Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Undergraduate memories

These days, it's forty years since I got my first degree. I am not particularly proud of this part of my professional career, and I don't think I ever told anyone about it properly, except in passing in my memoir. It wasn't important, but forty years later it is interesting to look back and see how some decisions turned out to be life-changing. As they usually do.

During my two last years in school I worked hard toward my grades and took extra private lessons because that was what you did if you wanted a higher education. My parents expected me to apply to the Faculty of Philology at Moscow University because literature had always been my favourite subject (hideous teachers notwithstanding). It was enormously competitive, and apart from excellent grades from school you had to take four entrance exams: written composition, oral literature, English (as a foreign language) and history. Written composition was easiest to fail: the examiner could always state that the argument wasn't sufficiently developed. Most of my classmates had “connections”. It meant either that your parents knew someone high in the college administration or that they knew someone who could be bribed. It was a truth universally acknowledged that you could not be accepted into college without connections. My parents had no connections. I still don't know whether they genuinely had no connections or whether they stood above it, but I was expected to get in without connections, and they would be disappointed if I failed. I was a well-behaved girl, used to do as I was told. If I were told to pass entrance exams then that's was what I had to do.

Eventually, my parents found a remote connection at the Faculty of Philology and sent me in for “consultation”. The professor made me read and translate a passage from an English novel. There was one word I didn't know. Forty-five years later, I still remember the shame of it. The word was “pace”. I could answer all questions and discuss the passage fluently, and the professor was highly encouraging, but I realised that I would never pass the exam without knowing the word “pace”, and then my family would denounce me, and my friends would despise me, and the only way for me would be to take my life. Although I, like most teenagers, had repeatedly contemplated suicide, the prospect wasn't appealing. I was scared. I admit it: I was a coward. I was scared of my parents' scorn, because they had always been brilliant in everything and would tolerate nothing else from me.

After the school finals – eleven exams, half of them in subjects I would never ever use again – I prepared my paperwork, including the special recommendation from my literature teacher (the horrid one) stating that I was the leader of a reading club that had never existed. Actually, the recommendation started – and I remember it word for word, after forty-five years: “There is no writer in the world, not even a third-rate one, that she doesn't know”. I wasn't supposed to see the recommendation, but my principal who was known for breaking rules showed it to me with an amused smile.

My parents went away for holidays. They were not like other parents who cooked their kids' favourite food for them, made their beds and turned down the radio while the kids were revising for exams. My parents had confidence in me. They went away for holidays, leaving me alone to take the decisive step toward my adult life. I thought already then it was strange, but it wasn't my habit to question my parents' behaviour. Looking back at those weeks, I assume they left me some money for food, but I have no memory of it. I couldn't cook then, and there were no eateries in Moscow in the late 60s. So I guess I had bread and cheese three times a day. I don't remember feeling lonely, but I must have been. All my classmates were revising, most likely at their family country houses, because I have no memories of revising together with a friend. I had a lover, but that's another story.

I was a coward. I knew I could not fail my parents' expectations, and I knew there was no way I could pass exams at the Faculty of Philology without connections. So I took my paperwork and applied to the Foreign Languages Institute, a prestigious school, but one my parents despised, and I did too. Looking back, I don't understand why I thought that getting into FLI without connections would be easier. I am sure that if my parents had been by my side I wouldn't have done it, and my life would have been completely different. Or maybe not at all. Sometimes we ascribe more significance to our decisions than they deserve.

I passed my entrance exams and went to join my parents at the holiday resort. I don't remember their reaction when I confessed. I know they were terribly disappointed, but I cannot remember exactly what they said. Maybe they didn't say anything. My mother had a habit of not talking to me for weeks. Yet what was the point of talking or fighting: it was over and done with, all because I didn't know the word “pace”.

To be continued.

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