  We began memorizing multiplication tables.  We were told what to do and when to do it and how to do it.  There was no room for opinions, creativity, or a voice.  During breaks, we walked together from one class to another, changing concentrations from Math to History.  By 1 we were home to eat ‘obed’ (equivalent of lunch) and begin our homework.  I learned how to write in perfect script where each letter had to look like the one before and each number had to have the perfect squiggle.

A couple of years later I was told that uniforms were no longer required and that our Red Stars were banned from the classroom.  I couldn’t locate a single textbook that mentioned Lenin – it was as if history changed over the summer before my third grade, but I was too busy learning to have a crush on the boy I met in that auditorium the first day of school and running around with my friends.  I vividly remember dropping my Red Start into a drawer of my desk on that first day of third grade when my mom told me that I wouldn’t be wearing it anymore.  It stayed in that drawer until years later when we moved to the US and I haven’t seen it since.

What do you remember about your first grade?

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