In the coming weeks, I will share some details of my growth in Russian–the language itself and my ever-deepening personal connection to it–through essays, assignments and stories. First, however, you might want some context.
My Russian background so far is fairly extensive; I’ve been learning Russian for eight years. Since my life-changing decision to participate in Russian for Fun in 5th grade (more on that next blog post), I have been taking classes at my school, Friends School of Baltimore. In middle school I was lucky enough to have the incredibly caring and incredibly awesome Shannon Johnson, popularly known by her maiden name, Ms. Moe, or a mash-up, Ms. Mojo. She taught us the alphabet and sang songs with us, let us earn little prizes by racking up extra credit “Moe Points,” attempted to teach us cases (I did actually learn most of them!) and did not attempt to teach us aspect, which she called “the dark side.” She made us create little films based on The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! and read stories with us about Ivan Ivanovich’s family, who had problems such as deciding whether or not to take the лифт (elevator) and watching soccer at дом отдыха (lit. “house of rest,” a Soviet vacation destination). Most of all, she instilled in us a love of Russian that would transform into the self-proclaimed cult of high school Russian, led by the singular Lee Roby.
It is difficult to summarize Ms. Roby/Госпожа Роби/GRoby/Госпожа Рыба/Lee (as I am supposed to call her after graduation), but here are just a few of the many moments that have characterized high school Russian:
- Thinking she was super strict with her summer handwriting assignment and test on it in the first week of freshman year
- Being quizzed daily in front of the whole class by having stuffed animals thrown at us. We thought all of this was super normal. Let me repeat: normal to 1) be quizzed every day 2) have to perform and be graded in front of the class 3) have stuffed animals thrown at us.
- Hiding around the room and seeing how long it takes her to find us
Drinking tea every other class starting at the end of sophomore year
Being taught verbs of motion in an airport in Germany on our way to our class trip to St. Petersburg
- Falling asleep on her shoulder on our 14 hour flight from Dubai (getting home from St. Petersburg)
- Mandatory evening movie viewings for the elective Russian Research and Translation. One time I stayed from when school ended and ended up going with her to get the pizza
- On the last day of class, after Ms. Roby had walked out with a classmate to bring our tea dishes to the faculty room, sitting on the floor and crying because it felt like the end of an era
- Realizing it wasn’t as much of an end as I thought, because I still drop by her classroom on a fairly regular basis just to chat
I have been abroad twice, both times to Russia. The first time was a NSLI-Y scholarship in the summer of 2013, after my sophomore year of high school. I went to Kazan, the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. My level of Russian going in was Intermediate Mid (responsive to questions, can talk about personal life). Put in the most advanced class with students whose Russian was much better than mine, after a brutal six weeks of hard work, during which I learned about participles and the history of the Nobel prize, I emerged Intermediate High (ease in dealing with daily situations and able to narrate, albeit with mistakes, and talk about some advanced topics). This is a huge jump. I will attempt to find some Pre-Kazan and Post-Kazan Russian work for comparison purposes for those of you who understand Russian. Yet language growth was only one component of NSLI-Y; I also was adopted by my host family, made lasting friendships, and grew confident abroad. My second experience abroad was our class trip to St. Petersburg in March 2014, during my junior year. It lasted almost three weeks, during which we lived with a host family, worked in pairs with a tutor and engaged with the vibrant culture of the city.
Besides experience abroad and Russian language classes, I have tried to engage with Russian as much as possible. This past year, in addition to Russian 5, I took a new language elective offered, Russian Research and Translation, which focuses on the cultural context and translation of a previously untranslated memoir, Words for Oneself (Слова для первого лица). This was a fantastic introduction not only to translation, but also to Soviet history, which we studied deeply through articles, books, literature and film. It was also a really fun class, as there were only five students and two teachers, both Ms. Roby and Ms. Moe. This past summer I volunteered in a mostly Russian-speaking nursing home. I served lunch and taught English and computer skills classes. I helped facilitate a unit on Russia in my Mom’s 2nd/3rd grade classroom. I take advantage of various miscellaneous opportunities as they come up, such as participating in a contest of Russian song and reading The Cherry Orchard in the original for an English class. As seniors, we do an unpaid internship in May, and I chose to work at an Eastern European restaurant, where I started to learn about non-Russian Eastern European culture through a few Polrusglish (part Polish, part Russian, part English) conversations with the dishwasher, reading labels in the Polish deli next door, and learning to make a variety of Eastern-European dishes. This has been a great way to shift my Russia-centric mindset to a more open Slavic-centric mindset, which will help me better appreciate Moldova.
I hope this provides a good overview of what is. I know it barely scratches the surface, however, on what it all means. Keep reading this summer to watch my journey as I try to figure that out myself.