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Breathing the right air

Nothing brings more comfort than a bag of good things to cook, swinging under your arm as you make your way home. Somehow it blots out the rest of the world. In these moments, the entire universe consists of a late afternoon sun, a stray dog and a clump of flowers growing strange and wild in a yard. A hit of basil jumps from my elbows with each swing of the bag, a gift from one of the ladies I buy from the most. I visit markets without intention, just eyes open ready to discover fresh peas, or the first corn. Knowing that these products will disappear as quickly as they present themselves creates a certain form of excitement. Each season offers up this rhythm and without it I might become completely lost.

I think of when we were in Tuscany a month ago, feeling like such a tourist until I wandered out along the highway and found the local vegetable stand. I shoved squash blossoms and tiny tomatoes into a bag, rushing back to our room like I had robbed a bank. I made pasta with them th…

the taste of falling ice

"Translate!" She orders E, who cowers in her chair.
E mumbles something to me, saying she will just tell me later.
Mothers and children stare at us, as I sigh slowly, loudly. This foul-smelling, fat little woman is piling up insults and accusations that I almost understand. After she turned her music theory class into a grabby, lukewarm school play for a month I stopped bringing E. This woman made her cry too much.

After the holidays trickle into the empty, cold weeks of January I decide to come back one last time. I believe she will really teach E something, that somehow the rough edges will be worn down by a few weeks absence, that we will be welcomed back with jokes and smiles.

I stare at the back of E's head, and the crooked ponytail I twisted her long hair into. I can't listen to this woman any more. I remember last Spring and how a family of cockroaches were crawling across the walls of this same room. They would advance past the old posters on the walls, and then drop - one right on my head. I swat it away. No one says anything. E jumps in her chair. The teacher does not say a thing. A minute later, another one falls - right on my head again. The class is half over, but I stand up with E in one movement, her workbooks and pencils and flash cards a mess in my arms. The teacher raises an eyebrow, as if we are being foolish.
"Tarakan." I say, as we leave. "Ochin mnoga tarakan."
I close the door a bit louder than I intended.
E looks up at me in the dark corridor.
"Just tell me I said there are a lot of cockroaches in there." I say.
She nods yes.

I argue with myself. This is a conservatory, not a playground. They take things very seriously here. This is not playtime. I think back to college, and the electric crackle of art school. There were endless critiques and evaluations. Quadruple secret probation for some. It was exciting because it was difficult, yet remotely possible to do something, to make something. Each teacher was tougher than the next, but they all cared in some way. They all wanted you to succeed. They were not cruel for the sake of cruelty, or some sort of masochism. They were tough to the edge of damage, and then they sent you home with a sense of accomplishment - that you had done your absolute best.

I wonder if this is something a six year old can benefit from. With guitar, it works fine. But that is a different teacher. She plays until her fingers hurt, for herself, for him.

That's not playtime.

The teacher is laying into E now, while the other children pick their noses and rest their heads on the tables about to fall asleep. She criticizes E's pencil, her eraser, the bent corners of the pages in her workbook. She is trying to get the children to write down the notes she is playing on the piano - their first lesson in dictation. E is right as far as the first two notes. I see her making a mistake with the next ones. I rest my hand on her shoulder, and tell her to think again about them. The teacher is jumping from her chair, spit flying from her mouth.
"Don't tell her the answer." She says.
"Nyet." I reply, calmly. "Tolka gavarit ne pravilna." (No, I only told her she was mistaken.)
The mothers in the room are drinking it all in. I see them constantly whispering answers to their children, competing vicariously to get perfect marks from the teacher's red pen.
The teacher is stabbing at E's notebook, tearing through the page with the eraser.
"Wrong." She tells her. "This is what happens when you miss class for a month."

I stare at her, angrily. There is a terrible taste in my mouth, like when I know something is going to happen no matter how much I try to avoid it. I think to remind her that messy rehearsals for a pathetic little play are not music dictation. I think to tell her that E already had a play in her kindergarden, that she sang loud and beautifully, that she danced, that she laughed.

E is shrinking into her chair.
A tear slides down one cheek.
"Stop crying." The teacher barks at her.
I know this is exactly what E's mother does when she cries - this Soviet answer to behavior, to reject it. Of course E does not stop. The teacher launches into her. I breathe in and let the breath out as loud as possible - the air whistling past my lips. I shake my head to myself. Of course, my impulse is to grab E and slip out the door like last Spring. But that would be like an admission of guilt, a confusing message of surrender. I am caught between protecting my child, saving face as an American and setting an example for seeing things through.

