In 1987, when I was a sixth-grade pupil at Hope Valley Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, our social studies teacher asked us a question: What do you hate most about our school?
“The homework!” someone shouted, inevitably.
“The cockroaches in the cafeteria!” someone else added.
“The food in the cafeteria!” followed, and it was, I think, probably worse than the roaches.
At the age of 11, we had begun learning about politics and had watched, if memory serves, a documentary about Solidarity in Poland. On their example, we wrote down all of our gripes and signed our names, put it in an envelope and addressed it to the principal. Then we got out cardboard and markers: “Down with dodgeball!” “Fix the lights!” “Improve the food!” That afternoon, when the bell rang after recess, we didn’t return to our classroom. Instead, we got out our signs and began marching in circles around the flagpole. Twenty minutes later, an exasperated secretary came out to tell us that, if we would only go back to class, the principal would be happy to meet with us in the morning to discuss our demands.
I was reminded of this when I read about the attack on school children in Moscow the other day. As the children arrived for an awards ceremony – recognizing essays they had written on the history of totalitarianism – they and the noted novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya were pelted with eggs and acidic dye, accosted by thugs berating them with accusations of fascism and treason. The awards, given by the human rights group Memorial, are designed to help preserve the memory of a repressive past, so that it might not be repeated.
The morning after our silly little protest, we arrived at our classroom to find the principal and all of his assistants arrayed by the blackboard, our teacher looking stonily bereft at her desk, the school security guard towering over her, his firm hand on her shoulder. Mrs. Cohen, we were told, was to be dismissed immediately. The student council would be disbanded. All students who had taken part in the demonstration would be put on detention for the rest of the year, and investigation would be undertaken to discover the ring leaders. The punishment for the latter would be revealed in due course.
We were inconsolable. Mrs. Cohen was our favorite teacher; what would happen to her? And as sixth graders, we had only just earned the right to be elected to student council; now, that was meaningless. The prospect of detention seemed to pale in comparison to the prospect of our parents’ anger when they found out how badly we had transgressed.
I can’t begin to imagine what the kids in Moscow must have felt, as they were physically and verbally attacked by what I can only describe as a mob. Later, one of the attackers told a journalist, “we need to rid these Jewish [sic!] children of demons. They’ve been brainwashed, they’re abnormal, they need to be medicated.” I will never forget that day at Hope Valley Elementary School, but it seems trivial, now, compared to what those children in Moscow went through. For them, too, though, it’s a lesson that won’t soon be forgotten. What the thugs could not comprehend is this: by attacking those kids, they may just have created the medicine that Russia needs.
My story, of course, ended differently. The principal let it sink in for what seemed like an eternity – but was probably only a few minutes – before he sat down and looked at us calmly, without the slightest trace of a smile.
“This isn’t the country you live in,” he said. “But it could be. Remember that.”