Saturday, 1 September 2012

First day of school

Today is the first of September, which in my childhood was, and as far as I know still is in Russia, the first day of school. The scene of so many children's books: dramatic, full of hope and fear. Suddenly, when I think back, I realise that I missed on it. I never experienced the first day of school, except vicariously, through literature. My mother believed that school was unavoidable evil and the longer you could avoid it the better. There was a trend at the time so send kids to school as late as possible, which was fatal since you were then the oldest in your class, and that's just as good a reason to be bullied as any other. By seven, when school normally started in Russia, I could read fluently and had already self-published my Collected Works of prose, poetry and drama – in tiny booklets made of typewriter sheets that I pinched from my parents, neatly printed and illustrated. For some reason though my mother and my best friend's mother decided to keep us away from school for another year, and we came back from holiday ten days into September. It turned out that my friend's mother had changed her mind, and there was my best friend, a schoolgirl in uniform, with a school bag full of books, notebooks and pencils, and I, a nobody. Fortunately, my parents realised what a disaster it would have been and managed to get me into the same school. It wasn't easy because it was a very popular school, and there were already forty-five pupils in every class in my year (yes, you heard correctly, forty-five kids and one teacher). I can imagine that my grandfather promised the principal to donate a discarded piano from Moscow Conservatory of which he was Vice Chancellor; and I also remember that my mother gave lectures in art history to final-year pupils. That was quite normal in Russia.

So, hastily, I was equipped with a uniform, a school bag, pencils, pens, pen wipers (does anyone remember what pen wipers were?), and was dispatched off to school. Somebody must have taken me the first day, but I don't remember who it was, possibly the maid. And there I was, luckily with another newcomer, a boy, with whom I shared a desk at the far end of the classroom. The desk had an inkwell with horrible, diluted violet ink that tilted dangerously. Everything was slightly dangerous and unfamiliar: bells, breaks, lunch, stand up when called. My best friend sat in the front and already knew all the rules.

I don't think I was bullied more for starting late than I would have been otherwise. Throughout primary school I was kept at home once a week, ostensibly because of my poor health. You aren't popular for such things. I was also a top student, with straight As and all prizes at the end of each year. I wore glasses. I played the piano. I was bad at sports. I loved primary school because I had the most wonderful teacher in the world. In secondary, life became harder, but I emerged from it and have done quite well since then. And who knows what my life would have been if I did start school on the first of September like everybody else.

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