72: From Mother Russia to Uncle Sam

72: From Mother Russia to Uncle Sam

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

From Mother Russia to Uncle Sam

Only one thing matters. One thing; to be able to dare.

~Fyodor Dostoevsky

“They’re all recent immigrants — mostly from the Soviet Union. Nine kids altogether. Sounds like a project right up your alley, right?” said my principal.

I’d only been teaching for a few years. This was a high-school English class but I was gung-ho to take on the challenge. I announced the idea to my new, nervous students.

“So, this English class is going to be a little different. We’re going to write a play and then perform it.”

Vlad guffawed. “Write a play! Yes! Good idea. Let’s write a play.” I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic, but I suspected it.

Irina looked at her shoes. “No,” she said simply. “No.” I pressed her to say more, but she shook her head, the color draining from her face. “My English,” she said, by way of explanation.

“I can do it,” Mika said, eager to please. “What play do we write?”

“Well, I thought you could each write about your own experiences, being new to the United States,” I suggested. “We’ll call it ‘From Mother Russia to Uncle Sam.’ What do you think?”

Clearly, these nine teenagers were still getting the hang of the change in culture, and they looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. What kind of wacky teacher includes her students in a discussion about curriculum?

Instead of making suggestions, they nodded obediently, and I got them started. We read from plays and monologues for student actors, and slowly I could see their confidence growing.

All except for Irina, the only girl in the group. After class, she told me that she wanted to write something, but didn’t know where to start. She loved nature and hoped to capture the beautiful landscapes she’d found hiking in the emerald forested hills near her new home in the suburbs of Seattle. “How about writing a poem that you could read aloud?” I suggested.

“Or a song?” she asked. “I play the guitar. But I had to leave it in Russia when we moved.”

First order of business: get Irina a guitar. We found a parent at the school who had a dusty remnant of teenage optimism stashed in his closet. He happily passed on the abandoned guitar to Irina.

It so happened that the Northwest Folklife Festival was approaching in May, and I made a discreet application in the hopes that we would have a play to put on by the time spring rolled around. I received a letter saying that my class had been accepted to perform in the largest theater inside the festival, mid-afternoon on a Sunday.

Vlad laughed. “Yes! Excellent! We will be Seattle celebrities!”

The kids were understandably nervous as the day arrived and the audience filed in. Nearly 500 people filled the seats. I’d put Vlad first in the line-up. He and his friend Leo had written a humorous scene about their love for driving in the United States. The audience cracked up at their impressions of American racecar fanatics, and they applauded vigorously. Vlad high-fived me on his way off the stage. “That’s how a superstar does it,” he said.

The other students were received with generous support from the audience. I remember the heavy feeling of standing backstage as Mika sat alone in a chair onstage. He shared the monologue he wrote about his family’s history and their departure from the Soviet Union. His father had worked at Chernobyl, and after the nuclear accident, the family left for the United States, but their dad was too ill to travel with them. The audience was absolutely silent, moved by his simply told story.

I saved Irina for last. I had been afraid she’d be too nervous to go on stage. Instead, she strode confidently into the spotlight, leaned on a stool, and pulled her guitar strap around her shoulders. Her voice was high and clear as she sang of evergreens and starfish and boulders and blank white skies.

Finally, when all the students came out for their bows, the audience rose and gave them a standing ovation. The kids beamed as they came off stage, and we all celebrated with our families as we enjoyed the rest of the day at the festival.

Many years later, I ran into Irina at our local park. She had her three small children in tow, the baby in a stroller. “Do you still sing?” I asked.

She blushed and nodded at her kids. “To my children. I sing to them. I sing that song sometimes as a lullaby. So they know how lucky they are to live here.” She gestured at the pine trees towering above the path.

~Ilana Long

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