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September 22, 2017

“The Gradebook of Class 10-B”

This was written by my mother. I’ve translated it from Russian to English, and reposted it here, with her permission. I’ve also added a couple of footnotes, for the benefit of my Western readers.

Every word of it is true.


Leningrad. An ordinary secondary school in the new residential district near the Piskaryov Cemetary. I’m 20 years old, and I’m the new “class teacher”1 for class 5-B2. Soon enough, we’ve been together for six years. They’re tenth-graders3 now; the last, graduating, grade level. Strong, smart boys; beautiful, smart girls. One problem: they’ve grown out of school; it bores them. Every blessed day, Tamara Naumovna4, the school principal, calls me on the carpet: “Your 10-B…” I already know the usual litany of mischief—“disrupted a lesson, smoked behind the school building, taunted the young math teacher, ditched Literature en masse and ran off to play soccer instead… etc., etc., etc.” I nod my head, while thinking that I’d ditch that Literature class too.

My 10-B knew, deep in their hearts, that I was on their side.

But once, even my patience reached its end. After yet another summons to the principal’s office I went back to my 10th-graders and, in anger, said: “How long are you going to keep up these childish pranks? If you’re set on making trouble, at least go for the bigtime!” I didn’t mean anything by it. It was the outburst of a tired schoolteacher. But we remember the story of Pandora’s box…

Late that evening the phone rings. It’s Tamara Naumovna. (Never before had she bothered me at home.) “Lyudmila Mikhailovna, do you know where your class gradebook is?”

Anyone who went to school in the USSR in the 70s should remember that at the end of the school day, all gradebooks had to be in the faculty lounge. Students weren’t allowed in there. But also, this was the gradebook of a 10th-grade class!!! The document on the basis of which the certificate of graduation was issued. By law, the school would retain the gradebook for another twenty-five years.

“Don’t worry,” I told the principal. “One of the teachers was entering grades and left the gradebook in the classroom. We’ll find it in the morning.”

But we didn’t find it the next morning either. Nightmare, scandal, catastrophe! The district office, the municipal department, official investigations!

So I went to 10-B.

“Guys, give the gradebook back.” Thirty-two pairs of eyes, looking at me with earnest sincerity: “Lyudmil’ Mikhal’na5, how could we? We never… we couldn’t possibly…”

“You understand that you might not get your diploma? That this is a scandal, an embarassment for the school? That I could be fired?”

“Lyudmil’ Mikhal’na, how could we possibly? We couldn’t ever… how could we…?”

“But I’ll have to stay up day and night to reconstruct every page and every grade. Have pity on me, at least!”

And again: “Lyudmil’ Mikhal’na, how could we? We never… we couldn’t possibly…”

I did indeed have to stay up nights for several weeks and reconstruct all the lists and all the grades for the whole year!! And I won’t even mention the horror of inspections and dressings-down.

The school year ended. Flowers, the tears of the last dismissal bell. The worry and anxiety of exams.

Evening of graduation day. Again a sea of flowers; speeches of thanks; my suddenly grown-up tenth-graders; slightly sad parents. An orchestra. I’m dancing a waltz with my favorite student, Maksim Baryabin. At 10 PM, by tradition, the school closes, and we’re preparing to go out in the white night6.

“One minute! We have another present for Lyudmila Mikhailovna.”

And Sasha Martynenko presents me with… you’ve guessed it already: the gradebook of class 10-B!

On every page of the gradebook there are photos from lessons (how did they managed to take all of these?), poems dedicated to each school subject, photos of the boys smoking behind the school building—a scrapbook of the whole year of 10th grade. I think that those kids of mine spent more time on this, than on homework. But the enjoyment from it was many times more! Later, I learned that some parents (!!?) had been conscripted into helping with this creative effort.

What started then…!

“Do something,” came the falsetto squeal of principal Tamara Naumovna. “This must be reported,” drawled vice-principal Yuri Nikolayevich. “They’ll pay for this,” threatened history teacher Nina Petrovna.

Only I, for some reason, was absolutely calm: there was nothing more that could be done, the kids had their diplomas in hand already. There wasn’t anyone to complain to except perhaps the parents, who were right there and, it seemed, were enjoying what was happening. They’ll pay for it? How?

Thus the gradebook became my personal possession, memento of the 6 stormy years spent with 10-B.

Three or four years passed. I was working in another school. I stayed friends with 10-B, and we saw each other every Teacher’s Day and on my birthday. One day one of my favorites, Sveta Ivanova, called me: “Lyudmila Mikhailovna, could I drop by and see you?” “Of course.”

Sveta came by and addressed me with an unexpected request:

“Will you let me have the gradebook?”

“???”

“I love Andrei Z. But we’ve broken up. The gradebook is the only place that has his photograph, and his name is on every page. I very much want to have it.”

A strange request from the normally wise, intelligent Sveta. And, to this day incomprehensible even to me, my reaction:

“Of course, I’ll give it to you. But I don’t ever want to see or hear from you again.”

Sveta left. With her went my unusual trophy.

Several more years passed.

1992. We’re leaving for America. And again 10-B are my guests. The traditional going-away party. An exclusive one just for them. Many came with wives or husbands. The only one not there was Sveta.

We’re in America. We’ve been here only several months. One day my phone rings.

“Who is it?”

“Igor Makarov. I’ve arrived on the Kruzenshtern7, and we’re docked in the harbor. Can I drop by?”

An hour later Igor’s ringing our doorbell. After the “ohs” and “ahs”, with a Cheshire-cat grin, my former student says “And I have a present for you. Guess what it is. And don’t ask how we managed to get it away from Sveta.”

“THE GRADEBOOK???”

So concluded the almost-around-the-world journey of the gradebook of class 10-B.

It lies, now, on a bookshelf in a Brooklyn apartment. At times I leaf through it, and on one of the pages read the beginning of a poem: “Lyudmil’ Mikhal’na’s fuming, while Martynenko’s zooming…”

Mila Dragushanskaya

* * *

[1] An advisory/administrative role in Soviet primary and secondary schools, something like a form-master in British schools, or a homeroom teacher in American ones; in practice, a sort of limited-scope dean plus guidance counselor. A faculty member would be assigned as class teacher to a single class group (an approximately classroom-sized group of students), and would remain the class teacher for that class group until that group of students graduated (in Soviet primary and secondary schools, a class group stayed together from enrollment until graduation, generally taking all classes together, etc.).

[2] “5-B” indicates that the class group was in 5th grade when the author was assigned as their class teacher. (The number would increment to reflect the grade level, while the letter identified the group within a given grade level; thus the same group would be “10-B” when they reached the 10th grade.)

[3] Soviet schools had 10 grade levels (plus kindergarten); when students graduated at the completion of the 10th grade, they would usually be 18 years of age.

[4] All the teachers’ names in this story are given as first name plus patronymic. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Slavic_naming_customs .)

[5] Colloquialization of the author’s name (akin to “Smith” → “Smitty”).

[6] http://www.saint-petersburg.com/virtual-tour/whitenights/

[7] http://kruzenshtern.com/en/

Comments

  1. September 27, 2017Shanthi said... Loved the story...keep going

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