I try to teach E that we are not quitters.

The teacher goes into one of her fifteen minute stories about how some special child became a professional musician. No one listens. Children are drawing pictures on the corners of their pages. Mothers are resting their cheeks on the cold desks. One is even snoring. I close E's books, organize the flash cards. I want her to know class is over, and the worst part is behind us. Her story ends with some kind of parable. No one cares. Books are slapped closed. Everyone leaves.

In the hallway, I try to talk to one mother - a dancer with pockmarked skin. I tell her in crude phrases that this teacher thinks she is helping by being so cruel, but it just makes E sad. She tells me to ignore this woman, to see things abstractly. I tell her E cries in the class not because she is right or wrong, but because this teacher talks like E's mother - triggering something in her personal life that has nothing to do with chords and intervals. The ballerina mother nods, understanding. This rarely happens to me here - being understood by an acquaintance. If this teacher listened to me and understood her mother says "don't cry" on the rare night when E is in her house, then sends her to bed with no dinner, she would not say such things in the class. I have tried to explain all of this to her, but she brushes me away. She will not listen to anyone criticize a Russian, especially a mother. Even a mother she has never met.


We walk slowly in the street. The cars are thundering past us, spritzing the parked cars with handfuls of dirty slush. I smell something terrible - like dishwashing liquid that has been lit on fire. E squeezes my hand as we creep across the icy sidewalk. She tells me something but I cannot hear her. I lead us to the the string of courtyards that run behind the buildings. We will walk behind them on the way back to kindergarden.

Navigating between the brackish mud puddles and slush, we hear a massive thud. Workers are freeing giant sheets of ice from the roof. It falls in massive pieces. A cluster of Tajiks in orange jumpsuits wave at us to stop. I am not in the mood to stand with ice dropping from hundreds of feet above us. I lead E across the courtyard through mounds of fresh snow, weaving between a half-hidden playground and a low fence. I lift her over it, and we make our way back to the warm entrance of the kindergarden. Before we go inside, I kneel down and bring my face close to hers.
"I want you to have a lot of fun this afternoon, ok?" I say quietly.
She nods.
"I want you to forget all of that bullshit with Ludmilla. She is an idiot, and you are never going to see her again - ok, maybe in the hallway but that's it. She is no longer your teacher."
"Good." E says, setting her chin straight.
"It's her loss, kiddo." I tell her. "And she is never going to play psychologist with you again."
E smiles a little.
"We'll try the other teacher, ok?" I say. "I heard she is worse, but who knows."
She holds out her pinky to me. I lock mine against hers. This is our promise ritual.
"I love you." I tell her, then ring the doorbell and bring her inside.

As she climbs the stairs her snowpants make funny noises against each other.

Outside, the sun is banging off the car windshields.
The ice is still dropping like thunder.
I suddenly feel very alone.
In the market I buy two sweet potatoes for $8.
The beggars hands are shaking in the underpass.
I know I am lucky.

I am going home to work, and to put a chicken in the oven.
I know we are lucky.
I know we are lucky.









Comments

lev shneur said…
Tragic..
Nothing else to say.
Sadly the simple acts of kindness are rare to find. The system is broken.
I hope you stay the course and manage to win. Knowing a lot of similar stories the only thing that works is time and relentless dedication.

I wish you luck.
liv said…
Failure is in the eye of the beholder.
To give up guitar completely would not be good for her. To find a teacher that does not abuse her is only smart.
How frustrating that it must be for you that so many of these people see you as the enemy simply because you are an American. When they should just see you as a loving Papa.
I don't know what that child would do without you. Thank god you never give up Marco. Thank god.
Annie said…
Well, I think you are lucky! In some ways. You have each other, you have depth of feeling, you have life in a beautiful city. You have art!

Maybe teachers are "better" here, but not entirely. The PE teacher said to a boy last week, as I walked through the hall "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about." I don't know how adults can treat children so; they are vulnerable.
Banker Chick said…
I hope you find exactly, what E needs. It is wonderful that you can be there to be a buffer between the teachers and E.
Marco North said…
Lev - thanks for your kind words. It is refreshing to have a Russian come forward and speak the truth.

Liv - your comments were missed and it is wonderful to have you back.

Annie - my post may be confusing this week. E has two teachers in the music school. The conflict is with a woman - the theory/solfeggio teacher. The man who teaches guitar is wonderful.

Banker Chick - always appreciate your comments. I am actually required to be in the school with her, and it is a massive sacrifice to carve out three afternoons a week and stop working to do this. (Not to mention all of the practicing at home).

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