Sunday, November 27, 2011

On duty

Photo c/o Lost Bulgaria.
Angel had volunteered to be on duty again. Being on duty meant that you were responsible for making sure that the blackboard was spotless, the water in the bucket was clean, the sponge was sitting on the board sill, and there was enough chalk to last until the Americans dropped the bomb on us. 
In Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni 

Those of you who grew up under Communism: do you remember this? I laughed so hard because I clearly remember the Cold War style competitions we had in school: who's better at getting the blackboard spotlessly clean?! One friend learned from her older sister that if you clean the board with simple syrup (sugar + water) it looks shinier and the teachers would be happier. We all got so sticky that afternoon!

Those of you who did NOT grew up under Communism: does this paragraph even make sense? Also, do we, former Commies, fool ourselves in thinking that we had it worse than y'all? Was going to school in America in the '80s less inspiring that we think?

Kyle and I like to compare childhood stories and are often surprised at how similarly we grew up.


  1. Well, we didn't have clean chalkboard competitions. We did not help to maintain the classrooms at all, though maybe we should have! The lunch food was terrible, and my 4th-grade teacher forgot to teach us long division (he preferred art). I grew up in the central valley of California, and it was very hot except in winter, when it was foggy. My school was surrounded by cotton fields and you could pick cotton or ladybugs through the fence.

    My SIL grew up in the USSR, and her pictures of special school days have the girls in lace aprons and poofy hair bows. There's also one of her with the red neck scarf in 'war class'--I certainly never learned to shoot in school like she did!

  2. Jean:
    Your description of going to school in California is so poetic. "You could pick cotton or ladybugs through the fence" sounds so sweet.

    As I was reading your note and re-reading the passage I just posted, I keep wondering why it's so easy to find others' suffering poetic and at the same time be so resentful of the poetry in our own lives..?! It's not exactly what you were saying but that's where my mind went, so I thought I'd share.

    P.S. Where in the USSR did you sister in law grow up, do you know? I never got to wear the read neck-scarf. We wore a blue one throughout elementary school and switched to red in middle-school. Communism fell before I made it that far in school but I remember being jealous of the big kids. Also, the big poofy hair bows were a MUST for girls and if you were a girl and had short hair you were the uncoolest. The best hair bows came from the USSR and in Bulgaria we called them "Russian bows"... who knows where they actually came from.

  3. I never cleaned a white board in school. Though I am sure I would have jumped at it if I had the chance.

    At the First English School in Sofia, my first year teaching more than 1/2 of the boards were still the chalkboard, chalk, water combo and I had no idea what was going on--you want me to stick my hand in this bucket of murky water and do what?! This wasn't common practice in the States and students weren't jumping at the chance to clean it for me. In the States, janitors cleaned the boards with water at the of the day not teachers or students.

    At ACS my high school students in Bulgaria still love to clean the white board. Clearly this is an easier task but even the boys who are too-cool-for-school will jump at the chance to clean the board.

  4. My favorite was "Клас стани! Клас мирно!" [The students "on duty" yelled that out when the teacher entered the classroom. It loosely translates into "Class, stand up, Class stand still"]. I think it gave me my first powertrip :-) But then, I was very surprised when I spent a semester in NY and at the beginning of second period all of the students (including us internationals) stood up and said (some yelled) out loud the Pledge of Allegiance. Somehow those two seemed very similar to me at the time (in terms of ideology).
    And the ties, oh the ties. I was *devastated* when I didn't get the red one (just like you, I made in only to the blue - Chavdarche one - before communism fell). I remember I was eyeing the upperclassmen's shiny red ties with such envy...
    Talk about brainwashing ... But also - those memories are kind of sweet and innocent. The really scary ones are the stories our parents tell - they sound like fiction to me.

  5. I had the chance to receive my red scarf and was very proud of it. I remember there was a ritual. We were taken to the local Comm-Party temple (the largest structure in the district) where we were initiated into the true nature of the devoted communist (hence the red color) by a mysterious and firm background voice and its prophet - a young, harsh lady, who in the end forced us to sing some kind of war anthem, ideologically consistent with the spirit of the "flying squadrons". We were marked for nameless heroes, after a lot of pathetic speeches, ready to defend the Party with our lives and in that moment i felt important. The rest of day i spent walking among my blue-scarfed friends to gain their admiration. They were respected as if I have reached a new level of existence.

    In the end my mother ruined it all, telling me stories about the bright side of the world, the capitalistic societies and the lie we were living in. She did this in great secrecy and warned me of the lethal danger such kind of information possess. Good thing the system has collapsed soon enough because the first thing I made later was to share my new knowledge with everyone.

    I also remember going to a propaganda movie (officially organised from school), where some of us laughed so hard at the clothes of our national Grand Master of the Right Order - Georgi Dimitrov, that the teachers decided to patrol around us in circles during the film.

  6. Moni:
    "Class, stand up, Class stand still". I think it gave me my first powertrip" LMWAO=laughing my whole ass off

    Moni + Anonymous:
    Isn't it so weird how honest our parents were willing to be with us when we were still just kids?! I remember when my father came home from a meeting where a party functionary had congratulated him on a new job he had tried to refuse and added, well, you should take it because you have a wife and kids. I must have been in 2nd grade and remember feeling so strange about it. Must have been so horrifying for him.

