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The Little Teacher Who Could

Stories from a Life

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Names changed to protect the humans



The Lady Who Got into the Fight with the Monkey


One year Elena's favourite student was a bright boy from Thailand. He was very smart and worked very hard and was very good at science. So she was quite upset when one day in the middle of the term he told her he would be leaving the school and moving to Marin.


What was all this about, she wanted to know.


His host family was going on holiday and he had nowhere to stay in the city. So he had to go somewhere where someone would take him in.


Elena went to the principal and insisted that the boy must stay here and finish out the school year. The principal shrugged and said, “if he has nowhere to live, he has nowhere to live, it has nothing to do with me.” Not his problem. Elena said surely they could find someone in the city who would take him.


She would do it.


So for the rest of the school year, Elena played foster mother to this teenager from Thailand. “He gained so much weight,” she said. “He loved to eat. He always finished everything I put in front of him, no matter how much it was. But I didn't say anything because I didn't want him to feel not-at-home.”


Then the next year, she said, “ok, now it's my turn.” So she flew to Thailand to visit her student.


“When you hear stories, that start with, 'Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a King,' this is that country. It looks like a fairy land. With temples made of gold lace.” A far journey indeed for a Russian expat. Her student said his family would meet her.


“But you would never know that it was a teacher who was coming! You would think it was a Queen!” She had never been treated like such royalty in her life. Her student's family drove and flew her all over Thailand and everywhere she went, they introduced her to an uncle, a cousin, a sister, who would take care of her. Occasionally she asked to go places on her own, and they protested, no no, she must not, she was in a foreign country, she would get into trouble on her own!


And they were right! She did get into trouble!


One day she was visiting a wild animal reserve, full of monkeys, and she was wearing white pants. She also had a camera. Her batteries died. And when she took them out, the Alpha monkey saw the batteries and to him they looked just like candies. He must have those delicious-looking batteries!


And that was how the fight began. Elena tried to tell him nicely, no, but he wouldn't listen. He climbed up her legs and left big dirty monkey-prints on her white pants. He tried to grab the batteries, and they struggled. She tried to speak to him in English, but he did not speak English. She tried to speak to him in Russian, but he did not speak Russian either!


She yelled at him. She was the bigger animal. She had to win.


And she did win!


And that is the story of the lady who had the fight with the monkey and won.




The Story of the Embarrassing Mother


When her son was 15, Elena took him to Petra. The city was just as rose-red as they say it is. She wanted to go on a tour, and there was a tour offered in Russian, but her son was tired of hearing Russian. So she coerced him into going on a tour offered in English.


Except the tour guide did not really speak English. And there were a bunch of Spanish-speakers on the tour who had signed up for the English tour because they didn't speak the other languages available: Hebrew, Arabic, or Russian. But they didn't speak English either. So there was Elena up at the front of the tour, translating the guide's terrible broken English into Spanish for the others.


How mortifying for her son.


And she was wearing...a striped shirt.


I know.


And for the crowning indignity, it was an oppressively hot and sunny day, and the sun was making her head throb. So she put a wet towel on her forehead. This was the piéce de resistance for him. He could not bear to be seen with her like this. Mothers. Out to humiliate you in public.


But he got over it in a short seven years, by which time he was living in Istanbul. She visited him there and he showed her all over and mommysat her beautifully.


So it all ends well.




Nothing Ever Goes Quite Like You Want It to in South Korea


One summer Elena was teaching science at a university in Seoul. She went because they offered to pay cash and to reimburse her for all her expenses.


“Seoul was too clean,” she said. You could eat off the street. And everything was very boxy and square. The architecture had no taste. The city was extremely safe, but too sanitized.


“In Asia they promise you everything, but nothing ever happens exactly the way they say it will,” she says.


For instance, they promised her a tour at 7:30, but when she arrived they said the tour had left at 7. So later she gave herself the day off and gave herself her own tour. Then later, they had promised her to pay everything in cash, but then when she got there, they said they knew nothing of such an arrangement. After she returned to the US, however, they wired all the money into her bank account.


Once she needed tongs for her lab, for picking up hot beakers. They had told her this was the best university in Seoul, it was just like Berkeley. But they had no tongs. So they had to send people out, and they came back with barbecue tongs.


Once she needed scissors for her lab. They told her, the students can share. She said one pair of scissors could not be shared by twenty-five students. She sent her aide out to get scissors, and the aide wailed, “where in the world am I going to find scissors?” Elena told her to go from office to office and ask every single person for scissors. Eventually the aide returned with twenty-five pairs of scissors, but then she hid in the corner and cried that Ms Leonova was Mean.


In Asia, everything comes, but nothing comes quite the way it is promised.



The Story of the Occupant Who Couldn't Help


Elena took me in when no one else would. She gave me a home when I had no home. And I could not save her home for her.


Elena and her family moved into the apartment on 24th Ave when she was pregnant with her son Misha, because they needed more room. She lived there with her children for 24 years. There were tricycle races up and down the hallway. Her daughter learned how to play the piano and her son learned to play the trumpet in the front room and the upstairs neighbour suffered through it all.


It was a beautiful home. There was a brightly painted samovar in one corner. There were plentiful books in English, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish. I had already read some of them, even those editions, so it felt like coming home. There was a fine piano that I played old familiar tunes on. There were happy houseplants and vases full of fresh flowers all over. There were weavings and hangings and art made by real artists and friends. There were albums full of Soviet memories. There were decades-old notebooks full of college chemistry classes. And everywhere, stories.


It takes a heap of living to make a house a home.


I so much hoped that my arrival would somehow trigger a magic intervention, that simply by appearing in her life, I would make it so that Elena could somehow keep her home. But I could not save her home for her. I wanted to and I could not do it.


She gave me tea and poppyseed roll, tea and apple crisp, tea and coffee ice cream, tea and watermelon, tea and conversation, always in beautiful cups with fruit and flowers on them or out of the dainty tea-set with gold edging. She gave me her warm hearty belly laugh. She gave me her attention, and she gave me her time.


And still I could not save her home.


This woman who had worked so hard, who had raised two children alone, who had devoted her adult life to teaching science to the children of this city, now getting evicted, mercilessly kicked out of her home that she loved and that had sheltered so much love for so long. And it wasn't a question of getting evicted and moving somewhere just as nice. Every evening she would come home and tell me more horror stories of tiny single rooms with no light, with a roommate, with no room for a bed, ghastly uninhabitable places, for the same price as her current three-bedroom 1920s apartment with washer and dryer and bay window. Because that's how we treat public school teachers. We treat them like animals, paying them untenable wages for the work they do laying the foundations for the minds that will run the future.


Her son convinced her to move to Oakland where her daughter and he live. But she still has no set landing spot.


All was quiet until a couple of days ago. I was starting to think maybe somehow she wouldn't have to move after all. But then, those couple of days ago, I came home to packing boxes and chaos everywhere, and the house ringing with Russian voices as the whole family pitched in, and I knew it was happening.


Elena got rid of a lot of books, a few of which I rescued to send to my mom, wishing I had a home for them myself. It was painful to see all that furniture out on the street after decades of service. The piano bench was gone too. Elena gave me a Russian New Year's Tree ornament. She said she had gotten rid of half of her tango dresses. I wish she didn't have to get rid of any of it.


As for me? I don't know where I will go when she decides I have to go. It could be a couple days from now, or maybe a few more, or maybe not.


We will cross that bridge when we come to it.