  7. Karolinka:

    Again, a bit off-topic but since we are comparing US and Bulgarian school stories: When I was in high-school, I remember wanting our American teachers to be mean to the BAD students and being so confused when they weren't. I am really embarrassed to admit it but it's how our Bulgarian teachers taught and I had come to expect it.

  8. My SIL is from Kaliningrad. She is about the same age I am, and I was just turning 16 when the Berlin Wall fell, so I might be a little older than you.

    Funny how other peoples' lives always sound more poetic or than your own...

  9. Oh, your comments must have been published while I was writing mine--how frightened your father must have been.

  10. So true!

    Klas stani in Bulgaria = Pledge of Allegiance in the US
    School system with lots of strict rules in Bulgaria = Catholic schools in the US
    Youth organizations = Scouting
    Blue/Red neckerchief = Scouting neckerchief

    This last parallel is especially poignant. In fact, young pioneer organizations in Eastern Europe were modeled after the Scout movement

    The revelation that childhood and its social structures were so similar in Bulgaria and the US was (one of the) transforming moments of my life. I do believe that if more Bulgarians realize that it will not only broaden our horizons but also help us out of the Commie identity mindset and its associated disempowering sense of victimization. And that's the major beef I have with Grozni's book, from the passages I've seen. "Being on duty meant that you were responsible for making sure that the blackboard was spotless, the water in the bucket was clean, the sponge was sitting on the board sill, and there was enough chalk to last until the Americans dropped the bomb on us." Really? Did kids fear American bombs so constantly, even while cleaning the blackboard? That's a paranoid, excruciating world that I can't recognize and I supposedly lived there, too. I could understand it if Grozni were hyperbolizing the rhetoric and the cliches of the day as a parody, but it looks like he is aiming at giving a true description of life back then.

  11. My husband (who was born in 1974) told me that he clearly remembers *knowing* that one day the Commies would be dropping the bomb on America. They did nuclear drills at school, practiced hiding under their desks, etc. And that was in San Francisco.

    I think that there was a lot of abuse and misrepresentation on both parts of the Atlantic. And I don't think we should dismiss it by saying, see, the Americans did it too. I am not, by the way, suggesting that that's what you are saying. I think that Grozni's experience was one of the sadder, more traumatic ones of the period and his book convinced me that his classmates were incomprehensible to a regime, which seemed unprepared for dealing with unusually talented and creative spirits.


    I just read about "A Mountain of Crumbs" by Elena Gorokhova. Kapka Kassabova liked it, so I'm skeptical, but curious to give it a try. It's a memoir about childhood in the Soviet Union.

    P.S. I am usually not this judgmental of people but Kapka Kassabova's book really got under my skin (which, at this point, is probably obvious to everyone). Do I need to go back to it and try to finish reading it?

  12. Wow. I was born in 1973, grew up in California, and was never that worried. We did earthquake drills in school (duck and cover, which I expect is the same as a nuclear drill really but they never called it that--it was to protect yourself if the ceiling fell in). I certainly remember the Cold War, of course, but I don't remember feeling threatened by it at all. I did find the USSR kind of fascinating--at one point an American girl went to Russia on a highly publicized trip (she wrote to Andropov IIRC) and I really wished it was me! We had a family friend who worked for Star Wars but I didn't understand it a bit. But I also never saw Red Dawn or anything like that--I guess I missed a lot.

  13. I think that this is exactly Ellie's point: there is no singular Cold War grand narrative that sums it all up for us. It's fun to compare notes, though, isn't it!

  14. Yes indeed! I am always really interested to hear about how people on 'the other side' grew up.

  15. Especially I meant to confirm that the American and the Bulgarian childhood experiences were not that different. As a talented child back then, I had the chance to participate in one of the international assemblies Banner of Peace held in Bulgaria (designed to help talented Bulgarian kids establish contacts/network with kids from behind the Iron Curtain - and generally raise Bulgaria's profile in the area of international culture; the picture above is a scene from it). Due to that or to the fact that I started learning languages as a firstgrader, growing up I never had the feeling that I was threatened by the West somehow. Except that they had better chocolates and nicer jeans. :) However, after a trip to Austria as a 14-year old I was able to buy myself brand-name jeans and got over that too. I was free to study Western languages, have pen pals abroad and dream bold dreams. I can't really recognize the fear and dejection described in Grozni's novel; it's not that my childhood was exceptional - coming from a rather ordinary family -, I didn't even see it being valid for other kids either. Yes, communism existed, but we accepted it mostly as empty rhetoric with no real bearing on everyday life or our future. And it seems that Grozni also had the chance to travel and communicate with other cultures firsthand.

    By the way, just as a curious detail, since the blackboard duty thing sounded to me not as communist repression but as something coming from a much earlier tradition, I asked an old gentleman about it. He said that blackboard duty and "klas stani" existed in Bulgarian schools way before communism. This fact seemed significant to me; that we would assign a communist origin and character to something like that. Accidentally, he also attended the Music school in Sofia, albeit much earlier, in the beginning years of communism and might write something about it on his blog. Not that this could ever be a rebuff to Grozni's novel, as historical facts are beyond the point here, but just as an interesting testimony/personal history example.

  16. By the way, a great counterpoint to Wunderkind is Miroslav Penkov's collection of short stories East of the West, just released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Esquisite, funny, profound, complex and thought provoking. Haven't met him (although he is a local guy) but he seems very much down to earth and humble about what it means to be from Bulgaria and live in the US. Very much recommended.